In Athens, the four-lap relay team had been billed as the last golden hope of a world title in a championship coloured a dull silver for an expectant press and public. Iwan Thomas, Mark Richardson and Jamie Baulch, all finalists in the individual event, were joined in the relay final by Roger Black, the Olympic silver medallist. But after a sluggish start from Thomas, the fastest man in the world coming into the championships, the Americans stayed tantalisingly out of reach
Hill, who has spent the season fending off the criticisms of media, fans and his team owner alike and battling to a make a new car competitive, had an extraordinary triumph snatched from his grasp when mechanical trouble struck with victory in sight.
With three laps to go, Hill led by over 30 seconds from Jacques Villeneuve, the Canadian lead driver with the once all-powerful Williams team which had dispensed with Hill's services at the end of last season, and was firmly on course to win his first race for Arrows.
But a hydraulic pump problem caused Hill's car to slow dramatically. He was powerless to resist as Villeneuve whittled down his advantage before passing him on the final lap, with Hill seeming to half lift his Arrows over the line to take second. It was still an extraordinary performance by Hill, who had only managed one world championship point this season previously, but who first hinted at what might be late in Saturday's practice session when he jumped from seventh to third place on the starting grid with his final flying lap.
Hill said: "I started to have problems with the hydraulic pump. The throttle became intermittent and I couldn't change gear. I needed a 40- second lead on the final lap not 30." Tom Walkinshaw, Hill's Arrows team boss, could not hide his disappointment. "It's not easy," he said. "Damon did a fantastic job and deserved to win."
In football, the Premiership champions Manchester United are 12-1 with the bookmakers William Hill to lift the Premiership and FA Cup double after opening their league campaign with a 2-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur.
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