To have won the first race and the last race, plus six in between, pretty much sums up the year. I've led the championship right from the start and throughout the season. I've started on the front row of the grid for all 16 races and I have won half of them. It's something I'm very proud of. I could not have done any of that without the superb work of my four mechanics, Bob Davis, Les Jones, Paul West and Matthew Whyte. I must also thank my engineer, Tim Preston. This was Tim's first season playing that particular role in Formula One and he has dealt with the pressure incredibly well.
Adrian Newey, designer of the Rothmans Williams-Renault FW18, apart from designing yet another championship-winning car, has also worked with me all season, as has Denis Chevrier, my engineer from Renault. A special thanks to them. But, of course, all members of the Rothmans Williams-Renault team have been essential in my victory. Their performance has been nothing short of brilliant.
Of course, I mustn't forget members of my supporters' club and everyone who got up early - or perhaps never went to bed - in order to watch the race live on Sunday. It's a tremendous feeling to have made it worthwhile for them; nothing pleased me more than to deliver a victory on top of everything else. I've never felt so happy to win a race. I experienced a similar feeling after my first grand prix victory in 1993; I wanted it to happen so badly and last Sunday's race was much the same even though I went into it knowing I only needed a finish in the top six in order to secure the title.
It would have been easy to back off once I knew that Jacques Villeneuve was out of the race because, at that point, I became the 1996 world champion. But I wanted to win the race for everyone at Williams Grand Prix Engineering. It would be a means of saying thanks to more than 230 people, most of whom you never hear about because they work with great dedication behind the scenes and don't come to the races. It is the same for the team at Renault Sport in Paris, another extremely hard-working group who must take credit for their part in the success.
The hardest part was dealing with the mental battle during the final 15 laps as I tried not to think about the consequences of the championship and how I would celebrate while, at the same time, concentrating on winning the race and signing off in the best possible way for the team which has given me 21 victories in the past four seasons.
I shall never forget this period in my life. We have had some unbelievable experiences, reaching fantastic high points and occasionally plunging into some terrible low periods along the way. This season has been typical but such pressures are part and parcel of winning the championship. Driving the car is only a small part of it. The most critical aspect is dealing with the ups and downs of the season: the moments when everyone has written you off and the bouts of over-enthusiasm when praise is heaped upon you and it is assumed that you are going to become world champion even though it is mid-season and there are still eight races to go. Winning the championship is about keeping your head straight all the way through. I knew from experience that nothing can be taken for granted in this sport.
The opening lap of Sunday's race was a good example. I made a very good start, whereas Jacques did not. But I knew that I had not won the race simply because I had reached the first corner ahead of everyone else. I thought of the Italian Grand Prix when I was in a similar situation, only for it to go all wrong. I was telling myself to stay calm, drive cleanly and quickly, build up a lead and get to the finish. It worked perfectly. It's a terrific thing to happen and I can begin to enjoy the experience now that it's over. But I am the first to appreciate that fate could have stepped in and Jacques could have finished the season as champion.
Jacques has been a revelation. When he first came to the team, I didn't know what to think but I quickly reached the conclusion that he's a very fine racing driver. I've enjoyed being with Jacques; there has not been a harsh word between us.
I have no doubt that Jacques will be a world champion of the future. It's an experience I can strongly recommend. The realisation is dawning but seeing that chequered flag on Sunday was a beautiful moment, one I will remember forever.Reuse content