By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel will be confident of extending his healthy lead at the top of the Formula One drivers' standings in Singapore this week on a circuit that kick-started his imperious march to a third consecutive title a year ago.
In 2012, the German arrived in Southeast Asia 39 points adrift of championship leader Fernando Alonso but drove a perfect race to capture the first of four straight wins as he sped past the Spaniard in the second half of the season.
A year on and the tables have been turned with the Red Bull driver boasting a 53-point advantage over his Ferrari rival and carrying plenty of momentum to a circuit where he will be seeking a hat-trick of victories.
The Marina Bay Street Circuit is very much a Red Bull track and while Alonso remains hopeful of gaining ground on his title rival, the reality is Vettel is likely to head to next month's Korean Grand Prix with an even bigger lead.
"It's a very long race ... the full two hours, so the race just seems to go on forever," a cautious Vettel said earlier this week.
"The circuit itself is a killer because there are so many bumps, there's no room for mistakes.
"I think it's one of the toughest of the year to be honest, so to win is an amazing moment and you feel you deserve the champagne."
Alonso can, however, take heart from the fact that he too has won twice under the floodlights in Singapore and claimed two more podiums and a fourth place finish since the race was added to the Formula One calendar in 2008.
His Ferrari cannot match the Red Bull's speed in qualifying but has shown a tendency to perform far better in races, with Alonso often cutting a swathe through the field from a mediocre position on the starting grid to challenge for victories.
However, with just seven rounds of the 19-race season remaining, Alonso needs to add to his two wins this campaign or a third world title will again slip from his grasp and leave the 32-year-old second in the standings for a third time since 2010.
"It's a track I like and where I have usually gone quite well, getting four podiums from five starts, so again this year, I'm tackling the weekend in a positive frame of mind, with great confidence that I can do well again," Alonso said.
The only other winner in Singapore, Lewis Hamilton, has made a smooth transition from McLaren to Mercedes this season and he and team mate Nico Rosberg will be banking on an improved performance from their cars to vie for victory on Sunday
Hamilton was unfortunate to miss out on a second Singapore victory a year ago, when a gearbox failure while leading from pole position all but ended his title ambitions, and this year's challenge already looks over with the Briton a distant 81 points adrift of Vettel in third.
Mercedes struggled at the low downforce tracks in Belgium and Italy but motorsport chief Toto Wolff feels there could be another shift in momentum as they challenge Ferrari for second place in the team standings.
"We expect the return to maximum downforce configuration to suit our car and we may see another shift in the competitive order between the teams," he said.
"We will bring new developments to the car once again for this race and we are all focused on maximising the opportunities for both Lewis and Nico, in order to re-establish ourselves in second position in the constructors' standings."
The tight, twisting circuit lends itself to driver errors and the safety car is often deployed and, although it has yet to happen in the five previous grands prix in Singapore, a seasonal downpour could have a huge bearing on Sunday's outcome.
There will also be interest in Kimi Raikkonen's performance after the Lotus driver was confirmed as Felipe Massa's replacement at Ferrari next season earlier this month, the Finn returning to the team where he won a world title in 2007. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)