SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton can become only the third driver to win 50 grands prix when Formula One returns from its month-long August break and gets back to business at Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
The triple world champion ended the first half of the season in blistering form, opening up a 19-point lead in the standings over Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg with six wins — four in a row — from the last seven races.
His win in Germany last month was number 49, and only Michael Schumacher (91) and Alain Prost (51) have reached the half century.
Hamilton, who trailed Rosberg by 43 points after May’s Spanish Grand Prix, is determined not to ease off.
“The first half of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster, so it’s great to be in the position I’m in with more than half of the races behind us,” said the Briton, who spent his break in the Caribbean, Costa Rica and the United States.
“I’m feeling refreshed, re-energised and ready to go after a fun few weeks off, so hopefully everyone else has had a good rest too and we’ll come out fighting.”
Rosberg won the opening four races of the season but has scored only three podiums since Hamilton hit his stride.
The break, spent with his wife and baby daughter in Ibiza, could be the reset he needs with nine of a record 21 races still to run.
It will be crucial that the German does come back strongly, as even finishing second behind Hamilton this weekend will see him drop 26 points behind the Briton, who is likely to have engine-related penalties at the next race in Italy.
The 7km Spa circuit is an enduring favourite of drivers, with its flat-out blasts and undulations harking back to the sport’s golden age.
For 18-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen, the track is the closest he has to a home venue.
Verstappen, whose victory on his Red Bull debut in Spain in May helped the team move up to second in the standings ahead of Ferrari, was born in Belgium to a Belgian mother and can count on strong local support.
His team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, won in Belgium for Red Bull two years ago after Hamilton and Rosberg collided.
With little risk of a repeat after Mercedes imposed tighter rules of engagement, Verstappen can pin his hopes on the capricious Spa weather to shake things up instead.
French teenager Esteban Ocon will make his Formula One race debut this weekend, replacing Indonesian Rio Haryanto at backmarkers Manor.
Making his debut at Spa, as boyhood idol Schumacher once did, Ocon will join fellow Mercedes-backed youngster Pascal Wehrlein with both aiming to impress with Manor in their bid for a future Mercedes seat.
Editing by Alan Baldwin/Peter Rutherford