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DAMON HILL PULLS OFF A SWEET DOUBLE VICTORY

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At the start, Damon Hill needed only a sixth-place finish to clinch his first Formula One auto racing championship. Then he didn't even need to finish.

So when the British driver won the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix Sunday, to go with his 1996 top driver's title, he had a double reason to celebrate. "I feel as though I am on a rocket which is just about to take off," he said.All suspense ended on the 37th lap, when Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, the only driver with even a slim chance to overtake him for the season championship, spun off the track.

Hill, starting from the second grid, already had overtaken pole-sitter Villeneuve in the first turn.

"Out there up front, I was telling myself, `This is all very well, Hill, but now you've got to stay calm and see it through to the finish,"' he said.

After his pit crew messaged Hill that Williams-Renault teammate Villeneuve was out, he went on to beat two-time defending champion Michael Schumacher of Germany by 1.883 seconds. It was his eighth race victory this season, and 21st of his career.

Hill, raising his fist as he approached the finish line, completed the 52 laps around the 3.636-mile Suzuka Circuit in 1 hour, 32 minutes, 33.791 seconds. His team mechanics waved big British flags.

Schumacher finished in 1:32:35.674 in his Ferrari and Finland's Mika Hakkinen, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was third in 1:32:37.003.

Hill was in danger of losing the season title only if he finished seventh or lower, and Villeneuve won the race.

That possibility ended when Villeneuve went out, his rear tire flying into the air. He was unhurt, but his car could not continue the race.

"It's a tremendous relief to have finally won the championship," said Hill, whose father, Graham, won it twice.

Villeneuve, trying to become the first rookie and the youngest to win the season title, had a bad start in Sunday's race, falling to sixth place coming out of the first corner. But he moved back up to fourth by lap 19.

Jean Alesi of France went out on the first lap, crashing into the fence and destroying the back end of his Benetton-Renault.

His Austrian teammate, Gerhard Berger, bumped into Eddie Irvine's Ferrari in the tricky chicane, forcing the Briton to retire in the 40th lap. Berger finished fourth.

Sunday's start was delayed by nine minutes as David Coulthard, in the eighth grid, had trouble starting his McLaren-Mercedes. He eventually finished eighth, but caused drivers to repeat the untimed formation lap, reducing the number of timed laps to 52.

Hill came to Suzuka with a nine-point lead over Villeneuve in the drivers' standings. Sunday's victory gave him a 1996 final total of 97 to 78 for Villeneuve and 59 for Schumacher, who earned six points for his runner-up finish here.

"Damon did a great job all season and he is a great champion," Villeneuve said.

Sunday's title, however, could possibly be the last for Hill.

Last month, team owner Frank Williams dropped Hill for the next season and gave his place in the 1997 lineup to Heinz-Harald Frentzen of Germany.

Hill will join Arrows, among the weakest with no championships in its 19 years in the sport. Driving a Arrows-Yamaha, Hill would be no match for Villeneuve, who is staying with Williams.

Hill made his Grand Prix debut in 1992 for Brabham, and joined Williams a year later. Driving one of Formula One's fastest cars, however, didn't gain him success overnight.

For two seasons, he finished second to Schumacher. This year, Hill had to contend with Villeneuve, a 25-year-old 1995 IndyCar champion.