Mercedes look all but certain to wrap up their third straight Formula One constructors’ crown in Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix but the spectre of a rare defeat in last year’s race still haunts them.
The champions have won all but one race this season and arrive at the Sepang circuit 222 points clear of closest challengers Red Bull and 237 ahead of Ferrari.
With a maximum of 215 points available from the five races remaining after Sunday, Red Bull and Ferrari can only hope something keeps championship leader Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton off the podium.
With the race moving to October from its recent early season March slot, Mercedes could become the first team to clinch the constructors’ crown in Malaysia since Ferrari in 2000.
The German team are refusing to tempt fate, however, to the extent that their official race preview did not mention directly the possibility of clinching the title at Sepang.
“Like Singapore, this was a race where we under-performed last year, so we will need to push hard to put that right,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “We’re in good shape – but we must remain on our toes to get the ball over the line.”
The 5.5-km Sepang circuit always throws up the chance of an upset, with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo particularly keen to capitalise after coming agonisingly close to victory in Singapore.
The potential for a shake-up could be even greater this year with the circuit resurfaced and the gradient of some corners changed.
Mercedes were dealt a shock defeat last season when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won, ending the Italian team’s longest victory drought in over two decades.
But Rosberg banished memories of a similarly off-colour weekend for Mercedes in Singapore last year with his win around the floodlit streets of the city-state two weeks ago.
The German has jumped back into the overall lead, opening up an eight-point advantage over Hamilton, with his third win in a row and eighth of the season.
No driver has ever failed to take the title after winning eight or more races in a season and the German is starting to look like he has the measure of Hamilton.
“I’ve had a good run lately and I’m enjoying the moment,” said Rosberg. “But as far as the next race goes, or the next one after that and so on… it’s anyone’s game.”
Triple champion Hamilton, who turned a 43-point deficit into a 19-point lead with a streak of six wins from seven races heading into the August summer break, will try and hit back with what would be his 50th win.
Compatriot Jenson Button, making way for rookie Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren next season, will also be in the spotlight as he lines up for his 300th start.