The forgotten hero

In the annals of formula one history, when it comes to on-track heroics, Damon Hill is one name that hardly crops up. Yet, on a certain day in 1997, he beat the might of Williams, McLaren and Ferrari at the Hungarian Grand Prix in a Yamaha-powered Arrows.

Before the race weekend, much was made of the “new” Ferrari chassis that would have its race debut in Hungary. The revised F310b was lighter than before and was said to have a better balance. Indeed, Michael Schumacher gave a virtuoso performance in qualifying, leading from the word go, and taking pole position in dominant style. The starting grid looked like this:

Michael Schumacher
Ferrari / Ferrari

Jacques Villeneuve
Williams / Renault

Damon Hill
Arrows / Yamaha

Mika Häkkinen
McLaren / Mercedes

Eddie Irvine
Ferrari / Ferrari

Heinz-Harald Frentzen
Williams / Renault

Gerhard Berger
Benetton / Renault

David Coulthard
McLaren / Mercedes

Jean Alesi
Benetton / Renault

Johnny Herbert
Sauber / Petronas

Rubens Barrichello
Stewart / Ford

Jarno Trulli
Prost / Mugen-Honda

Giancarlo Fisichella
Jordan / Peugeot

Ralf Schumacher
Jordan / Peugeot

Gianni Morbidelli
Sauber / Petronas

Shinji Nakano
Prost / Mugen-Honda

Jan Magnussen
Stewart / Ford

Jos Verstappen
Tyrrell / Ford

Pedro Diniz
Arrows / Yamaha

Ukyo Katayama
Minardi / Hart

Mika Salo
Tyrrell / Ford

Tarso Marques
Minardi / Hart

The Race

In the morning warm up, Michael Schumacher had an off in the Ferrari, and although the car was not seriously damaged, the suspension mountings were sufficiently weakened to necessitate a move to another chassis. The team did all it could to get another lightweight chassis together, but it was decided that Schumacher should run the race in the spare “heavy” car.

As the lights went out, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher got cleanly away, and although Damon took the inside line before the corner, the Ferrari was far enough ahead to fend off any challenge. Jacques Villeneuve made a terrible start, sailing back to 5th by the first corner. The Williams was passed by both Eddie Irvine and Mika Hakkinen. In fact Eddie was so fast off the line that he was able to challenge Damon Hill for 2nd.

Against all expectations, Damon was performing wonders in the Arrows and keeping pace with the leader Michael Schumacher. Not only this, but the leading pair were running away from the pack being led by Eddie Irvine.

Although Schumacher had pulled out a 1.7 second lead over Hill within a lap, that was as big as it got and the Ferrari-Arrows train pulled away from the pack at around 1 second a lap.

If this had been a Ferrari and any of the other top 5 teams, nobody would have commented, but with the Arrows there it and a veritable car park behind Eddie Irvine, it looked very much like the Ferrari cars were having trouble with their tyres. Eddie Irvine was having difficulty keeping his mount on track and the queue of cars behind looked anxious to get past and give chase.

For the Williams, McLarens and Benettons, relief came on lap 7, when Irvine decided to stop for fresh tyres and a splash of fuel. The official line from the team was that the tyres were incorrectly balanced, but Martin Brundle commented that this was little more than an annoyance to an F1 driver and that there was something more serious happening.

Mika Hakkinen, now in 3rd and leading the chase, could have quite rightly expected to have been 7 or 8 seconds behind 2nd placed Damon Hill, but the #5 Ferrari was also having problems and the gap was only 3.619 seconds. The gap between 1st and 2nd was only 0.324 seconds and Hill was pushing his former archrival hard in the hope of getting past before the pack engulfed him.

The 3-second gap was lost in a little over a lap and the Arrows, McLaren and 2 Williams cars were all squabbling over position as the Ferrari held them up. While the other cars were clearly faster in the corners, the 046/02 engine in the Ferrari was powerful enough to stay ahead on the straight, the only real overtaking spot.

For Damon the day looked lost, as the 3 cars behind him (and the fast approaching David Coulthard) should have made easy work of his underpowered car. Unusually, this didn’t happen (perhaps they were all too busy defending their positions to try) and Damon was able to concentrate on Schumacher.

On the exit of the last turn on lap 9, the Arrows stayed close to the Ferrari and got into the slipstream for the short straight. This gave the Yamaha enough extra power to allow Damon to pull out of the tow before the end of the straight and stick his front wheels alongside the rear wheels of the Ferrari. Michael had expected this and although he did his best to close the door, Schumacher had the Championship to consider and Hill had little to lose, so the German was forced down to 2nd place.

Immediately, Hill started to pull away, giving himself a 2.6-second lead by the end of lap 11 and a massive 5.2 seconds by the end of the lap 12.

For Mika Hakkinen, yet another weekend ended with a mechanical failure when, on lap 12, his hydraulics failed. This meant that he was unable to change gear, so the Finn switched off the Mercedes engine and coasted to a halt by the side of the track.

