Victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix may have eluded him at the last, but the plaudits were his. He had produced the most improbable performance of the season to dominate the race at the wheel of the often-ridiculed Arrows-Yamaha.
The win he deserved suddenly began to slip from his grasp three laps from the end. Throttle and gearbox problems turned the cruise home into a fight for survival. He made it to the line, but by then Jacques Villeneuve, in a Williams-Renault, had swallowed up his 34-second advantage to seize crucial extra points in the championship.
Even the Canadian, however, acknowledged this had been Hill's race. The Englishman, intent on returning to the title fray next season, presented the most emphatic reminder of his credentials on the circuit that has long been his domain. A combination of factors explain the apparently inexplicable. Hill had his maiden success here four years ago and his record over the past five seasons now reads: two wins and three second places. His smooth, technical application to the particular demands of this twisting track was evident again yesterday.
Arrows, too, responded to the potential promised by these contours with a perfectly balanced car. Bridgestone tyres work particularly well and the Yamaha engine, its lack of horse power not exposed, completed the ideal package. The team were understandably frustrated at being denied their first Formula One win at the 299th attempt.
But Hill found cause for celebration. His performance earned the admiration of the crowd and opposition alike. Villeneuve said: "It's amazing to see Damon up here. He was flying. It's a shame for him he didn't get the win."
Hill, with only one point from his season before yesterday, served notice of his prospects with third place in qualifying. Once he had darted past the Ferrari of the championship leader, Michael Schumacher, on the 11th lap, he was able to pull away and build what seemed an insurmountable advantage.
Ferrari, Williams and the rest were simply outclassed, and even the late, fiendish twist of fate could not persuade him he should be downcast.
Hill said: "This is a day to celebrate. I finish second in a car that was completely written off at the start of the season. It would have been great to get my 22nd victory, but we have shown all the field a clean pair of heels. This is a bloody good result and everyone should be pleased with it. It's nice to be at the front again. You feel so much better about yourself. You know you're getting noticed there.
"I can look back at this weekend with a lot of satisfaction. I never doubted my ability. The team's got to be happy and I'm happy for them. There are a lot of guys at Arrows who have been in Formula One a long time and have never seen the rostrum.
"When something like that happens you usually get only half a lap. My heart sank and I was praying and I'm truly amazed I got the car to the finish. I was stuck in second gear and could go no higher than third. I was weaving to try and keep the car going and knew Jacques was out there somewhere."
Tom Walkinshaw, the owner of the Arrows team, greeted Hill back at the camp with a handshake and an apology. "Sorry about that," he said.
Unlike Hill, he was reluctant to party. He said: "I'm bitterly disappointed. It's one we lost. I don't see why we should be happy. When Damon told us on the radio he had a problem with the gears as well as the throttle we knew it was a hydraulic pressure problem. We told him to keep it in fifth, but it was too late. If he had been in fifth he had a big enough lead to win.
"He's done a superb job all weekend. The guys put a good car under him and he made the most of it. You can't ask for any more. He dominated the race. I just hope we can keep up the momentum."
Hill and Walkinshaw are agreed this was almost certainly their best opportunity of the season, but this glorious, if isolated show, provided a welcome variation to the theme of the season. Schumacher, his Ferrari hampered by blistering tyres, could manage only fourth place, and now heads Villeneuve by just three points.
Johnny Herbert, so often the Englishman in the shadows, was again almost unnoticed in third place after a characteristically diligent drive in the Sauber-Petronas. It was his best result of the year.
Ralf Schumacher, in a Jordan-Peugeot, dutifully followed his brother home in fifth place.
Villeneuve had been the beneficiary of misfortune even within his own team. Heinz-Harald Frentzen recorded the fastest lap of the race, but was forced to retire by a freak mishap. The refuelling coupling of his car flew off and a series of subsequent flash-fires grounded the German.
David Coulthard, in a McLaren-Mercedes and Eddie Irvine, in the other Ferrari, were late casualties when points were all but in the bank. Coulthard pulled off with an electronics problem and Irvine was hit by another car.
HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX
1 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 10pts
(Williams-Renault) 1hr 45min 47.149sec
(average speed 108.70mph/173.295kph)
2 Damon Hill (GB) 6pts
3 Johnny Herbert (GB) 4pts
4 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 3pts
5 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 2pts
6 Shinji Nakano (Japan) 1pt
7 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda +1min 15.552sec; 8 G Berger (Aut) Benetton- Renault +1:16.049; 9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +1 lap; 10 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart +1; 11 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault +1; 12 T Marques (Br) Minardi-Hart +2; 13 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford +2.
Not classified (did not finish): 14 D Coulthard (GB) Mclaren-Mercedes, 65 laps completed; 15 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 61; 16 P Diniz (Br) Arrows-Yamaha 53; 17 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 42; 18 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 29; 19 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 29; 20 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 12; 21 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber- Petronas 7; 22 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 5
Fastest lap: Frentzen 1min 18.372sec (ave speed 113.260mph/182.269kph).
1 Ferrari 74pts
2 Williams 72
3 Benetton 46
4 McLaren 28
5 Prost 20
6 Jordan 19
7 Sauber 12
8 Arrows 7
9 Stewart 6
10 Tyrrell 2Reuse content