In the Brawn garage ahead of the Japanese grand prix, where Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello are 'at war', you could be forgiven for thinking this was the start of the season rather than the enactment of the endgame that will almost certainly see one of them crowned champion for the first and possibly last time.
There are two race weekends to come after this one, and in one of the more remarkable drivers' championships of all, the end is in sight. Button is 15 points clear. If he extends that lead by six points, it's all over. But then, this season of highs and lows may have far to run yet.
First came the flying start that saw Jenson Button take six of the first seven chequered flags of the season. Then, starting in Silverstone, he failed to make the podium in the next five Grands Prix. And the driver keeping his champagne on ice is his team-mate, Barrichello.
Twenty years ago Alain Prost raced away from his team-mate Ayrton Senna here after having a small but crucial flap removed from the rear wing of his McLaren without Senna noticing, on the grid prior to the start. The Brazilian then found himself struggling to catch the Frenchman, setting the stage for their clash in the chicane which ultimately handed victory to Benetton's Sandro Nannini and indirectly set up their much more acrimonious first-corner accident here a year later.
Such are the tensions of any serious title fight, yet in the Brawn pit garage the mechanics are working in painstaking, unhurried style. In the hospitality cabin, the smiles are genuine, the air relaxed. If this is a camp divided by loyalty to one driver or the other, then it is being conducted with remarkable civility.
There have been times this year when the two drivers have felt aggrieved. Barrichello was unhappy that a change of pit-stop strategy was applied only to Button's race in Spain, and was openly critical after losing in Germany, until team owner Ross Brawn paternally pointed out that you don't win any race if you only set the 11th fastest lap.
In Valencia, there were mutterings from the Button camp that Barrichello was keeping aspects of the set-up to himself, rather as Prost had done. Brawn, like most teams, use a central server for all their information. That means that Button's race engineer Andrew Shovlin, can access anything that Barrichello's, Jock Clear, has been looking at, or vice versa. That prevents Barrichello, for example, saying that a particular set-up or component was unsatisfactory in order to discourage Button from using it, only to switch to it later on.
Brawn has sent down the word from on high: he doesn't want anything to sully his team's maiden championships. The constructors' title is almost in the bag; the drivers' poised between his two charges.
"I can categorically assure you that the information is all there on the data screens and each engineer is free to look at the other drivers' data," Brawn says. "Of course the drivers aren't going to tell one another the nuances of how to brake or steer into a corner, but this is as good as I've ever seen it in terms of two drivers trying to beat each other in a championship. They are very open and very honest with each other. And I don't want it any other way."
Brawn is keen to point out that there is no political pressure on the team. "We just want to do things as openly and fairly as we can," hesaid. "Something may happen where one driver gets upset with the other, or gets upset with the team, and we cannot predict that. All we can do is be as straightforward as we can."
Button seems less uptight about secrecy, perhaps because he knows it's not in the team's interest for him to lose the title, since he is virtually certain to stay for 2010 assuming money can be agreed.
Barrichello is still miffed after Singapore, where his costly pit stop stall was the result of a car problem, not driver error. "I don't want to start feeling like I'm being victimised, because then everything will start to go wrong," he said yesterday.
"But equally, it will be very, very hard for me to say I want two more laps before the first pit stop because if I say that, Jenson'll say he wants three more. I have to say that the team are handling that quite well."
Button was in a relaxed mood yesterday. "It's tough, but it's also very exciting and I would not change it for the world," said Button. "It's part of the challenge. I've followed Formula One since I was a kid, and to be in this position – I am privileged and very lucky to fight for the championship and I will never forget that.
"I don't come into the race thinking I am going to seal the title here. There are so many things that can happen this weekend. There are three people in the running for the title and I am one of them."
"I will win the championship if it's mine," Barrichello said, philosophically. "If it's not mine, it will be Jenson's. I just have to be cool and win the race and forget about the rest."Reuse content