Motor Racing: Mission of Hills' angel

Walkinshaw and a legendary Wallaby play the crossover game as rugby and motor racing forge an unlikely link; David Tremayne finds the Arrows boss is now concentrating on two sporting fronts
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The Independent Online
You need only look at Tom Walkinshaw's physique to guess that rugby union might be one of a busy life's passions. As broad as he is long, the granite-stared Scot has the mien of a man used to bulldozing problems aside like a good prop forward and converting hard-won tries with a kick that it is best not to be on the receiving end of.

Last week the 50-year-old businessman revealed that he has purchased an interest - said to be worth pounds 2.5m - in the Gloucester League One rugby union club. The club's coach Richard Hill thus joins namesake Damon on the list of those whose stars are hitched to the wagon created by this occasionally controversial entrepreneur, who built up the pounds 300m TWR Group in little over 20 years.

Walkinshaw's 75 per cent shareholding in the rugby club has come about through a personal passion for the game that he rates "as my number two sporting interest." It mirrors the former March F1 creator Robin Herd's enthusiasm for football, and his post-motorsport role as chairman of Oxford United.

"I have great belief in this club," Walkinshaw said, "and the aim is to help it to reach the top three and to break into Europe." Walkinshaw plans to leave those already present to run the club on a day-to-day basis, while he seeks further sponsorship to enhance the facilities and player line-up. And lest they doubt the credentials of their new chairman, Richard Hill and his men can take heart from Damon Hill's assessment.

"Tom's strongest asset is that he is already a very rich man," the world champion said. "He doesn't need to be here in Formula One for wealth. He is a competitive person and he has a burning ambition. He's not going to let up until he achieves his goal. That's a very desirable asset in a team owner. I mean, Frank Williams eats, sleeps and breathes his team. And so does Tom."

Walkinshaw's significant investment in Gloucester has come, he stresses, from his personal wealth and it will not detract from his efforts with Hill and the Arrows-Yamaha in Formula One, where progress has not been conspicuous of late.

In his most recent outing, at Imola last weekend for the San Marino Grand Prix, Hill saw a return to the frustrations that beset him in Australia for the first race of the season, and little of the promise evident in the two recent South American outings.

His car developed a leak from its starter-motor oil seal just as the grid was being formed in Italy, obliging him to start from the pit lane in the spare chassis. The frustration that he is feeling in his decline from front-running machinery was all too evident in the clumsy move that saw him collide with the tardy Japanese driver Shinji Nakano on the 13th lap, a tactic that earned him the embarrassment of a one-race suspended ban for causing an "avoidable accident".

"I tried to pass him, but he just turned into me," Hill said, a trifle ingenuously. "I was losing three seconds a lap to the guy, and I couldn't afford to hang around. I wasn't going to chug around at the back of the field. I shouldn't be doing that."

While Richard Hill can now contemplate the financial wherewithal to keep his existing players and bid for several more, Damon's words betray his inner angst at his reduced on-track status this season. Worse still, he must bide his time and wait until the Spanish Grand Prix in three weeks' time before the latest version of Yamaha's V10 engine will be ready to race.

Hill and Arrows have high hopes of the unit, but Walkinshaw made some thinly veiled threats when he said of it in Imola: "We are still waiting - and I'm glad I have not been holding my breath. It should be a significant improvement, five or six per cent extra horsepower is the figure being claimed for it. But the biggest issue is to find reliability. Our engine people are putting a lot of work into reliability; we will find out just how hard they have been working."

If Sunday's non-result disheartened Hill, Monaco is scheduled to bring the official announcement that former McLaren and Ferrari designer John Barnard will be designing the 1998 Arrows. Walkinshaw is adamant that what purported to be an official contract between Arrows and Barnard, leaked recently to a tabloid newspaper, was tampered with first.

"It could have made things difficult for engineers within the team, with other competitors in the pit lane and with other engine manufacturers," he said. "It was well thought out to be disruptive. And if I ever get my hands on the person responsible, I would make him very aware that I was not amused."

Perhaps he could then sentence the miscreant to a spell beneath the scrum in Gloucester's next match at Kingsholm.

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