Damon Hill, who is poised to win the Formula One world championship next month, announced last night that he will drive next year for the Arrows team, which has failed to win a single grand prix in its 18-year history.
Speaking in the London hotel where only weeks earlier he had revealed his controversial sacking by the Williams-Renault team, Hill left pundits in a state of disbelief when he announced that his new employers will be a team whose best result dates back to 1988, when they finished third in the Italian Grand Prix. Arrows are understood to have agreed to pay Hill $6m (pounds 3.8m) to drive for them next season.
Hill denied suggestions that he was taking a backward step in joining the Arrows team, which was bought by Tom Walkinshaw in July. "Tom is the archetypal race driver and team owner, a man I and others credit with turning round the fortunes of the Benetton team," he said. "He is the head of a successful international engineering team. He has offered me a truly rewarding package. It's a great challenge. Everything this man does and touches becomes a winner, and right now I am feeling very excited."
Following the announcement of his split with Williams, Hill's options had become fewer and fewer as the leading teams confirmed their line-ups for next year. The smart money had been on his driving for Jordan, although Jackie Stewart, who returns to Formula One with a new team next season, was also thought to be in contention. Jordan were understood to be offering Hill a similar deal to the one he has agreed with Arrows, although Stewart was almost certainly unable to match that offer.
Hill said he had been highly impressed after visiting TWR's headquarters at Leafield near Oxford and viewing facilities that are second only to Williams'. He added: "Nobody is under any illusion over the task ahead. Winning in Formula One is not easy. But I was left in no doubt that the package and facilities Tom has are the beginnings of what I believe will be a winning team."
Hill's deal is for one year and is not dependent on his winning the world championship at the Japanese Grand Prix next month. Hill has only to finish in the first six places at Suzuka to guarantee winning the title. He declined to give any timescale for his victory aspirations with TWR.
For Walkinshaw, chairman of the TWR Group, the move to recruit Hill is entirely logical, and a tribute to his incisiveness. "I have been pretty impressed with what I have seen of Damon's driving, and I have always wanted a top-flight driver to lead this team," he said.
For Hill the reasons are less clear. Arrows as a team has been remarkable only for its failure to win a single grand prix since its birth in 1978.
Walkinshaw, a 50-year-old Scot, purchased a controlling interest in the team this summer from its founder, Jackie Oliver. Walkinshaw's record is one of success mixed with the occasional controversy. Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) has been victorious in touring car and sportscar racing, with manufacturers such as Jaguar, Rover, Mazda and Volvo. Its Silk Cut Jaguars won the World Sportscar Championship, and twice triumphed in the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance classic. His efforts as engineering director at Benetton helped the Witney-based team to win world championships with Michael Schumacher in 1994 and again in 1995.
Arrows' performance has not picked up noticeably since the takeover, but Walkinshaw has been concentrating on 1997 rather than wasting money investing in the existing car.
The move to TWR is also likely to mean that Hill will switch from the Goodyear tyres, on which he has enjoyed his 20 grands prix victories, to the untried Japanese Bridgestone brand which is expected to come into Formula One next season after a prolonged series of tests this year. It is thought that Bridgestone's willingness to stump up the money cemented the deal with Hill.
Walkinshaw, a natural gambler, said: "You have to evaluate the potential of things and then take a decision, and I value the potential of Bridgestone. It's enormous. We've worked with them for 10 years on road tyres and in touring car racing in Australia, so we are familiar with their engineering people and their capabilities. I don't think it's a big risk and I think there's big potential in it."
Walkinshaw is expected to confirm the deal in Suzuka in two weeks' time. He is also expected to announce that his cars will be fitted with the Yamaha V10 engine used this season by Tyrrell, and that his own impressive engine department will assist Yamaha in its development.
Frank Williams announced last month that he had signed the German driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, to partner Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Williams has not given any official reason for dropping Hill, but he is believed to have entertained long-term concerns over his ability to tackle Schumacher in a competitive Ferrari on equal terms. It has been suggested, however, that Williams' antipathy towards Hill's manager, Michael Breen, influenced his decision.
Jordan appeared to be Hill's most logical option once it became clear that Jean Alesi could not be prised from his Benetton contract at anything approaching a sensible cost. But Jordan had one serious problem for Hill: the presence of Michael Schumacher's younger brother, Ralf, as confirmed driver of the second car. Dialogue with Jordan had nevertheless been progressing up until Wednesday, when suddenly the lines to Jordan's Silverstone base went dead.
Walkinshaw has not built his empire without having high expectations of his employees. No amount of innate potential at TWR and Bridgestone can disguise the massive gamble that Hill has taken. He is aware that only strong performances will change the widely held belief that he opted to avoid Jordan, rather than face comparison with another Schumacher.Reuse content