Formula One is revving up for the next installment of an absorbing world championship battle as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton lock horns once again at the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday.
In a season where the Ferrari and Mercedes drivers have wrestled for track supremacy, it's Vettel who arrives at Monza with a slender championship lead but it is Hamilton who has momentum after victory at last weekend's Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton hit the ground running after F1's summer break putting on a driving masterclass at Spa. The 32-year-old equaled Michael Schumacher's all-time F1 record of 68 poles during Saturday's qualifying before bossing the race to seal his fifth victory of the year.
A repeat performance at Monza would hand Hamilton the initiative and inflict a psychological blow to Ferrari in front of their adoring Tifosi.
"In Italy it's all about Ferrari and that puts massive pressure on them," Maurice Hamilton
, veteran F1 journalist and author of "Formula One: The Pursuit of Speed
" told CNN.
"What would hurt if Lewis Hamilton wins this weekend is that he will lead the championship. It would also be the first time either he or Vettel have won consecutive grands prix -- that tells you how nip and tuck this season is between the two teams."
Monza will provide the clearest guide yet as to whose engine -- Ferrari or Mercedes -- is the more powerful. The affectionately nicknamed "Temple of Speed" is F1's fastest circuit where drivers blast round at average speeds in excess of 150 mph.
Back in 2004, Juan-Pablo Montoya recorded the fastest lap in F1 history at the track -- clocking an average speed of 162.95 mph (262.24 kph) in a Williams car.
One of only four tracks to feature on the inaugural F1 calendar in 1950 that are still used today, Monza is always one of the most eagerly anticipated races of the year.
Silverstone maybe the sport's spiritual home, Monaco its shimmering seaside jewel, with Spa the track for the F1 purist, but Monza offers a full-blown adrenaline rush unlike anything else.
"Along with Interlagos (Brazil) it is the most atmospheric race you can go to purely because of the passion that just pours down from the grandstands and enclosures," Hamilton says.
Situated in the grounds of a former royal park north of Milan, Monza holds a noble status for F1 fans who flock from all over the world.
"It's got such history, that's what strikes you ... the place is so vibrant, you get sucked along by it. Going there on a warm September afternoon -- there's nothing like it."
'Lewis could win this'
Historically there is little to choose between Vettel and Hamilton at Monza. Both men have won three times and scored five podiums apiece, although the Briton's pole record is marginally better -- he has five to Vettel's three.
Mercedes has also dominated the last three races in Italy while Ferrari hasn't won since Fernando Alonso took the checkered flag back in 2010 -- the season Vettel pipped the Spaniard by four points to win his first of four consecutive world titles for Red Bull.
This year represents Ferrari's best chance yet to end the drought, although it's hard to look past Mercedes.
"I think Lewis could win this," Hamilton said. "He's on top form, the car's working well, but he's being pushed. All things being equal he should win it. But last weekend was so close -- so there's nothing in it."
Vettel finished two seconds behind Hamilton in Belgium and speaking on Thursday, the German struck a quietly confident tone about Ferrari's chances at Monza before conceding that Mercedes probably have the edge.
"The form we showed in Spa was real and the speed was there in the race," Vettel told reporters. "I think we've made improvements on all fronts and I'm very happy.
"The track layout suits Mercedes, so we will do our best. There should be a good atmosphere (at Monza) so we will try to give something back."
Given the seesaw nature of the Vettel/Hamilton rivalry this year, it's anyone's guess how the drama will unfold in the coming weeks as the season shifts from Europe to Asia then onto North America.
"You would fancy Mercedes over Ferrari at Monza, but then they go to Singapore which is tight and twisty and that's Ferrari territory from what we've seen so far," Hamilton said.
"Then we go to Malaysia, and that's got a bit of everything and you have to say it's even-stevens. Then there's Japan and that's Mercedes -- it's got fast, sweeping corners rather like Silverstone. Then you go to the US and that's Ferrari.
"All the way through it's just going to swing ... it could be that Ferrari go to a Mercedes-favored track like Japan and just get it right -- we're only talking here about fractions of seconds, so that's why it's genuinely impossible to say."
The Italian Grand Prix takes place on Sunday September 3.