Invitation to world party

Fanfare for an uncommon man: Champion Hill rewards young Formula One follower to confirm his class beyond the track; David Tremayne hears tributes to the quiet qualities of an exemplary driver
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The Independent Online
"Right now I feel like I'm on a rocket that's just taken off," Damon Hill said in Suzuka last Sunday, as the champagne leaked down the arms of his overalls and the world rose to applaud him as Britain's eighth world champion. "It's just a wonderful relief of pressure and sense of satisfaction."

The chequered flag that ended the greatest race of his career signalled the start of a whirlwind round of promotional engagements. His feet had barely touched the ground at Heathrow before he was whisked off to celebrate his success further on Wednesday with a photo-shoot at Marble Arch and a press conference in Selfridges. "I'm still flying," he admitted, a huge grin giving the lie to his reputation for dourness. "I haven't come down yet. I'm coming down in layers, day by day."

Hill is not alone in savouring such emotion. William Taylor, a 17-year- old fan from Brackley, also knows it. It may take him even longer to come back down to earth. When his telephone rang on the Thursday afternoon before last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix which put Hill on top of the world, Taylor admits that his first reaction was to suspect that somebody was playing a cruel joke when they said: "Damon is wondering whether you'd like to go to Japan to see him race."

Taylor began following Hill's fortunes after the British GP in 1993. "I wasn't really interested then in Formula One, but everybody who is English watches it, and being as I live so close to Silverstone as well ... Just watching him battling it out with Alain Prost until his engine blew, I recognised a good driver. And from then on I started supporting Damon. I just go up there when he is testing, and wave my flag. I'd wait and get his autograph, and then I started talking to him, and it just went from there."

Courtesy of the Williams team, who had invited him to attend the post- race testing in Estoril, he saw the Portuguese Grand Prix in September, and was anguished when Hill failed to score sufficient points to avoid a showdown in Suzuka.

"He realised what a fan I was from seeing me at Silverstone so often. Every single lap he's done in the last year and a half, I've been there waving my flag. He asked me in Portugal if I was going to Japan and I joked and said I would be if I won the lottery. He said, 'Oh, I was looking forward to your support there!' Then obviously he arranged it all afterwards."

In the euphoric aftermath of Hill's eighth Grand Prix victory of the season, which crowned him convincingly as world champion, Taylor dined with him and his wife Georgie before the inevitable karaoke session at Suzuka's infamous Log Cabin, where once an inebriated Ayrton Senna had celebrated his own first world title. Hill, virtually teetotal and a non- smoker, had by this time availed himself of more than one glass of Schnapps and a chunky cigar, courtesy of Rothmans motorhome manager Karl-Heinz Zimmermann, and was feeling no pain. Taylor chuckles. "Georgie was joining in the karaoke, everybody was. Mainly 'We are the Champions', of course."

Now something of a mini-celebrity on the F1 circuit, Taylor still can't quite believe that he really did go to Japan last weekend. "You read all this stuff about Damon being gloomy and grumpy, but being out with him just proves what a really nice guy he is. A great sense of humour and personality. For him to do something like this for me ... it's just brilliant."

Other public figures ensure that their good works are conveniently recorded by strategically placed observers, but Hill said nothing to anyone else about his invitation. It was not a publicity stunt, but the selfless act of a thoughtful man.

Meanwhile, down on the links at Woodbury Park, Hill's Williams predecessor Nigel Mansell has been making the predictable noises about coming back to F1 on the strength of Hill's success. Now 42, the former champion may simply be flying a kite in the hope that the leaderless Jordan team takes some notice.

Certainly, his last F1 outing, for McLaren, was less than impressive, but when Gerhard Berger had got back to the pits in Adelaide in 1994, having spectated on the track in practice after breaking down, the team wanted to know why he was smiling so broadly. "I've just watched Mansell in the esses and he was just the best out there," he beamed. "And he's a lot older than me, so that means I have many years of driving left!" Mansell and Jordan? Stranger things have happened.

Like Mansell, many doubted Hill's ultimate ability to reach the top. "All the people who thought Damon couldn't do it, that he wasn't good enough to do it, can now see that he has actually done it," Georgie Hill said with quiet pride as she celebrated at Suzuka. "All the setbacks he's had, he's overcome, and he's proved himself to have more integrity and dignity in his little finger than most people have got in their whole body. I'm just thrilled for him and really proud of him."

Class is an innate characteristic, often missing from a racing driver's make-up. Either you have it, or you don't. Just ask William Taylor. British sport could not have found itself a finer ambassador than Damon Hill.