Hill finishes the long climb to the summit

 

IT WAS thrilling. Damon Hill became the first Irish resident to win the World Championship; Michael Schumacher showed the sport at its artistic best with some unforgettable drives; Eddie Irvine became the first Irishman to drive for the great Scuderia Ferrari, and Jordan Peugeot received final proof that in the battle of David and Goliath in Formula One, Goliath always wins.

Twice runner-up in the championship, Hill (36), knew his time was running out. He started the season with renewed confidence and strength: "I was never in better shape, mentally and physically," he said, and the results showed he won the first three races and mid way through the season had six wins and a seemingly unassailable lead on the top of the table.

But from then on team mate Jacques Villenueve went on the offensive and had Hill's lead whittled down to nine points going into the final round in Japan.

The season climax had four million European TV viewers out of their beds at 5.0 a.m. to watch Hill take the final step to the top of the mountain in the most emphatic way possible - a start-to-finish win. "It's a wonderful feeling," he said. "It's been a long, long road for me and it was only possible because of the support of my wife, Georgie, and my family," said Hill.

Villeneuve, in his first season, had nothing to lose, but an audacious passing manoeuvre on Schumacher at Estoril showed he's a real racer. Four wins and runner up was as much as team manager Frank Williams could expect.

But it was Schumacher who rekindled memories of Villenueve's father, Gilles, with three fantastic drives in his Ferrari. Proving the driver makes a difference, he was up to four seconds a lap quicker than the field at Barcelona in monsoon conditions.

Schumacher held the team together during an appalling run of reliability during the summer, culminating in his V10 blowing on the warm-up lap at Magny Cours. Victory at Spa was followed by an historic win in front of a delirious ltalian crowd at Monza.

Schumacher's team mate, Eddie Irvine, matured to his new role. He still has that "couldn't care less" front, loves stirring the pot but is crystal clear on where to draw the line. He must have bit his tongue so hard when his Ferrari let him down for the seventh race in a row at Spa. "It's getting better," was his memorable reply.

Irvine and Schumacher were on level pegging - using equal cars - just once, at Melbourne, when the Irishman out-qualified the most expensive man in the sport and finished third - his best result of the season. "I've no complaints about the season," he says. "I knew Michael was to be number one."

Eddie Jordan had a trying season. When I spoke to him last week about a seasonal review, he said only half-jokingly: "Do we have to?" Some 5,000 winter testing miles had ensured that Jordan started the season with a reliable car with the major bugs sorted out.

At the second race, in Brazil, Rubens Barrichello was brilliant, qualifying on the front row, running as high as second and driving like Senna at Donington in passing Alesi and Schumacher. Great stuff. It ended in the gravel, but it looked like Jordan's promise of that first win was on.

But Jordan and Barrichello were together only because neither could do any better. Barrichello was bruised to see Jordan catapult Irvine into the drive he longed for at Ferrari, and as early as the fourth race, in the Nurbergring, senior figures in the team were saying they wanted him out.

They lived under one roof but the marriage was no more: "I felt very isolated in the team," said Barrichello.

Rubens lost heart, understandably, in the latter part of the year. His team mate, Martin Brundle (37), took months to get over his death-defying crash in Melbourne. Brundle began to match Barrichello's pace just as Eddie Jordan was about to produce the P45, but by that stage the car had fallen behind.

Jordan failed to get a podium finish for the first time in three years, though 21 points was not far off their best (28). But expectations were higher.