Defending world champion he might be, but Jenson Button is being portrayed as very much the underdog heading into the F1 2010 World Championship campaign this weekend, with the likes of McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton and returning grand prix legend Michael Schumacher regarded as far more likely contenders for the crown - but the British star is adamant that none of his illustrious rivals hold any fear for him at all.

With the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir now less than a week away, as many as eight drivers are being touted as potential world champions this year, with Ferrari duo Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, Red Bull Racing pairing Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber and Schumacher's Mercedes Grand Prix team-mate and highly-rated countryman Nico Rosberg joining the aforementioned trio in the mix for glory.

The general consensus inside the paddock, though, is that of that octet, it is Alonso, Vettel, Schumacher and Hamilton who look the most likely to challenge, with Button set to be summarily swept aside by the latter, his title-winning predecessor and a man whose relationship with McLaren stretches back some 15 years, to when he was first spotted by then team principal Ron Dennis as a young karter.

That relationship, many opine, has since become both unbreakable and the very reason why Hamilton's F1 team-mates to-date - Alonso and Heikki Kovalainen - have failed to gel with the Woking-based outfit, with the inference being that this team ain't big enough for the both of us. Against the odds and flying in the face of the sport's cynics, Button is optimistic of being able to prove that it is - and make his detractors eat their words.

"I've always been pretty good at getting to grips with a new environment," the 30-year-old is quoted as having said by British newspaper The Sun. "There is a great atmosphere within the team and I think they're excited [that] it is Lewis and myself. There is a real buzz. Lewis and I get on well.

"You always go into a team thinking that you are equal to the best in the world. Nobody ever knows until you race against drivers that are competitive. I am not going into the first race thinking, 'If he beats me then that's it, game over' or if I beat him, 'Yeah, that's it, I have won the championship'. It is not like that. It is a 19-race series and it is a long, long championship. It is going to be exciting, but I don't know what is going to happen.

"We both just know we are extremely quick and I think it is exciting being alongside a world champion. Hopefully it is the same for him. The most important thing is to win, but we need to work together to do it. The great thing is we both understand each other and we go to Bahrain with a good car. I am more excited about this season than any other!"

On the subject of Schumacher, meanwhile, the Frome-born ace is similarly forthright and unequivocal, insisting that for all of the seven-time F1 World Champion's on-track achievements and glittering reputation, when it comes down to a wheel-to-wheel on-track duel, he will treat the 41-year-old exactly the same as any other.

"It's exciting that Michael is back and great for the sport," Button acknowledged, "but he is not the only driver and I won't look at him differently. There are lots of other drivers who have achieved success in the last few years while Michael hasn't been around, but also who have achieved success while he has been around - Fernando Alonso won the last two championships when Michael was racing in F1.

"You don't think of him as any different to racing against Lewis Hamilton or Fernando. Michael is the most famous racing driver in the world and a big part of F1, but if he wasn't here it would still be a fantastic season."

Hamilton, of course, is determined to beat both Schumacher and Button in 2010 as he endeavours to reclaim his hard-fought 2008 drivers' crown, and whilst the 25-year-old has admitted to having perhaps mishandled his relationship with Alonso during his 'rookie' campaign of competition at the highest level back in 2007 [see separate story - click here], he equally makes no bones about the fact that he has absolutely no intention of surrendering his flawless career record against his team-mates just yet...

"I've known Jenson for a while," the eleven-time grand prix-winner reflected. "He is easy to get on with. I am in the happiest place I've been in my life right now. I feel fit [and] happy in my personal relationship. I've never lost a championship to a team-mate, and I'll do everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen."