Hungary 1997 - Arrows nearest miss 20 Aug 2003
The records show that the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix was won by Jacques Villeneuve, but as is so often the case in Formula One racing, the results alone fail to give a true impression of the events on-track that day. While they show that Damon Hill scored an unlikely second place for Arrows, they fail to note that the reigning world champion very nearly took the most impressive and improbable victory of his career.
Qualifying had seen Michael Schumacher take pole from Villeneuve. Hill, meanwhile, had been fast all weekend and his third-place grid slot was proof that at the Hungaroring, horsepower is not the most important asset for a Formula One car. The Arrows' excellent aerodynamics were well suited to the circuit, but Hill's skill at the wheel was also key. Team mate Pedro Diniz could only manage 18th on the grid.
At the start of the race Schumacher's Ferrari blasted into the lead with Hill chasing hard. Villeneuve dropped back behind Eddie Irvine who had made a great start, beating Mika Hakkinen and the French-Canadian into Turn one. But after even the first lap it appeared all was not well with Ferrari. Irvine and Schumacher's tyres were blistering quickly and whilst Schumacher and Hill pulled out a gap at the front, Irvine was being hounded by the chasing pack of Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert.
Hakkinen soon made it past Irvine and quickly caught Hill. Eager to escape the attentions of the Finn, Hill saw his chance at the start of lap 11. As arch-rival Schumacher went into Turn one, Hill braked super late and dived up the inside. The German gave him little room but Hill was in no mood to concede and swept through into the lead. Once there he didn't look back and somehow stretched out a commanding advantage as the laps wore on and the first pit stops took place. By lap 48 he led by 25 seconds.
Hill pitted for fresh tyres and never lost the lead. With three laps to go he was 35 seconds ahead of second-placed Villeneuve. But the fairytale was not to be, and the Arrows suddenly slowed. Hydraulic problems meant Hill could not change gear properly.
On lap 75 he lost nine seconds, lap 76 saw him drop a further 20. As the last lap began Hill was just ahead of his former team-mate. As the track straightened out on the downhill section Hill's car twitched as he tried to clear the system. Villeneuve took avoiding action and blasted over the grass and into the lead to take the win.
Hill would finish second ahead of Herbert, but that most unexpected of victories had been snatched from him in the final seconds. "You just can't control these things," he said after the race. "I was amazed to get to the finish. I am really pleased to finish second but I have mixed emotions. I would love to have won this race."
If there had ever been a question mark over Damon Hill's ability and worthiness as a Formula One World Champion, the Hungarian Grand Prix of 1997 silenced his critics for good. In one of the poorest cars on the grid, he almost won the race and put in the drive of his life. Arrows never would win a grand prix, but this was the closest it would get. Some things, it would seem, just aren't meant to be.