SILVERSTONE England (Reuters) - Silverstone celebrates its 50th grand prix this weekend with all eyes on Lewis Hamilton as the home favourite with a real chance of winning a race he cannot afford to lose.
It has been six years since he won at home in Britain and the Mercedes driver needs a change of fortune more than ever as he seeks to cut team mate Nico Rosberg’s 29 point lead in the championship.
“I‘m definitely gunning for Silverstone,” the 2008 world champion told reporters ahead of the ninth round of the season.
“Last year, I was more hopeful than ever... that weekend it was definitely gutting not to win, to not bring it home for the country and for the fans. We have another chance this year and I’ll be doing absolutely everything to make sure we’re in front.”
Hamilton won in 2008 and qualified on pole position last year but an exploding tyre, a feature of the race that forced Pirelli to make changes, wrecked his chance and handed victory to Rosberg instead.
Rosberg has beaten Hamilton in the last three races, after the Briton won four in a row, and has the momentum as the season nears the halfway point.
The two men have the same equipment and are in a duel of their own for the title, with Red Bull’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo a further 53 points adrift of Hamilton, that looks destined for one of them.
Rosberg has finished first or second in every race this season, which means that Hamilton could win the next four races and still not be in front if the German carries on his remarkable consistency.
Even with a controversial double points available for the final race in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton simply cannot afford to lose more ground.
“He (Hamilton) needs to win this race big time,” former home winner John Watson said last week. “It is make or break - as important a grand prix for Lewis as any in his career has ever been.”
The Mercedes pair will be favourites but may not have it all their own way at a venerable circuit that hosted its first grand prix in 1948, two years before it opened the first Formula One world championship in 1950.
Williams, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, swept the front row in qualifying in Austria 10 days ago, while Red Bull and Ferrari are hoping to be in the mix at a high-speed track that has favoured them in the past.
Massa will be celebrating his 200th grand prix while former champions Williams have happy memories of a home circuit that brought them their first win in 1979 and 100th in 1997.
McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, has never stood on the podium at his home race and looks unlikely to rectify that this year.
“We won’t get on the podium at Silverstone, no chance,” the Briton, who is out of contract at the end of the year and hopes Sunday will not be his last F1 appearance at the circuit, told British reporters.
The home crowd, with more than 300,000 expected over the three days, will still give the 34-year-old a lift on a weekend that will be of special significance personally.
Sunday will be Button’s first race at Silverstone without his father John, who died in January, and Button has launched a ‘Pink for Papa’ tribute to raise funds for the Henry Surtees Foundation.
The charity was set up by 1964 champion Surtees in memory of his son Henry, who died in a Formula Two accident at Brands Hatch in 2009.
“We’re trying to get as many people wearing pink as we can... and I will be wearing a pink helmet. So there will be a lot of pink at Silverstone in support of my old boy,” said Button, whose father wore a ‘lucky’ pink shirt on race day.
Editing by John O'Brien