Motor racing: Everyone wins in flight of Arrows

David Tremayne argues that Damon Hill's surprise near-miss can pay many dividends
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The Independent Online
Four years ago the anguish would have been too much to bear, but Damon Hill has come a long way since the Hungaroring yielded up his maiden Grand Prix victory back in 1993 after a hatful of near misses. So when the surprise victory of the decade was plucked cruelly from his grasp in Budapest last Sunday by the failure of a small bladder in his Arrows-Yamaha's hydraulic system, he was able to bear the disappointment with the mien of a man who knows that he has lost purely through the capriciousness of fate.

When Hill qualified third on the grid, right behind the championship contenders Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, there was widespread amazement. But his best came in a race in which tyre wear was crucial. Out-dragging Villeneuve, he hounded a bemused Schumacher for 10 laps before calmly diving by his old nemesis and streaking away. There was an interlude in which the perennially unlucky Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the second Williams looked set to capitalise on his choice of harder Goodyear tyres, but Hill was soon back in charge, controlling Villeneuve and building a 35-second lead until the start of that fateful penultimate lap when his Arrows crept past the pits at what seemed like walking pace.

"Everything went beautifully," Hill said. "I managed to stay ahead of Jacques. I was able to pull out when I wanted to. The tyres stayed good, and I was really starting to think about winding down for the last three laps, but I didn't expect to have to wind down quite as much as that.

"The first I knew of it was with about three laps to go. The throttle was just an indication of the problem with the hydraulics. And then I wasn't able to change gear and I wasn't able to use the throttle. At one stage I was stuck in second, and then I managed to get to third, but that was that. Then it was a case of the throttle working when it liked."

On the pit wall the Arrows chief, Tom Walkinshaw, was kicking himself that his team hadn't spotted the warnings on the telemetry sooner so that Hill might have engaged a higher gear before the problem worsened, for that would have enabled him to maintain sufficient speed to take the victory that has eluded Arrows since their formation in 1978. Hungary was their 299th race, and the closest they have ever come to the big one.

"The fact of the matter is that you can't control these things," Hill said, the philosophical approach coming more easily to him, perhaps, than to his bitterly disappointed colleagues. "They get beyond your control, unfortunately. If you're not able to change gear that's about the end of the story, and if you're not able to control the throttle that really is the end. I was actually amazed that we got to the finish, to be frank, because it stopped about three times and I thought 'that's it, it's going to park'. But it just picked up each time at the last second. Of course my emotions are mixed, because I would have loved to have won this race. I think we showed what we could do and it would have been nice to have won it. But second place is a very good result none the less, and I'm very pleased with that."

Once you got beyond the silly suggestions that Bernie Ecclestone had somehow orchestrated the whole thing to boost the ITV viewing figures (for the slump in which Hill has been carrying the can), there were the inevitable suggestions that Hill's performance owed everything to the suitability of Bridgestone's tyres to the Hungaroring, a circuit that demands similar downforce levels to Monaco. But both Prost and Stewart also ran on the Japanese rubber, yet neither managed to hone their cars to similar pitch. You needed to look elsewhere for an answer. The tyres were superior; Hill was at his very best; and the Arrows chassis, so often the butt of pit lane jokes, showed itself to be as sanitary as Hill has previously claimed it to be. Much of the pre-season hype that surrounded Arrows and Tom Walkinshaw was thus shown to have greater foundation than the rest of the season had suggested.

It is unlikely that the forthcoming tracks, Spa-Francorchamps or Monza, will be as kind to Arrows and Yamaha, whose engine has improved greatly in the reliability stakes these past three races. But Austria's A1-Ring, Germany's Nurburgring and Spain's Jerez may permit a repeat. But though a cloud ultimately darkened Arrows-Yamaha's Hungarian day in the sun, they made their point. And so did Damon Hill, who showed he doesn't need a Williams-Renault to lead races. Ironically, their finest hour may well pull them apart if Hill's performance cements his deal with McLaren; but Walkinshaw, you may be certain, will also be making capital out of it now that Arrows have finally performed to his expectations.

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