Hungary 1997: When Damon Hill almost achieved the impossible

Henry Kelsall

1997 saw a fantastic title battle between Michael Schumacher and Jacques¬†Villeneuve, but one race stands out in that season because it almost saw one of the most unlikely victories in F1’s history. It was of course the Hungarian Grand Prix that saw Arrows F1 and Damon Hill almost achieve something that many thought was impossible…

The previous year saw Hill finally win the world title and emulate his father, Graham. But the Williams team decided they no longer wanted him, signing Heinz-Harald Frentzen alongside Jacques Villeneuve for 1997. Hill found himself as the world champion but without a seat, eventually signing for the Arrows F1 team. It was an odd choice as he had offers from Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari but they did not offer the financial package that his champion status demanded. So he had signed for a team that had never won a race in 20 years. And as expected, things didn’t start off well at all.

Hill took his first points of 1997 at the British Grand Prix

He only just qualified for the first race of the year in Australia. Things got even worse, as he never even started the race, retiring on the formation lap. Despite a takeover by Tom Walkinshaw to improve the team, things didn’t look good. Arrows were using underpowered Yamaha engines and debuting tyres from Bridgestone, who at that stage could not compete with Goodyear. It took until the ninth race of the year before Hill scored points, with a sixth place finish. Two races later and the paddock arrived in Hungary, expecting the usual Ferrari vs Williams battle. As it would turn out, those two teams would have another rival. Arrows.

Hill made a great start to jump Villeneuve for P2 in Hungary

For whatever reason, the Arrows just worked at Hungary. The tight and twisty circuit meant the Yamaha power deficit was reduced massively, like with McLaren-Honda at Monaco in 2017. Except with Arrows, they also had a tyre advantage. The Bridgestone tyres just clicked with the circuit and it showed in practice and qualifying. Hill was fifth in practice, and then qualified an incredible third for the race! After being nowhere near the top three all year, Hill suddenly found himself back at the sharp end of Formula 1 grid. And more was to come. A lightning start in the race saw him pass Villeneuve for second and he began chasing Schumacher’s Ferrari. He caught up with the Ferrari on lap six, and five laps later he made his move at turn one for the lead of the race. It was absolutely extraordinary. Unbelievable. Incredible. Yeah, it was something special.

“It was so nearly a win that would have gone down in history but, whatever the result, it was a truly great drive and one of the most remarkable races F1 has seen.”

Murray Walker

Everything ran like clockwork for Arrows. Perfect strategy and pitwork, with equally perfect driving by Hill saw the British driver hold a 35 second lead as the race drew to a close. No one could touch Arrows and Hill. That was until three laps from the end. A mechanical issue caused the Arrows to slow dramatically, and Villeneuve began closing rapidly in his Williams. But Hill still lead on the last lap and many still hoped he could hold on. But he couldn’t. Villeneuve passed Hill with just over half a lap to go, to take the 100th win for the Williams team. Hill crossed the line in second just ahead of Johnny Herbert’s Sauber. The reason for the mechanical issue? A throttle linkage failure thanks to a broken washer. A part worth just 50 pence. It was utterly heartbreaking.

Hill took the lead from Schumacher on lap 11, and sadly lost it on the last lap

As horrible as it was to see, it was still an amazing David vs Goliath performance. But Arrows would never take to the podium again. Hill left for Jordan for 1998 and won that years Belgian Grand Prix, his last victory in Formula 1 before retiring in 1999 after a difficult season. Arrows would soldier on until mid 2002, when the money started to dry out. Lawsuits with various drivers sapped the cash, and drivers Heinz Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi deliberately did not qualify for that years French Grand Prix. At the end of the year, the team folded, and so did a 382 race streak without a win, and just nine podiums. It was a sad end for a team that twenty years ago, came ever so close to winning. It would be like the former Manor team or Sauber, rocking up to a track and suddenly enjoying some bizarre advantage over everyone else. The closest thing we have had since was at Spa 2009 when Force India and Giancarlo Fisichella took pole and a second place behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari.

Despite missing out on the victory, Hill still managed to crack a smile on the podium

But that was a team slowly on the up with a downforce package that suited their car. They even came close to a pole and podium at the following round in Monza. In Hungary in 1997 an unfancied team shocked the establishment and nearly pulled of an impossible result. And it is probably something that sadly, Formula 1 will never see, ever again.

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