On lap 14, Michael Schumacher came in for fuel and a change of tyres, the balance problem apparently affecting both cars.

By this time Damon Hill was over 8 seconds down the road and, on lap 15 the order of the top 6 was:

Hill > 7.924s > Villeneuve > 3.615s > Frentzen > 2.370s > Coulthard > 1.850s > Herbert > 6.482s > Alesi.

It became immediately clear that Villeneuve and Frentzen were both capable of much greater speeds than they had so far shown. Jacques Villeneuve started to close on Hill at around a second a lap and Heinz-Harald Frentzen began to eat into the lead of his team mate by about half that. Further back, David Coulthard started to drop back, with Johnny Herbert holding station 2.5 seconds behind him. Behind Herbert, Alesi soon began to fall back, the Benetton not at home on the twisty Hungaroring.

By lap 20, the gap between Hill and former teammate Villeneuve was down to 3.238 seconds and Damon was lapping the backmarkers. Where some drivers just carve through the slow cars, Hill has always had trouble passing and this race was terrible. Perhaps baffled by an Arrows coming to lap him, or perhaps because he was confusing it with the sister Arrows of Pedro Diniz, Jos Verstappen held up the race leader for an inordinate amount of time.

It seemed that this wasn’t a matter of not comprehending that the Arrows was leading but a problem with using the mirrors, as Verstappen next proceeded to hold up 2nd placed Villeneuve, costing the Canadian 3 seconds in his pursuit of Hill.

Lap 24 saw the start of the first round of stops proper (excluding the Ferrari pair who pitted earlier). First in were Villeneuve and Coulthard, the former suffering a sticking right-front wheel nut during the stop that cost him at least 2 seconds.

On lap 25, Damon Hill arrived at the Arrows pit for his first stop, taking on fuel and fresh rubber in a little under 9 seconds. Damon was followed in on consecutive laps by Johnny Herbert and Gerhard Berger who both got underway cleanly and without problems.

This promoted Heinz-Harald Frentzen into the lead of the race. Running on the harder of the two Goodyear compounds, it was possible for Frentzen to stop just once. With the rest of the front runners already stopped and no movement from the Williams crew, it seemed certain that this was the way that he was going. Having set fastest race lap already, it seemed that Frentzen could be on his way to a second win for Williams.

The poor stop for Villeneuve and the good one for Hill meant that Hill emerged from the pits almost 8 seconds ahead of the Canadian driver and that the top 6 on lap 27 were:

Frentzen > 19.978s > Hill > 9.135s > Villeneuve > 5.443s > Coulthard > 2.771s > Fisichella > 4.239s > M. Schumacher.

Such was the pace of the #4 Williams car that Frentzen was able to add more than 2 seconds a lap to his lead and with a stop taking around 35 seconds, it looked more and more likely that he would win the race.

Sadly for Frentzen, lap 28 was the last time he would cross the line on the track. As he crossed the line to come into his 29th lap, a small piece of metal flew from the right hand side of the Williams. It was clear that the loss of the piece was not good as when the car braked hard for the first corner a massive plume of fire erupted from the back of the Williams-Renault.

Apparently the departing piece of car was the fuel inlet nozzle and leaking fuel caused the fire. The team claimed that they would have been able to continue, but the missing nozzle had caused the tank to shift and rendered it impossible for them to refuel the car. A most bizarre reason for retirement, but a retirement nevertheless and Frentzen was robbed of a finish in one of his best races to date.

Lap 29 also saw the demise of Rubens Barrichello, the Stewart suffering yet another mechanical failure with the Ford v10 engine.

This left Damon Hill leading Jacques Villeneuve by over 12 seconds and increasing the gap every time around. Whilst Jacques was ahead of title rival Michael Schumacher, being beaten by an Arrows-Yamaha and former teammate cannot have gone down well, yet the Canadian seemed unable to do anything to derail the Arrows train.

On lap 33 and 34, both Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine respectively came in for stop number 2, both running well when the tyres were new, but losing time when the Goodyear rubber ran for a while.

At this point, Damon Hill was head and shoulders above the remainder of the front runners, extending the gap by as much as 2 seconds a lap. Regardless of whether he was in an Arrows or not, the backmarkers were now aware of the position of the car carrying #1 and were getting out of the way. For Villeneuve, things were harder, with David Coulthard breathing down his neck, pushing hard for position.

By lap 40, Giancarlo Fisichella in 6th had caught a slower Michael Schumacher and started to push the German. The next time around, Fisichella tried to get a run on the Ferrari in the approach to the first turn, but was too far back, having made a mistake on the last turn on the previous lap.

At the end of lap 41, Giancarlo took it easy in the last few corners and was perfectly set up for passing at the end of the straight. With a few hundred metres to go, the Jordan pulled out of the slipstream started to make a move on the Ferrari. Schumacher, clearly fed up of being passed by all and sundry, decided that he would not let Fisichella past without a fight.

