In a memorable Formula One career, 1997 could be best described as a character building year for Damon Hill. Having reached the mountain top in 1996, a turbulent campaign in an uncompetitive Arrows won’t have been seen as the ideal circumstances for a title defence but those were the cards Damon would be dealt.
Midway through his charge to the championship, Hill’s time at Williams appeared to be up as the runaway leaders signed Heinz-Harold Frentzen to partner their new superstar Jacques Villeneuve. The sport’s standard bearer suddenly found himself looking for a job and once Formula One’s annual game of musical chairs had finished, Damon had taken his seat in an Arrows Yamaha, almost the last car you would expect to find the number one sticker on.
The omens weren’t good for Damon. The British squad had never won a race, let alone a championship, and only Damon’s brilliance dragged onto the grid for the season opener in Melbourne when failure to beat the 107% time looked a real possibility. Gallingly for Damon, the car he’d effectively jumped out of had taken pole by the proverbial mile with Villeneuve 1.7s quicker than his new teammate Frentzen and two full seconds clear of any other make of car. Could it get any worse? Oh yes, the A18 broke down on the parade lap 24 hours later, preventing Hill from even taking the start.
While his old team went in their relentless pursuit of victories, scoring a point was like a victory in itself for Arrows as demonstrated by Hill’s punching of the air when a blown engine for Shinji Nakano’s Prost promoted him to sixth at Silverstone and his first point of the year. Villeneuve’s victory in that race had taken his tally to 43.
But the dustbowl known as the Hungaroring brought a change of fortunes beyond Tom Walkinshaw’s wildest dreams as soaring temperatures, the durability of Bridgestone’s tyres, and an inspired performance by Hill’s high standards threatened a giantkilling performance to rival anything seen in Formula One history. Sport’s habit of providing a sting in the tail would see that all turn into a nightmare in the last 2.5 miles of racing.
The Hungaroring always held special memories for the Briton who had clinched his maiden Grand Prix victory here three years earlier and on a circuit where overtaking is so difficult, qualifying would be key. Unsurprisingly, championship leader Michael Schumacher aced it with a 1:14.672 to outpace Villeneuve but an absolute flyer in the dying seconds saw Hill snatch third from McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen and Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine. To make it all the more sweet, Frentzen could only manage sixth in the car Damon had vacated last winter.
The impact of the dust at the Hungaroring cannot be overstated and starting on the clean side of the grid was a sizeable advantage. As a result, it was no great surprise to see the men who qualified first, third and fifth make it to the first corner first. The upshot of that was a lead for Schumacher with Hill launching past Villeneuve for second while Irvine had outdragged Hakkinen for third. Villeneuve’s tardy getaway left him fifth with his teammate in tow.
Schumacher hadn’t enjoyed the ideal build-up on race morning with an off in the warm-up damaging the lightweight chassis in his race car, forcing him to use the spare for 77 laps in the afternoon. That would be the least of his problems though as the Goodyear rubber on his F310B began to blister. Irvine was suffering even more with his tyres only getting to lap seven before being discarded.
The Ferrari was proving to be a bottleneck with Hakkinen towing the two Williams up to the leading duo as soon as Irvine had moved out of the way. Hill knew he had to make his advantage count before the chasing pack swallowed him and on lap eleven, he dived up the inside of Schumacher into turn one. Arrows were in dreamland and Formula One fans the world over were pinching themselves.
Schumacher maintained second for a further three laps before falling further back but it wasn’t Hakkinen taking over P2 but Villeneuve as the unreliable McLaren which had already robbed him of victory as Silverstone struck again. By the time Jacques had returned to the position he’d started from, Hill was already 8.6 seconds up the road and the foundations had been laid for an almighty upset.
Arrows safely negotiated the first round of pitstop with Hill’s lead intact although Frentzen had managed to run longer, bringing him into play. Any hope of the German heaping more misery on Hill would disappear along with a fuel valve which made a bid for freedom on the home straight. After recovering to the pits leaving a trail of fire in his wake, Heinz-Harold’s race was run with Williams unable to get any fuel into the FW19.
With one Williams out of the way, Hill gradually increased his lead over the other which had its mirrors full of David Coulthard’s McLaren. Villeneuve was finally able to enjoy some respite when, you guessed it, another McLaren breakdown halted Coulthard on lap 66 and the Canadian had an easy run to the flag for second place, until he was handed an incredible opportunity.
74 of the 77 laps had been completed with Hill to the 33 seconds good but Tom Walkinshaw received the radio message he’d been dreading from his lead driver, he had an intermittent throttle and was hobbling towards the finish line. The lap times did nothing to ease his fears with Damon’s 75th lap taking 1:31.427, eight seconds more than the healthy Williams behind. Two to go.
Unfortunately for Arrows, their car wasn’t getting any faster and 20 more seconds went begging on the penultimate lap, leaving Hill a sitting duck when Villeneuve zoomed up behind him on the last lap. With Damon desperately weaving around to try and regain his throttle, Jacques took the grass and left the helpless Hill trailing in a plume of dust, grabbing the ninth win of his career and certainly the most fortunate.
Almost forgotten amid the disappointment surrounding Hill, Johnny Herbert drove a superb race to claim third behind his future Sky Sports colleague while Michael Schumacher toiled to fourth after his tyre troubles forced him into a three-stop strategy. His brother Ralf shadowed him over the closing laps to take fifth with Shinji Nakano pinching the final point in unconventional fashion by punting Eddie Irvine off halfway around the final lap.
Despite seeing one of the all-time great Grand Prix victories torn from his grasp, Hill was able to manage a smile on the podium but even now, the thought of what might have been must still enter his mind, more so for the now defunct Arrows team who would never come closer to winning a Formula One race.
It would be disrespectful to say a driver didn’t deserve a Grand Prix victory after 190 miles of gruelling competition, after all reliability is part and parcel of the sport, but even Jacques Villeneuve in his heart of hearts must have acknowledged that this will Damon Hill’s race, even if the record books say otherwise. History will tell one story but for all that witnessed this race, one man’s performance will stand head and shoulders above all the others, as will the alleged 50p washer that denied him the result he so richly deserved.(Photo Credit: ESPN F1)