RACING ROYALTY DECEND ON LONDON

SUNDAY 3rd DECEMBER (LONDON): The valets at the Grosvenor House Hotel are used to parking exotic machinery, but never had they been tossed the keys to a £250,000 WRC car until Finland's Markus Gronholm swerved into their drive. The rally star had come straight from the forests of Wales where he had won the Rally of Great Britain, taking Ford's first WRC title in 27 years, and stripped from his race suit to reveal his dinner jacket for tonight's glamorous Autosport Awards.

Caning a full-fat rally car down London's Park Lane certainly caught the attention of west end traffic, as Gronholm's lairy Ford Focus diced with buses and black cabs before skidding onto the red carpet.

Britain's newest Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton, first attended the Autosport Awards in 1995 to collect a karting trophy, and used the opportunity to talk to the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis. "It's strange to be standing here 11 years later," said Lewis as he collected the Rookie of the Year award. "I was wondering about getting autographs from some of the drivers. I didn't know who Ron was, my dad just told me to go up to him and introduce myself. I told him that one day I'd be in Formula One".

Having blitzed the competition in GP2 this year, the 21 year-old will become the first black grand prix driver next year. "I first met Lewis on a bus in Macau in 2003", recalls former team boss Eddie Jordan. "I told him what Ron first told me when I arrived in Formula One: 'Welcome to the piranha club'".

"He's earned this opportunity and a lot of detractors will shortly be eating their words", says Hamilton's boss, Dennis. "He is our best option for next year. There were more experienced drivers available, but they just didn't have Lewis' level of commitment."

The International Racing Driver of the Year award went to Fernando Alonso, but the 2006 F1 season will go down in history as the final chapter in Michael Schumacher's career. Former rival and 1996 World Champion Damon Hill, who lost out on the title in 1994 after a collision with the German, was on hand to honour the seven-times champ. "He has left an indelible mark on the sport, and on my car a few times as well!"

The biggest names in motorsport were at the Grosvenor, and Jenson Button commanded the most attention. Having accused Jenson of being a no hoper last year, compaire Steve Ryder was forced to eat humble pie.

Literally! Having scored his first grand prix win in Hungary four months ago, Jenson went up to collect his award for best British competition driver brandishing a meat pie that had been purchased in a petrol station mini-mart en route to the capital.

Legendary commentator Murray Walker was on hand to reveal where he'd been when Button took his historic victory in the wet.

"My wife had persuaded me to go on a cruise to Greenland. I asked one of the stewards, who was German, to find out who had won the Hungarian Grand Prix. Nothing interesting ever happens at the Hungaroring, I thought. He came back and told me the winner was Jenson Button. I told him "In English there's an expression called "a wind up'"!"

The final award of the night, the hotly anticipated McLaren Autosport BRDC award, went to 19 year-old Oliver Turvey from Cumbria. The Formula BMW UK racer's future seems assured with a £50,000 cash prize and, best of all, a test in a McLaren Formula One car next year. Echoing past winners of this award, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, it seems likely we haven't seen the last of Oliver.

-credit: Sidhu & Simon Ltd