Jenson Button might be on-course to clinch the 2009 F1 World Drivers' Championship crown, but he is risking choking at the last gasp unless he 'lifts his game' and 'puts his stamp of authority' on proceedings to prevent either Rubens Barrichello or Sebastian Vettel from stealing his thunder at the close – that is the view of countryman and former title-winner Damon Hill.
To the outside world, Button is continuing to back his way towards world championship glory, finishing a lowly eighth in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka at the weekend to grab the final marker, on a day when he was again – for the fifth time in the last eight races – beaten by Brawn GP team-mate Barrichello, and when Red Bull Racing rival Sebastian Vettel stormed to a seamless victory to keep himself in the hunt.
Indeed, heading into the final two grands prix of the campaign – the first of them on Barrichello's home turf at Interlagos in just under a fortnight's time, where the most experienced driver in the top flight's history is sure to benefit from a wealth of partisan support – Button has averaged just three points per race since his last triumph in Istanbul all the way back in early June, compared to 8.7 from each of the opening seven outings.
Whilst the British ace still holds an ostensibly comfortable 14-point margin over Barrichello in the title standings and 16 over Vettel – meaning third place in São Paulo will seal the deal regardless of where his adversaries finish – Hill fears the manner in which his compatriot appears to have tightened up since mid-season could end up costing him dear should he not be careful.
“This is dragging on a bit, and it's a bit like the Open with Tom Watson,” the 1996 F1 World Champion and current British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) President told the Daily Telegraph
, likening Button's struggle to that of Watson, who led from practically the first tee at Troon during the summer only to surrender his advantage in the last few holes of his final round and subsequently lose a play-off.
“It's getting towards the last few holes, and it does look like it's all won and it should be in the bag but they don't have play-offs in Formula 1. He really does have to lift his game, to put his stamp of authority on this one and make sure it happens.
“Rubens is back on home soil, so he's going to be well buoyed-up. Jenson simply has to look at this as a race entirely on its own, focus on it and just do the very best he's ever done in his life. That would be the right way to go about approaching Brazil.”
Button, meanwhile, curiously insisted that he was 'very happy' with his Japanese performance and pace – “I was pulling massive amounts of time out of the guys in front, but they were on heavier fuel loads which held me up,” insisted the 28-year-old Frome-born ace – and is adamant that he will not alter his seemingly over-cautious manner heading to Interlagos and Abu Dhabi a fortnight later still.
has mused, finally, that Brawn GP precursor Honda will likely have been mightily relieved that the FIA elected not to penalise Williams' Nico Rosberg for speeding under safety car conditions at Suzuka – a decision that means the battle for constructors' championship honours goes on to the next race, with just half a point needed to finish the job.
Had the young German been demoted to Barrichello and Button's benefit, the Brackley-based outfit would now officially have been crowned champions with two races to spare – team principal Ross Brawn's eighth constructors' title at the highest level – ironically at the circuit owned by the manufacturer that bailed on the team last winter and left 750 employees facing redundancy, and the manufacturer that has to all intents and purposes bankrolled the ultra-successful 2009 challenge.