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Flashback: Hungary '97 - Arrows narrowly miss the bull's eye 24 Jul 2013

Damon Hill's Arrows A18-Yamaha led most of the race. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill's Arrows A18-Yamaha on the grid. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Ferrari's Michael Schumacher leads the field into the first corner. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) on his way to second place in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill (GBR) Arrows A18 overtakes Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari F310B Formula One World Championship, Hungarian Grand Prix, Rd 11, Budapest, Hungary, 10 August 1997. World © Sutton Michael Schumacher leads the Williams pair of Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harold Frentzen in the early stages of the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Michael Schumacher leaves the pits after a tyre stop. The Ferrari driver suffered severe rear tyre blistering throughout the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) on his way to second place in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Heinz-Harold Frentzen (Williams-Renault) was forced to retire with a broken fuel valve. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) and David Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes) fought hard over 2nd place. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill's Arrows pit crew watch the final stages of the race. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) caught and passed long-time leader Damon Hill on the last lap. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) crosses the line in second place. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Second-placed Damon Hill (Arrows-Yamaha) embraces race winner Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) in parc ferme. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) celebrates victory next to second-placed Damon Hill (Arrows-Yamaha). 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring Damon Hill (GBR) and Tom Walkinshaw (GBR) show off their 2nd place trophy. 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring

He may have been world champion, but no one expected Damon Hill to challenge for victory at the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix. After all, he’d been having a torrid year in the Yamaha-powered Arrows A18. But, to the surprise of everyone, the combination of a tyre advantage and supreme driving skill took Hill and Arrows to within two miles of one of Formula One racing’s most unlikely triumphs. Sixteen years on, we remember their heroics…

If the news that Williams had dropped world champion-elect Damon Hill from their 1997 driver line-up was shocking, the feeling when he then signed with Formula One minnows Arrows was one of utter astonishment.

You could argue that Hill didn’t have many options from which to choose, but even then there seemed to be better choices than to take a seat at a team that, in their Footwork-guise, had finished bottom of the constructors’ championship the previous year.

But in Tom Walkinshaw, Hill had a persuasive and thoroughly confident team boss. With very little to go on, the Scot - who’d experienced world championship success at Benetton with Hill’s arch-rival Michael Schumacher - had confidently predicted before the season began that his star man might pick up a couple of wins in the Arrows A18-Yamaha.

Those who’d sniggered at the suggestion felt firmly vindicated at the first race of the ‘97 season in Australia when the reigning champion qualified a distant 20th before a disastrous race in which he pulled off the track with a throttle problem during the parade lap. The grim luck and recalcitrant pace continued over the following seven races, before Hill took advantage of good fortune to claim a solitary point at the British Grand Prix.

But there was no real upswing in performance - at the very next race in Germany, Hill struggled again (he qualified 13th and finished eighth, one lap down), leaving very little room for optimism heading to Hungary.

The only glimmer of hope? 1997’s one consistent X-factor: tyres. For the first time since 1991 Formula One racing had more than one tyre manufacturer, with newcomers Bridgestone gamely taking the fight to Goodyear. Four teams ran with the Japanese rubber, though none was an established big-hitter: Prost, Minardi, Stewart and Arrows.

For the most part, Goodyear held sway; their superior experience - allied to the fact that they were paired with the top teams - giving them enough of an advantage on most Sunday afternoons. But when Bridgestone did hit the sweet spot, otherwise pedestrian cars could be turned into instant challengers. Nowhere had this been demonstrated better than at the Austrian Grand Prix earlier in the season when Prost’s Jarno Trulli had caused a stir by comfortably leading the first 37 laps of the race.

There was little indication of when Bridgestone might hold the advantage, but as the wily Walkinshaw had figured when he’d made his bold pre-season prediction, it would happen and, when it did, Arrows had to be ready to take their opportunity.

When practice got underway at the Hungaroring, Hill concentrated on setting his car up with the softer, racier tyre in the Japanese firm’s armoury. Given the high temperatures at the Budapest venue, it was a slightly risky choice, but the potential reward if the gamble paid off was much higher.

