Hungarian agony for British Champion

Damon Hill was the reigning world champion in 1997, but arrived at the Hungarian Grand Prix with only a single point to his name.

Hill had been deemed surplus to requirements by the Williams team with which he won the title, and left to pick up a seat where he could for 1997. Hill landed at Arrows, a team who had never won a Grand Prix and who had placed a lowly 9th in the 1996 constructors championship with a single point (the team were named Footwork in 1996).

For 1997 things didn’t look much better, with the Arrows looking underpowered and unreliable. While Hill had managed a single point in Britain, the stars would almost align in Hungary for a sensational result, Hill coming oh so close to what would have been an unbelievable victory. The story behind this opportunity was primarily tyres. Arrows tyre supplier Bridgestone had entered F1 in 1997, but none of the top teams was taking a chance with them yet. In Hungary, their tyre proved to be the difference in the searing heat. The track layout helped to mask the deficiencies in the Arrows car as well, namely the lack of out and out horsepower. After qualifying an amazing third, behind title chasers Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) and Jacques Villeneuve (Williams), Hill made a good start to pass his former teammate Villeneuve for second going into the first corner. He was now behind only old rival Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari. Schumacher led the opening laps, but his Goodyear tyres were struggling, and Hill latched onto his tail.

At the start of lap 11 Hill took his chance, diving for the inside going into turn 1. Schumacher (as always) didn’t make it easy for Damon, but Hill had nothing to lose, not being involved in the title fight, and made the move stick. Schumacher slid back struggling with his tyres, while the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen retired early with a hydraulics failure. Heinz Harald Frentzen, the man who had replaced world champion Hill at Williams, had looked like he could challenge for victory having chosen to run on the harder Goodyear compound for the race. He took the lead when Hill pitted, and looked to build a gap to retain the lead after his stop, but as he pushed on lap 29 flames leapt from the back of his Williams, and when he pulled into the pits his car was retired with a fuel leak. Hill was back in front, and pulled clear.

However the dream was not to be, disaster striking 3 laps from the finish as Hill hit trouble as a hydraulics problem left him unable to change gear and caused the throttle to fail. He had a lead of over half a minute on Villeneuve at that stage, and kept plodding on, desperate to make the finish, as lapped cars zipped past him. Hill dropped huge chunks of time over the next two laps, but arrived at the start of the last lap still in the lead. Villenueve though flew past Hill on the last lap to seize the win, taking to the grass in a plume of dust to pass him as Hill shook his Arrows from side to side in an attempt to get it to the finish line. Hill would manage to limp home in second place, agonizingly close to a sensational result. It was a missed opportunity, with Hill failing to score any more points over the rest of the season, and Arrows never registering a single Grand Prix victory.

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