While last year's intense Formula One title battle went to the wire and captivated the world of sport, this championship has long looked like a procession for Max Verstappen.
It could be all over on Sunday if the Red Bull driver wins the Singapore Grand Prix and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc crumbles.
Verstappen leads Leclerc by 116 points and will clinch the title if he scores 22 points more than Leclerc, his most realistic challenger.
Verstappen, who turned 25 on Friday, must win to clinch a second world title, along with two other scenarios involving Leclerc. If Verstappen wins, Leclerc can finish no higher than ninth; if Verstappen wins and earns a bonus point for fastest lap, Leclerc can finish no higher than eighth.
“It’s quite a long shot,” Verstappen said. “I need a lot of luck for it to happen here, so I don’t really count on it.”
It is more realistic that Verstappen secures the title at the Japanese GP on Oct. 9.
“I think Suzuka will be my first proper opportunity to win the title,” the Dutchman said. “So I’m looking forward to Singapore right now, but I’m also very excited for next week.”
Still, there'll be no tension in the air at the Marina Bay Street Circuit on Sunday night, like in Abu Dhabi last year when Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton lost the title on the last lap to Verstappen. Hamilton missed out on a record F1 eighth title in a controversial finish following a chaotic late restart.
That fans won't get to see any such drama this season is much to Hamilton's regret.
“I feel for the fans. . . . Last year, going right down to the wire, that was intense for everybody and so it’s never great when the season finishes early," Hamilton said. “For you, as the one individual (winner) it’s great, but for the actual sport (it) is not spectacular. Let’s hope for the future that it’s a bit better.”
Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez (125 points back), Mercedes driver George Russell (132 behind) and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. (152) are mathematical title challengers only.
Red Bull is unlikely to allow Perez an opportunity to beat Verstappen, though, and will deploy him to defend its star driver. Verstappen has won 11 of 16 races, including the past five, taking his career tally to 31.
“It’s been a really special season and I’m enjoying it a lot," he said. "But I (will) probably enjoy it more after the season, looking back at it."
He’s also won from seven different grid positions — a single-season F1 record — including starting from 14th at the Belgian GP last month.
“It’s even good to watch when you’re in the car," McLaren driver Lando Norris said. “Especially when he starts (far back) and still wins quite easily.”
Hamilton hasn't gotten close enough to challenge Verstappen this year, after so long in the spotlight.
Two of Hamilton's titles were on the last day: in 2008 with an overtake on the last corner of the final race, and in 2014 when he beat then-Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi. Two years later he lost the title in the last race to Rosberg.
Hamilton won the championship with three races left in 2015, and when he won the 2020 title at the Turkish GP in a shortened season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hamilton was won a record 103 races but none this season.
Mercedes has struggled with ground effect, where the floor generates aerodynamic grip — an issue known as porpoising or bouncing — that has been particularly difficult on street circuits like Monaco or Azerbaijan.
Singapore's tight and sinewy five-kilometer (three-mile) street track could again be challenging.
“We hope that the car works better here. It really depends how bumpy it is, and the bumps often set the car off,” Hamilton said. “Maybe the car will be fine. Maybe it won’t.”
He does think Mercedes has figured out how to maximize opportunities when they do come.
“We know where those limitations are. We just have to try and work around them,” he said. “So I hope that we’re not far away (from a victory).”
Russell seems to have coped better, however, and leads sixth-placed Hamilton by 35 points in the standings. He has seven podium finishes compared to six for Hamilton.
Williams driver Alex Albon returns to racing just three weeks after being hospitalized with appendicitis and then suffering subsequent respiratory failure.
Albon jumped back into the Williams FW44 and completed the two practice sessions on Friday in hot and humid evening conditions.
Drivers lose around five kilos (11 pounds) in weight through dehydration during Sunday's race.
Hamilton hit form to lead the first practice from Verstappen and Leclerc.
Sainz topped the second practice ahead of Leclerc and Russell, with Verstappen fourth but spending less time on track.
Moments into P1, Leclerc went back to the team garage with mechanics working on his brakes for 20 minutes.
Near the end of P2, Pierre Gasly jumped out of his AlphaTauri car in the pitlane as his team quickly extinguished flames coming out the back.
There is a third practice on Saturday ahead of qualifying under floodlights.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports