F1 world championship leader Jenson Button has confessed that rising tensions within Brawn GP regarding his pay packet and the title run-in with team-mate Rubens Barrichello are threatening to derail his challenge for glory in 2009.
Button enters the final three races of the season – beginning with this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, where Barrichello is one of only three previous winners in the 20-strong field – holding a 15-point advantage over the experienced Brazilian in the drivers' standings, having increased that margin by a point courtesy of finishing fifth in Singapore, one spot ahead of the sister machine.
However, with the biggest prize in international motorsport at stake – one that neither man has lifted before – and the likelihood that Button and Barrichello are fighting over just one seat at the Brackley-based outfit in 2010, with Williams star Nico Rosberg's name being linked strongly to the other berth at the behest of engine partner Mercedes-Benz, tensions are reportedly running high.
It has been rumoured that Barrichello has shielded some of his technical data from Button, which might explain the latter's dry run since the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul in early June, off the back of a stunning early run of six victories from the opening seven outings. According to the Daily Record
, that has led to team principal Ross Brawn reading the riot act to his two drivers, for fear that damaging in-fighting within the squad might yet gift the crown to Red Bull Racing adversary Sebastian Vettel.
“This is the last thing I need at the moment,” Button acknowledged. “I just want to be able to focus on racing and doing my job. I don't think this is a good thing to talk about now.
“People say that if I finish five points in front of Rubens I can win the championship. I know that's a fact, but my aim is to win the world championship and I'm not going to take any unusual risks. I'm just going to drive like I have been, and hopefully that will be enough.”
However, the Briton has succeeded in out-scoring Barrichello by such a margin only twice this year – in Bahrain and Turkey – and he remains all-too aware of the recent example of compatriot Lewis Hamilton, who blew an even greater lead of 17 points with only two races to go back in 2007 to lose the championship at the last breath in Brazil.
Worse still, the 29-year-old is still embroiled in protracted contract negotiations with his team as he endeavours to re-instate the higher salary that he surrendered in order to help the former Honda operation stay afloat over the winter.
“That's another thing I won't talk about,” he urged, when asked about his desire to recoup the £5 million pay cut he accepted, a demand Brawn seems unwilling to meet. “I want the championship done, and then I'll look at other things. They still value me – well, I hope so.”
Barrichello, meanwhile, has refuted suggestions that he is not playing fair, contending: “I'm not doing anything, and even if I wanted to I couldn't. There are so many computers and so much telemetry from the car [that] it's all there for everyone to see. We share everything.”
Brawn stands to become the first team in F1's official 60-year history to clinch the laurels in its debut campaign at the highest level. Unless Red Bull out-scores its key rival by at least six points at Suzuka – what used to be Honda's home circuit – the constructors' title will be all wrapped up.