As the cars approached the corner, both battled to see who would be the last to brake. Michael Schumacher won, but went into the corner too quickly and had to fight oversteer in the car to get around turn one. Giancarlo Fisichella also went into the corner carrying too much speed, but the young Italian could not control the resulting oversteer and spun backwards into the gravel, only just avoiding the Ferrari.

The surprise beneficiary of this accident was Shinji Nakano, now promoted to 6th position. By this time, Damon Hill was over 21 seconds ahead of the chasing pair, who were both too busy with each other to mount a serious challenge for the lead.

Another surprise in the field was down to the other Japanese driver, Ukyo Katayama. Minardi-Hart driver Ukyo was actually ahead of the Benetton pair on merit. Minardi have always built neat, great handling cars and it was a shame that their engine was so underpowered that they got so few chances to show it off.

Lap 50 saw the start of the second round of stops when David Coulthard came in. For McLaren this was the most important stop of the day, as a good one could get their man out ahead of Jacques Villeneuve and possibly lead to the second race win of the season.

Coulthard got underway in 7.0 seconds and was followed at some distance by Johnny Herbert (7.5s). Lap 51 saw Damon Hill (7.9s), Michael Schumacher (6.9s), Ralf Schumacher (7.9s), and Jacques Villeneuve (7.3s) all pit for their second and final stops.

The latter of the group was eager to get underway before the silver McLaren got by and cleared the pitlane just ahead of Coulthard. With the Williams on cold tyres and with the McLaren completely up to speed, there was a moment where it looked like David would get past, but the tight circuit and some very defensive driving held him at bay.

All this left order as:

Hill > 26.571s > Villeneuve > 0.563s > Coulthard > 10.584s > Irvine > 8.358s > Herbert > 6.158s > M.Schumacher.

With Damon Hill over 26 seconds ahead, it looked like the first win for Arrows, Yamaha and Bridgestone was on the cards, and only mechanical problems could stop this.

On lap 54 it seemed that the worst fears of the team had been realised as the television showed an Arrows-Yamaha parked by the side of the track. Luckily for the team, it was their journeyman driver Pedro Diniz who had retired, his alternator having failed, stopping the battery from charging.

Lap 56 saw the final stop for Eddie Irvine dropping him from 4th place to 8th, behind Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher and Shinji Nakano. This little group was separated by a little over 2 seconds, but the only fighting seemed to be between Irvine and Nakano.

On lap 63, Jos Verstappen retired from the race, as the Tyrrell-Ford got stuck in 5th gear and the nature of the circuit did not make it possible to continue in this position.

Back at the front, Damon Hill was now almost 31 seconds ahead of Jacques Villeneuve who was unable to shake off the pursuing McLaren of David Coulthard. Sadly for Coulthard, his afternoon was soon to take a turn for the worse as, on lap 66, he spun out of contention whilst trying to stay with Villeneuve.

This left Villeneuve with a clear run to try and catch Hill, who actually started to pull out a bigger gap where it had been stationary for some time.

Back in 3rd place, Johnny Herbert was motoring along, over 25 seconds behind Villeneuve and almost 7 ahead of the queue of traffic being held up by Michael Schumacher. As the Sauber was running at the same pace as the cars behind it, Herbert looked set for a safe third place finish.

With 3 laps to go, the Arrows pit said that Damon was having throttle problems and that he doubted that he would be able to finish. From the outside the car looked a little twitchy, but Hill appeared to have it under control, but things got worse.

On lap 76, Hill slowed dramatically and was passed by Jarno Trulli who had been lapped a while before and had been almost 10 seconds behind the Arrows driver. Having lost this much time in such a short period, it seemed likely that the rest of the 35 second lead could also go this way and victory could go to Williams.

Sadly, the problem only got worse on the last lap and Villeneuve passed Hill with over half a lap remaining, taking his second lucky win of the year. Johnny Herbert, was too far behind to capitalise on this stroke of misfortune. Slightly further back, Eddie Irvine had his 6th place snatched from him when he spun after being punted by Shinji Nakano.

Final Classification

  1. Jacques Villeneuve      Williams / Renault                77        1:45’47.149
  2. Damon Hill                   Arrows / Yamaha                   77       1:45’56.228
  3. Johnny Herbert           Sauber / Petronas                  77       1:46’07.594
  4. Michael Schumacher  Ferrari / Ferrari                     77       1:46’17.650
  5. Ralf Schumacher         Jordan / Peugeot                   77       1:46’17.864
  6. Shinji Nakano               Prost / Mugen-Honda         77       1:46’28.661
  7. Jarno Trulli                   Prost / Mugen-Honda         77       1:47’02.701
  8. Gerhard Berger            Benetton / Renault              77        1:47’03.558

As the cars stopped in the Parc Ferme, the biggest cheer was reserved for Damon Hill; everyone appreciating what a great job he had done that day.

Years later, formula one statistics show a victory for Villeneuve at the Hungaroring, but the millions who witnessed the grand prix remember only one man – Damon Hill.


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