Motor racing: Father's legacy rightfully claimed

Derick Allsop pays tribute to a triumph for perseverance and great courage
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Out of his father's shadow but, perhaps more importantly, out of the shadow he contrived to cast over his own championship ambition: Damon Hill is finally basking in sport's warmest glow.

In the end he did not require even a point, his only rival, Jacques Villeneuve, ploughing into Suzuka's gravel and out of the equation after losing a wheel. And yet Hill was conscious basic requirements would not have been sufficient, not if he was to salvage the credibility he frittered away in the latter stages of the season turning a formality into a tension- ridden contest.

From almost every direction, and most loudly from fellow drivers, he had been hearing the demands for a final flourish worthy of a champion, for triumph with style and conviction. Now, at the last, he delivered precisely that.

We shall always wonder what might have been had Villeneuve, starting on pole, made that advantage tell. Instead, the Canadian was swallowed up by the pack as Hill serenely assumed command of the Japanese Grand Prix and his own destiny.

All hope of the championship showdown the world had eagerly anticipated evaporated in the smoking, jostling frenzy of those opening few seconds. The sense of anticlimax was shuddering.

For Hill and his camp, however, there was sheer relief. Certainly there could still be another traumatic twist, certainly Villeneuve was capable of inspired retaliation. But somehow it seemed the fates had decided Hill's time had come, that all the cares and tribulations of the recent past should be banished and confidence restored from the memory of his performances earlier in the year.

It was not spectacular. It did not have to be. It was composed, controlled, authoritative and always too much for the chasing group. It was a drive from the Alain Prost manual. And just when he might have been tempted to back off, he received the message that his team-mate was out of the race.

Villeneuve had reported to his crew that a wheel was loose and, as he came down the pit straight towards the first corner his rear right came off, bouncing past him and into the secondary safety fencing as his Williams- Renault sank like a slaughtered bull beneath the matador's thrust. After all the jingoistic hysteria which had fanned suspicion of a plot to sabotage Hill's car, the irony will not have been lost on Villeneuve or the Williams team.

The crown therefore secure, Hill drove on with a single-minded resolve, to put race victory beyond the reach of Michael Schumacher - especially Michael Schumacher - and the rest.

He soaked up the champagne and the champion's accolades, standing appropriately at the top of the podium, and even Schumacher graciously acknowledged his success.

Hill may not be in Schumacher's class, or Prost's, or Ayrton Senna's, or indeed Nigel Mansell's. But he is a clear winner this year, beating Villeneuve, his only challenger, by 19 points, and although the Williams was far too good for the other cars, he takes enormous credit for contributing to its development. This is, in every sense, a team game.

His last race for Williams was the 67th of his Formula One career and yielded his 21st win, a strike-rate third only to those achieved by Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio. Hill has enhanced Britain's reputation for producing more champions than any other nation, becoming its eighth title winner. More significantly to him, he is the first son of a champion to reach the pinnacle of motor racing. His father, Graham, won the championship in 1962 and 1968.

Many doubted Hill would ever follow his father's tyre tracks into grand prix racing, let alone to the championship. His insistence on going his own way steered him to bikes rather than cars or, as has become the norm for aspiring Formula One drivers, karts.

His mother's concerns for the safety of her only son prompted her to buy the young Damon his first lesson in a racing car, and he was smitten. He caught up with the familiar trek through Formula Ford, Formula Three and Formula 3,000, and although his impact was never dramatic he sustained his momentum with unflinching self-belief.

Hill made his Formula One debut with Brabham as Mansell was making his remorseless charge to the championship in 1992, and, having already forced his way into the Williams fold as test driver, took over racing duties from his countryman as partner to Prost the following year.

Senna's death, in 1994, left him with the responsibility of leading the team effort, a task he shouldered manfully, yet he could not contain Schumacher and the Benetton over the course of two fraught seasons.

He confronted this season fitter, and seemingly more focussed and determined, his confidence inevitably buoyed by the certainty that Schumacher would be ill-equipped at Ferrari to make it three in a row, and the probability that Villeneuve, in his first season, would be too raw to represent a genuine threat.

It was generally believed this would be Hill's last chance, and it may well have proved to be that. Discarded by Williams, he takes the No 1 to TWR Arrows next season, and possibly into obscurity. But also he takes with him honour, dignity and the knowledge that, on the final day of reckoning, he stood up to be counted.