F1 1000: Hill heartbreak as Arrows fails at the last - GPFans' favourite races
As Formula 1 reaches its 1000th race at the Chinese Grand Prix, GPFans' writers are looking back through the previous 999 to find their favourites. Having previously recounted one of Damon Hill's most magical days in this series, the 1996 world champion again comes under the spotlight, but Craig Norman's tale is not so sweet.
For many fans it’s the excitement that gets them hooked on something. There’s something that’s tangible in the sport when you watch that can reach out of the screens and grab you, and keeps you in it’s thrall.
For me, the race I distinctly remember getting it’s talons into me and never letting go was so loaded with tension and hope it was unbearable and, ultimately, didn’t deliver what I wanted - Damon Hill’s failure to secure victory for Arrows at Hungary in 1997.
There is, of course, context to the story. I’m of an age where I was too young to really experience the Senna, Prost and Mansell battles but just old enough to revel in the Hill vs. Schumacher narrative.
Hill was my hero, the driver I wanted to win the most and by the end of 1996 he had the championship I’d craved, but a drive he didn’t, being booted from Williams late in the year to find himself in the uncompetitive Arrows for his title defence.
F1 had transferred channels in the UK for 1997 and in doing so it moved from being buried away in amongst other sports to stand alone on commercial television.
It was marketed everywhere - newspapers, magazines, radio, TV ads. There was an hour long talk show special that hosted 14 of the 24 drivers. I had Autosport and F1 Racing magazines dropping through my letterbox constantly and I absorbed every word and picture. Motorsport became my world and I was loving it.
I wasn’t, however, loving Damon’s experiences as an Arrows driver.
Embarrassment at the season opener, when the car broke down on the warm up lap wasn’t the start I’d hoped for, neither was the string of retirements afterwards. I wanted Hill to succeed as an underdog but the feat seemed impossible despite improvements to the car leading a point scored at Silverstone.
By the time of Hungary the hope had gone, replaced with melancholy. Damon was there to make up the numbers and nothing else, and maybe this could be the end of a glittering career.
On the Friday of the race weekend, Hill went fifth fastest after a single flying lap, and spent the rest of the session in the garage as the car was checked for a sensor malfunction. Fifth place wasn’t the front, but it wasn’t right at the back - the Arrows had pace thanks to their Bridgestone tyre partners and my heart began to swell again.
By the time qualifying had finished, Hill was an uncharacteristic third on the grid for the race, just behind the two title contenders of Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher, and the stage was set. He couldn’t actually win on Sunday, could he?
If you know your F1 history, then you know what happens next, but as someone who watched it live you’ll never know any feelings like it, high or low, as it all unfolded in front of a naive 13-year-old me.
Hill passed Villeneuve for second at the start and reels in Schumacher by lap six, as the German’s tyres start to grain. He was on the rear of the Ferrari but not quite close enough to pass, and the coverage cut to an ad break, the bane of having F1 move to commercial television.
Of course Damon would make the pass when the nation was making a cup of tea while the TV sold us mid-range hatchbacks and instant coffee.
Imagine my confusion when the race returned and not only was Hill in the lead, but nearly nine seconds down the road from the rest of the field!
That was lap 11 of 77. The whole race lay ahead of me, nerves jangling as I watched a boyhood hero try to pull off the impossible.
Each lap completed saw a check of the timings.
What was the gap? When would the pit window open? Who’s on what strategy?
But the pitstops came and went without issue. Hill had a gap of over 35 seconds to Villeneuve. Schumacher was in fourth, a minute behind. 15 laps to go became 10, became five. It was going to happen.
But then on lap 74, it didn’t.
Murray Walker was almost going through the motions when he cut to Louise Goodman in the pit. A nonchalant “How’s it going in the Arrows garage?’ was met with a suddenly alarming “Not very well, actually”, which sent my heart into a tailspin.
The car had developed a throttle problem and was slowing, Villeneuve was like a shark in open water hunting down his prey and passed the stricken Arrows on the very last lap. My teenage heart was broken.
Through that loss I learnt a lot about motorsport. Loss is part of the game; no matter how fast you are, you still need cross the line first to win.
The sport isn’t about statistics broken down to tenths of a second, the human element of taking a loss like Hungary 1997 was a lesson in humility by a champion driver.
And even the smallest of things can make the difference between success and failure; a washer that cost no more than 50p was the margin between Arrows winning a grand prix and ending up never winning one as a team.
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