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Damon Hill makes shock move to TWR Arrows

Photo: James Beckett

Damon Hill may be making either the daftest or the cleverest move of his career by going to the little known Arrows team. Chris Richardson Writes.

In a shock announcement today at a press conference in fashionable Chelsea harbour, Damon Hill announced his intentions to drive for the Arrows team of Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Shortly before struggling with the cork on a bottle of Moet & Chandon, he said: “I have had to look for the best package I can find and one that gives me all the ingredients I am looking for as a driver. Tom has fulfilled just about every criteria I set out for myself.” He went on, “There is the opportunity to make rapid progress with a team, to test and develop and the carrot at the end, is the possibility of winning races.”

On the face of it, this seems like a rather optimistic view, seeing as this season, the Arrows/Footwork-Hart team have scored but a single point and with the rejection of the trusty but uncompetitive Hart power unit for the equally insignificant Yamaha, their future looks bleak indeed.

Having pushed the Tyrell team into relative obscurity over the past three years, rumours of Yamaha’s intention to quit Formula 1 for financial reasons were rife, but the signing with TWR may only perpetuate their reputation for unreliability despite the kudos of a top line driver.

A ‘sweetened’ deal with Japanese tyre manufacturer Bridgestone could also be a factor in Hill’s decision to join the tail enders. It is for certain that they would benefit from a driver of Hill’s testing and development capabilities and possibly start their Formula one involvement with a psychological advantage over Goodyear by sporting the magic number 1 on the nose of the Arrows car.

With guarded optimism not dissimilar to Michael Schumacher’s comments last year, Hill continued, “We won’t make any claims for 1997, but I believe we will make rapid progress. From what I have seen of the Tom Walkinshaw operation there is a germ of a great team for the future.” Schumacher was of course joining Ferrari and despite his talk of ‘a year of consolidation’ and not making claims for the 1996 season he went on to take three Grands Prix. True, Hill has the experience and speed to push the car a few positions up the grid but to think about anything other than an early plane out, shows faith in abundance. For Hill to even think that his new team stands the remotest chance of a victory in ’97 seems nieve in the extreme and it is significant that despite his comments, he has only signed for the coming season.

The reasons as to why Hill chose a rank outsider, have to be examined. If Eric Cantona went to play for Barminster Rovers it would be because he had been relegated. Yet Hill had the choice of a middle team such as Jordan with proven form and much promise and surely a much stronger contender for ‘a great team of the future’. Another germ of greatness about to start breeding, is Jackie Stewart’s brand new outfit. Surely a team to grow with and one that could make ‘rapid progress’. Altruism on Hill’s part seems unlikely, as baby sitting Jos Verstappen would be a pointless exercise. Verstappen has probably gone as far as he will go on the learning curve and Tom Walkinshaw would have little need for an expensive ‘driving instructor’.

Side On

Another perspective on Hill's move is that it could in fact turn out to be his shrewdest move ever. Damon Hill knows who Tom Walkinshaw is and he'll be perfectly aware that the team principal is a known winner. Whether working with Jaguar to win Le Mans, or developing winning BTCC cars, TWR (Tom Walkinshaw Racing) have a track record that's the envy of motorsport. TWR took over Arrows, also known as Footwork-Hart earlier this season and started work on next year's car while using the 1996 season as a development year. Next year the team will have the works Yamaha and Bridgestone deals - the strong Japanese tie in will lead to all sorts of possibilities and the chances of a high level of finance from Japan is quite likely - that could be enough to raise the team from 'also-ran' to 'winner'.

The engineering facilities now available to Arrows are second to none - if they can't succeed within TWR then they never will. But the likelihood is that they actually will do well. Hill's other options included Stewart Grand Prix - so far unknown and without quite as much of an all-round track record as TWR, and Jordan who had recently signed Michael Schumacher's younger brother Ralf. However, you can imagine the media attention that Hill being paired with Schumacher's brother would have raised - so it wasn't quite as palatable option as immediately evident.

On the face of it, a careless move that could cost Hill dearly - but on the other hand there is every chance that he could rise with TWR and help make Arrows a formidable force for the first time in its history. Should that happen then Damon Hill would be lionised. Just like Michael Schumacher now is for helping in Ferrari's renaissance.

Dave Coveney.

To bring the small team to glory, to play the underdog and come out barking and for Walkinshaw to thank Damon keeping faith in him through the long dark tunnel of ridicule, is the stuff of Hollywood movies and one which will probably never get made. Probably a few top drivers - some maybe privately snickering behind their racing gloves - are thinking ‘there but for the grace of the lord go I’. It is hard not to view Hill now without seeing a dent in his stature, a ‘would be’ champion backed into a corner and going for an undoubtedly large purse. This must be the reason. No matter what one drives, the true measure of a driver’s worth is the money one can command. Even driving a Forti with pockets bulging with millions would give one equal status to the top teams and yet provide an excuse for lack of driving ability in running with an uncompetitive car.

This is, I am sure, not Hill’s intent and he will definitely do all he can within the team to gain points next year. Who knows, by buying in the right designer, producing a speedboat instead of a canoe, and with a prevailing wind and (a strong wind at that) a reliable engine, he will not have cause to relive his first year in Formula 1 with the rapidly disintegrating Brabham team. Yet he will be safe in the knowledge that little will be expected of him in his new role as middle man, save for an irregular showing inside the top six. This maybe unkind and it would be heroic and the stuff from which ‘Ripping Yarns’ are hewn if the fairy tale could come true, but Hill can at least say that he had the best and if he gets the drivers crown in Japan, he will at least have some laurels to rest on for the early part of the season.

The bottle of Champagne that he opens after the race at Suzuka in two weeks time had better be savoured as it could be his last for quite a while.

Chris Richardson

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