Motor Racing: `Hijacked' Hill comes back to earth

Damon Hill confirmed his move to Jordan before returning to the Arrows camp for yesterday's official practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix. Derick Allsop in Zeltweg reports on the build-up to tomorrow's race.
Click to follow
Damon Hill could not have stage-managed it better for visual effect. He said he was on his bike from Arrows to Jordan, and good as his word, there he was, riding away from his stricken car in search of something better. That interruption to practice for tomorrow's Austrian Grand Prix here came after Hill had been formally introduced as Jordan's driver for the next two seasons, a deal said to be worth pounds 10m to the Englishman.

Hill said he felt he did not have the time to wait for Arrows' fulfilment, and he and his new boss, Eddie Jordan, now anticipated forging a partnership that would win races and challenge for the world championship.

Jordan revealed that he had never lost contact with Hill after their negotiations broke down a year ago, and that they effectively reached an agreement in "bizarre" circumstances following the Italian Grand Prix a fortnight ago.

Hill had an arrangement to travel back with Arrows' owner, Tom Walkinshaw, but missed the flight. When Jordan stepped on to his sponsor's plane, he found an extra passenger and the chat took an inevitable course.

Jordan said: "Unbeknown to me, our pilot offered Damon a lift and the first I knew was when I got on board. By the time we got home, the deal was more or less done. You could say we hijacked each other."

According to Jordan, he was not in a position to make an announcement at that stage because he had a date in the High Court with Benetton over the services of the Italian driver Giancarlo Fisichella. Jordan admits he expected to lose the case but hoped he might retrieve some financial compensation that would help pay the bill for Hill.

Jordan's sponsors had already increased their contribution to the budget and Mugen-Honda, the team's engine partners from next season, had given their approval. When the court's ruling went against Jordan, Hill told Walkinshaw he would not be staying and Arrows signed Mika Salo.

Hill said: "My choice of team will provide me with the perfect environment to win races and challenge for the championship. Jordan have established themselves in the upper echelons of Formula One and they have employed me to take the final step.

"We have had a lot of difficulties at Arrows, but I am full of admiration for their determination and professionalism. They have a long-term future, but I'm not getting any younger and I have to get on."

Hill will partner Ralf Schumacher, younger brother of his old adversary Michael, and the drivers will have equal status. Jordan believes the German will be a willing pupil and form an effective partnership capable of taking on the best.

Jordan said: "We desperately needed a driver of Damon's stature. Now we have the perfect blend of a successful, experienced driver and an up and coming rookie. Ralf is bound to listen to a man who has won 21 races and the world championship.

"We have hired Damon to win races and the championship for us. No other reason. If we don't win races next year it will be a very bitter blow.

"I didn't have to eat humble pie in going back for Damon. Last year we weren't financially in a position to do a deal with him. This year we are. By concentrating on technical development we made it possible to make our priority this year the signing of a driver like Damon.

Hill returned to the Arrows camp to prepare for tomorrow's race and completed the day's practice in 11th place. At the top of the time-sheets were Williams- Renault's Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve. Michael Schumacher, who leads Villeneuve by 10 points in the standings, was a less comfortable seventh in his Ferrari. David Coulthard, winner of Italian Grand Prix, was sixth in a McLaren Mercedes. Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari was 10th and Johnny Herbert, of Sauber-Petronas, was 12th.

Benetton announced yesterday that Austrian Alexander Wurz will partner Fisichella next season, leaving a question-mark over Gerhard Berger's Formula One future.

AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX (Zeltweg, tomorrow) Official practice: 1 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1min 11.527sec; 2 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:11.638; 3 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:11.798; 4 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1:11.899; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:11.902; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:11.967; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:12.265; 8 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:12.283; 9 P Diniz (Br) Arrows- Yamaha 1:12.519; 10 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:12.548; 11 D Hill (GB) Arrows- Yamaha 1:12.614; 12 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:12.751; 13 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:12.820; 14 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:12.935; 15 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:12.966; 16 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan- Peugeot 1:13.041; 17 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:13.280; 18 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:13.286; 19 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 1:13.348; 20 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:14.079; 21 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 1:14.188; 22 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart 1:14.739.