Hill wallows in public recognition

A champion finally has the chance to revel in his success. Derick Allsop reports
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The Independent Online
The last lap was the best of all, bringing him back home to the embrace of his family and many of the fans who jumped on board somewhere along the way.

Damon Hill was in London again, loving every minute of it, the wider impact of his world championship triumph beginning to seep through the euphoria that had accompanied him from Japan.

This was essentially pay-back time to the sponsors, another barrage of questions, no doubt the same questions that had beaten his eardrums and rattled his brain cells ever since Sunday's victory at Suzuka. And yet it was probably all the sweeter for an element of surprise, an unlikely encounter with the title-winner for a couple of hundred folk otherwise going about their day: a mother and daughter down from Scotland, jumping off their bus because they saw his car, yes, the Williams-Renault, parked at Marble Arch; the German who made it known he was a Michael Schumacher supporter but seemed content to be there anyway.

Here was the final vindication, the public acclaim and recognition. The young man who had fizzed around the streets of the capital as a despatch rider, funding his racing ambition and seeking new sponsors, was now the 36-year-old world champion, perched at the peak of his career.

Relief was evident in every smile, every joke, every response. There was just a hint of a side-swipe at Williams, for having discarded him as he stood at the threshold of title success. But there was also due acknowledgment of the expertise and even-handedness of Formula One's premier team. And there was a balanced, realistic consideration of his possibilities next season, as No 1 driver for the TWR Arrows team.

"I'm still flying. I haven't come down yet. I'm coming down in layers, day by day. Somebody showed me a copy of this week's Autosport. I've been reading it all my life and I've been creeping through the pages during my career. Now it says I'm champion on the front, and it's fantastic. I think I'll get this copy framed."

That is what it means.

He was reminded of his days as a despatch rider. "I always had the intention of getting off bikes, even though I loved it. It was always part of my plan to go racing."

The realisation that the championship might beckon came to him when he was promoted from test driver by Williams, four years ago. "The moment Nigel Mansell left I was pushing like mad. I thought: 'I'm on my way here.' "

Williams discarding him for 1997 "wasn't quite the pat on the back I'd been expecting. But I really had the rug pulled from under me, but the only thing that concerned me this year was the championship and I decided I'd rather go away with something."

That resolve armed him against those who questioned his ability. He said: "It's part of the business, being sniped at. But all the reports have been jolly nice since Sunday. It's in the record books, it's there for ever."

He had done, he felt, as much as he could, even in the best car, winning half the races. The only way to top this was to go one better, but no, he was not in competition with his late father, Graham, who won the championship in 1962 and 1968. "He died 21 years ago and I long since handled that emotion."

A second championship has to be a long-term project, anyway. If he helps make Arrows a competitive team next season, he will have achieved perhaps as much as he has this year. "I take the challenge next year that is defined by whatever the reality is," he said.

And now he really was finished. He was off for a break, away from the cockpit, to relive the season, to see a tape of that Japanese Grand Prix, and simply wallow in motor racing's ultimate glory. And no, that can never be taken away.