By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton has always regarded Ayrton Senna as his Formula One idol and the reigning world champion has a golden opportunity to match the late Brazilian's 41 race wins at this week's Singapore Grand Prix.
Should the Briton drive his dominant Mercedes to victory in his 161st start on Sunday, not only will he achieve the feat in exactly the same number of races, he will strengthen his bid for a Senna-equalling third world title.
"I watched Senna as a child and it would be an honor to match him. Now I'm just one win away but I hope to do even better," the 30-year-old said in a recent interview.
"But we must not forget that if he were alive, he would have won a lot more," he added of the driver who tragically lost his life following a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Hamilton holds a 53-point lead over nearest challenger Nico Rosberg going into the 13th round of the season and it was at this race a year ago where the Briton ripped the momentum away from his German team mate.
Last season, the title race ended up going all the way to the final round in Abu Dhabi as Hamilton's reliability issues allowed Rosberg to remain within striking distance despite winning seven fewer grands prix.
This year, however, Hamilton has secured 11 pole positions in 12 rounds, finished every single race and claimed his seventh victory of the season in Monza last time out as a late engine failure left Rosberg pointless.
Hamilton knows what it takes to win in Singapore, having twice taken the chequered flag under the floodlights after 61 concentration-sapping laps around the Marina Bay Street Circuit, and the Briton is geared up for another tough race.
"I've won there twice now, both times from pole, which shows you how important qualifying is too," he said. "It won't be easy to make it three... far from it. But I'm riding high right now and I'll be pushing for that hat-trick."
Rosberg has admitted he is not a fan of the 23-turn circuit and after electrical issues forced an early retirement that allowed Hamilton to leapfrog him in the standings a year ago, the German admits he has nothing to lose this time around.
"I know I've got the pace to win there, so I'm hoping for a clean weekend and a chance to unleash the silver beast under the lights," he said.
A Hamilton win would also see him draw level with Sebastian Vettel with 41 career victories, although the German will be looking for his third win in his debut season for Ferrari at a circuit he also loves.
Vettel stormed to three straight wins in Singapore with Red Bull from 2011 and with his car the best of the rest this season, the four times champion sits 21 points behind Rosberg.
The tight track and regular safety car periods could work in his favor.
Local organizers of the race have played down concerns about the cloud of haze hanging over the city, saying it was not expected to impact on the event.
The city-state has been blanketed by thick smog for the past week, a result of farmers in neighboring Sumatra burning forests to clear their land for agriculture.
Race officials said they were monitoring the situation but there were no plans to change any of the scheduled events over the race weekend, including the pop concerts held each night at the Marina Bay street circuit.
"Based on the current PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) levels, there are no plans to amend the published racing and entertainment program," Singapore GP said in a statement.
(Editing by Julian Linden)