When Lewis Hamilton outgunned his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso to the fastest qualifying time yesterday, on a Fuji International Speedway rendered treacherous by rain, his pumping-fists gesture in the cockpit afterwards was as much about the gauntlet he had thrown down to his rival as it was about personal satisfaction. And that was how it was because, as he explained earlier in the weekend, the recent Belgian Grand Prix had finally shown him that Alonso was not the man he had thought him to be.
As they exited the first corner at Spa, film and photographs clearly show Alonso deliberatelypushing him wide, despite the champion's protestations that he had needed to avoid Felipe Massa's Ferrari. This was when the gloves finally came off in a relationship that has become increasingly strained since the Hungarian Grand Prix in August.
Barring unreliability, the title fight remains between theMcLaren drivers, and after Alonso closed his lead down to two points, Hamilton has fought back. Pole position confirmed that he is going the right way again on chassis set-up after erring in Italy and Belgium, while his comments left no doubt of his personal thoughts about the man whose crown he covets.
Clearly, Hamilton believes that Alonso has more to lose than he does if the Spaniard tries to restage the Spa incident. "At Spa, I just got out of the way. I thought, 'Shoot, I'm going to lose my front wing here.' I came back on to the track and could have been very aggressive and put him in the wall, or run him off, but he's my team-mate and we want both cars to finish.
"But I think it will be interesting to see during the last three races whether he'll have the thing Michael Schumacher had, where he'll do anything – anything – ie he doesn't care whether he runs himself or anyone else on the grid off the road. Will he do absolutely anything? I guess that's one of the questions, will he break under pressure? We'll just have to wait and see. It will ruin his reputation more than mine, because I'd never do that. I want to win this fair and square.
"I know things have been getting quite close during the last couple of races, but by no means do I feel it's over. It isn't at all. We have three races to go and the battle is still very much on. It's easy to say, 'I've just got to do a better job than him', but I really feel I can."
Hamilton is always engagingly plain-spoken, but refuses to be drawn on whether he still respects Alonso as much as he once did. "I'm not going to say exactly what I feel but I still respect him for what he has achieved. It takes a real driver to win two consecutive world championships and to do the job he's done. He's extremely talented, but it's not just a matter of going out there with talent – he has obviously done a lot of hard work in the background."
While Alonso might have more to lose in an inter-team collision, the presence of Kimi Raikkonen in third place on the grid, and only 13 points adrift in the chase, is food for thought. "It wouldn't be a case of 'you two' taking each other off..." Hamilton insists, inferring that he would not pull such a trick. "But I've just got to be very, very careful. I need to be very smart and as sharp as ever to understand and judge situations on the track and be very much aware of him [Kimi], because he's a big threat."
Perhaps next year both Hamilton's rivals will be in red cars. Bernie Ecclestone, F1's supremo, has suggested Alonso might take a year's sabbatical in 2008, but others suggest Ferrari will buy out his contract. If you were McLaren's chief, Ron Dennis, you would start the bidding at $100 million. Certainly Hamilton does not want Alonso as a partner again.
"No, I don't. I mean, if the team wants to keep him they keep him, but I'm here to stay as long as they want me. Any dreams I have had about what I would like to be doing 10 years in the future have slightly changed... this season has helped reconfirm in my mind where I want to be, where I want to live out my career, and that is here. I'm really happy and comfortable here.
"So long as they want me, there's no reason to move anywhere else. It's up to the team. They've got to be smart and think about it: I know they've got politics and sponsors and all that sort of stuff, but they've got to do what's right, and I'm sure they will. I don't know who else would slip in here, but I'd much rather it were Fernando in a Ferrari and me in a McLaren."
Above all, though, Hamilton wants to do the job with grace. "I want to win it fair and square," he says of the championship. "Not once have I approached the team members and asked to be favoured. It is just not something I have done at any team, asking for better equipment. It is better when you both have equal opportunity, it means you both have got to do the best job you can. After Monaco they didn't know what to do with the strategy so they made us equal and gave us equal fuel loads, and whoever outqualifies the other has done the better job.
"I want to win it the right way. The best feeling ever is when you know you have won and you have beaten someone as talented as he is with the exact same equipment and exactly the same opportunity." This afternoon in Fuji he intends to do just that.
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1 min 25.368
2 F Alonso (Sp) McLaren 1:25.438
3 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:25.516
4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:25.765
5 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:26.505
6 J Button (GB) Honda 1:26.913
7 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:26.914
8 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:26.973
9 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:27.225
10 G Fischella (Ita) Renault 1:26.033
11 H Kovalainen (Fin) Renault 1:26.232
12 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 1:26.247
13 J Trulli (Ita) Toyota 1:26.253
14 V Liuzzi (Ita) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:26.948
15 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota No time
16 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:26.728
17 R Barrichello (Bra) Honda 1:27.323
18 A Wurz (Aut) Williams-Toyota 1:27.454
19 A Davidson (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 1:27.564
20 A Sutil (Ger) Spyker-Ferrari 1:28.628
21 T Sato (Jap) Super Aguri-Honda 1:28.792
22 S Yamamoto (Jap) Spyker-Ferrari 1:29.688
Watch Hamilton in the Japanese GP live on ITV1, 4.30am to 7.35am, rerun 11.30am to 1.30pmReuse content