Practice went well for Hill and Arrows, but it was in qualifying that the Briton really put the cat amongst the pigeons, claiming third on the grid behind Schumacher’s Ferrari and Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams. It was an inspired performance from the champion, one that owed as much to talent as tyre advantage - Bridgestone’s next best runner, Rubens Barrichello, was eight grid slots further back in 11th.

“I know this place well,” said Hill, who’d taken his maiden Grand Prix victory in Hungary in 1993. “I’ve been able to put my experience to good work, to arrive at a really good set-up.”

But while Arrows celebrated, the Goodyear runners sweated. The majority - including Schumacher - had experienced severe blistering on long runs and with the mercury rising on race day, that problem wasn’t set to get any better.

At the start, Schumacher made a good getaway and so did Hill, but Villeneuve got too much wheelspin and slipped backwards. Watching Schumacher lead a race was nothing new, but the sight of him struggling to establish a lead over an Arrows certainly was.

After a couple of laps it was apparent that the scarlet car wouldn’t be able to shake off the unfamiliar blue and white machine. Then, on lap 11, the improbable happened - Hill flung his car up the inside of Schumacher’s into the first corner to take a famous lead.

“I could see his tyres were blistering badly,” said Hill of his rival after the race. “Getting by him was no real problem. Once I had a clear track I had to capitalise on my advantage.”

And capitalise he did, soon lapping three to four seconds a lap faster than the German. Schumacher eventually lost second place to Villeneuve and had no choice but to pit for new tyres, enabling the Canadian to close in on Hill.

Several laps later, the Briton and Villeneuve pitted a lap apart from each other, enabling the second Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen to take the lead. Frentzen, the man who’d replaced Hill as Villeneuve’s team mate, was desperate for a strong result after a run of sub-par performances, and had smartly opted to run Goodyear’s harder compound tyres. Free from the blistering that had afflicted his rivals, Frentzen continued to circulate on his original rubber. When he set the fastest lap a good number of laps into his stint it seemed that the race was his to lose, and unfortunately for the German, lose it he did.

As he exited the last corner on lap 28, a piece of his Williams - subsequently identified as a fuel valve - flew off. The luckless ‘H-H’ pitted, but there was no way of refuelling his damaged car and he was forced into retirement.

With one of the main barriers to victory removed, Hill reassumed the lead and quickly established a healthy margin over Villeneuve who’d become the latest victim of tyre blistering. Schumacher, still suffering his own tyre woes, held fifth behind David Coulthard’s McLaren and Johnny Herbert’s Sauber.

As the race entered its final 30 laps it was beginning to look more and more plausible that Arrows - the team that had not won a race in 20 seasons of trying - might finally triumph. Hill, with his D-spec Yamaha engine showing reassuring reliability, continued to comfortably dictate the pace up front, whilst Villeneuve and Coulthard squabbled some way down the road for second place.

“Damon was flying,” said Villeneuve afterwards. “For a long time I wasn’t too concerned because I thought he wouldn’t finish, but he just went on and on…”

Villeneuve’s battle with Coulthard was finally settled when the Scot pulled off with hydraulics problems a dozen laps from the end of the race. Thus the top three looked set: Hill, Villeneuve, Herbert.

But just as Walkinshaw and the rest of the Arrows team allowed themselves to believe that victory was theirs, the cruel hand of fate intervened. As Hill came past the pits on lap 75 of 77, it was clear something wasn’t quite right.

“Three laps from the end, the throttle wouldn’t shut properly when I lifted off,” a crestfallen Hill would later explain. “That was strange, but then three or four corners later it wouldn’t change gear properly. I got stuck in second, managed to get into third, and there I stayed.”

Put simply, the hydraulics system on his A18 had sprung a leak and was now intermittently dictating when Hill used the throttle. The Brit limped on bravely towards the flag, but, despite his huge lead, he couldn’t prevent Villeneuve gleefully inheriting the lead (via the grass) on the final lap. The 36-year-old eventually crossed the line nine seconds behind the man he’d beaten to the ‘96 crown.

As Hill gracefully accepted the trophy for second place on the podium, it was clear that the capacity crowd’s sympathies were with the moral rather than the actual victor.

“The emotions are a bit mixed,” Hill said. “I would love to have won. It’s a bit bitter to come so close, but we should be celebrating, because we came second and were running ahead of everyone for a long time with a car that was written off completely at the beginning of the season. It’s a bloody good result.”

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