The one that got away: Hungary pangs

Damon Hill 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix

An Arrows beating Schumacher's Ferrari? Damon Hill dreamed the impossible dream, but woke before it was over, as he tells Adam Cooper

In the summer of 1996, it emerged that the Williams team had long intended to replace Damon Hill with Heinz-Harald Frentzen. By the time the news became public, Hill was heading for the world championship, but Damon had to look elsewhere for '97 and, turning down approaches from Jordan and the new Stewart team, he shocked the F1 world by opting for Arrows.

Tom Walkinshaw had recently taken the helm from Jackie Oliver — still present in an advisory capacity — and Arrows appeared to be a team that was going places: it was the first to commit to Bridgestone tyres, new for 1997, and it also had works engines, albeit of the Yamaha variety.

"I regarded Arrows as a one-year holding opportunity," says Damon. "Tom offered me the best deal. I didn't want to take a year out, so I thought I'd give Arrows a go: if it comes off, great, I've got a good team; if it doesn't, I've got to jump.

"I knew I was with a team that had little hope of doing anything, but you don't say so at the time. You just think, 'Well, it's the best option I have at the moment, let's make the most of it.' Really, the Yamaha project was always going to be difficult.

"But the basis of the A18 wasn't bad: it was an old Benetton design that Frank Dernie kind of took with him. The fundamental balance was quite good, and the Yamaha engine was very light And with the Bridgestones there was always going to be a chance they'd get it right"

The season got off to a disastrous start when Hill stopped on the warming-up lap in Melbourne, and thereafter he was plagued by unreliability. Gradually, things improved. In front of his home crowd at Silverstone, he brought the A18 home in sixth, and was greeted like a winner.

"For a team that was hanging on by its fingernails, it was a real lifeline. The car was very easy to drive, and you could take a lot of liberties with it.

It just lacked horsepower and downforce. But John Barnard introduced some changes which beefed it up in a few places, and we just approached the racing as an opportunity to take some chances and have some fun."

A month later came the Hungarian GP, where Damon had scored his first victory for Williams in 1993, had won again in 1995, and finished second in 1994 and '96. It was his kind of track.

"There were certain features about Hungary which I think I coped with well. Plus the car was ideally suited to that track, as it's not a circuit where you need a lot of horsepower. And Bridgestone turned up with a very good tyre, whereas Goodyear made a bit of a mistake."

Until now, Hill was used to qualifying between 12th and 15th, but in Hungary he took an amazing third, behind title contenders Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve.

"I was able to get everything I wanted out of the car, and it just felt really great to drive. It was doubly exciting that we were right up there near the top of the list. It was a very responsive car to set up. There was an opportunity to push everything out as far as I could. It's always fun when you can turn things on their head. The minnows were having their day, and I was having a great time!

"But I didn't have great hopes for the race. Up to that point, the car had been terribly unreliable, so there wasn't much hope that it would last."

Hill passed Villeneuve's Williams at the start and slotted into second. Most observers thought he would soon drop back, and even the man himself didn't expect too much.

"I remember thinking, `Great, we've got a good start', but I expected Michael to disappear. I did what I was used to doing — hang onto his gearbox as much as I could and try to not let him get away.

"But as we went on I could see his tyres beginning to go. He was starting to slide around more and more. I couldn't believe it: he wasn't getting away, and he was really struggling. The Goodyears were just too soft and they were graining up like hell and causing him all sorts of grief. So he was a sitting duck, really. Except that this was Hungary, a track virtually impossible to pass on."

Which is why Schumacher was as stunned as the rest of us by what happened next.

"On lap 10 he came out of the last corner and was really struggling. I managed to get a tow from him down the straight and took a lunge down the inside. I knew that he had much more to lose than I did, and I squeezed through. I couldn't believe it! There I was, in an Arrows, leading a grand prix, having just overtaken Michael. It was the closest you can get to actually laughing while racing!

"Once I got past, I got into the same mode as if I was driving a Williams, which was, `Put the hammer down and get out of here, because we're going to need every bit of advantage.' I was pulling further and further into the lead. After lap 20, I thought, `If the car breaks down now, I've had a really good day, and I'll just be very thankful for what I've had.'

"But it just kept on going and going. I can understand why everyone was suspicious, because it just did not fit the form book at all, but it was really just down to the tyres: Goodyear were too adventurous, Bridgestone had a better compound, and the track and the conditions suited our car perfectly."

Alas, the dream did not last On the penultimate lap Hill slowed suddenly, and former team-mate Villeneuve began to reel him in.

"The hydraulics went and I couldn't change gear. Then the throttle wouldn't work either, because that was operated by the hydraulics. I was just stuck in fifth gear. There was no way I could make it go any faster. I couldn't rev the engine, I couldn't change gear, I just had to tug along. I didn't think I was going to make it to the finish."

Villeneuve swept past early on the final lap, but somehow Damon kept the Arrows running and cruised home in second place. A mixture of relief and despair hung over the Arrows camp.

"I remember thinking, `Bollocks!' But then you think, `Second ain't bad, I suppose.' I don't think anyone felt that we'd been cheated. You had to laugh really, because we shouldn't have been there in the first place. The person who was more gutted than anyone was poor old Jackie Oliver.

"It was a race to remember, and a lot of people still talk to me about it. At that time I was in negotiation with McLaren for 1998, so the next thing to do was phone up Ron Dennis and say, There you go!' But that didn't really work out"

Instead, he would score a bullseye for Jordan.