By Alan Baldwin
BAKU (Reuters) - Formula One takes a step into the unknown this weekend with its first grand prix in Azerbaijan but triple world champion Lewis Hamilton hopes the race will take him back to familiar territory.
A win in Baku would not only complete a hat-trick of victories for the Briton but could also see him overtake Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg at the top of the standings for the first time this year.
After winning the last two races in Monaco and Montreal, while championship leader Rosberg finished off the podium, Hamilton slashed the gap between them from 43 points to nine.
If Hamilton makes it three in a row by winning a race billed as the 'European Grand Prix', Rosberg must finish second to avoid falling behind his rival, who has beaten him to the championship for the last two years.
"We need to try to keep on a roll if possible," Hamilton said after winning in Canada on Sunday for the fifth time. "Onwards and upwards, hopefully."
Rosberg, winner of the first four races of the season as well as the last three of 2015, needs to hit back in Baku.
He won last season's 'new' race, the Mexican Grand Prix that was returning for the first time since 1992, but Hamilton had just won his third title and taken his foot off the gas.
"Canada unfortunately didn't work out as planned. But that's how things go when you're pushing the limits and I'm not going to change my approach or start backing down," said the German after making a quick getaway from Montreal.
"I'm in this championship battle to win it, not to settle for second best."
CLOSING THE GAP
While the spotlight remains on the fierce duel between the two Mercedes drivers, who have clashed on the opening lap twice in the last three races, the champions are no longer in a battle of their own.
Ferrari and Red Bull have closed the performance gap and could be a real threat in Baku with its long straight and tight turns around the old city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
"The speed of both the Ferrari and Red Bull is pretty much where we are now," commented Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel made a lightning start in Canada and finished second.
"We are seeing the convergence of performance between teams that naturally comes with stable regulations, and that has made the competition tougher than ever."
Formula One teams began setting up on Tuesday for a race that, despite campaigners calling for the sport to take a stance on human rights issues, has created a buzz throughout the paddock.
"It looks spectacular when you see what they have built up in downtown Baku, going through the old city," said Ferrari's track operations head Jock Clear.
"It looks a very exciting circuit. The stuff we’ve done on simulators and the photographs we’ve seen, it looks like it’s going to be a great place to race. I think both drivers are really up for that kind of street circuit."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)