|Back on the Straight and Arrows|
|Paul Rushworth, New Zealand|
Damon Hill and the Arrows team has been the centre of much attention this year. From the first race of the season, where Hill nearly failed to qualify and his resultant retirement on the formation lap, started off what could only be considered a ghastly mistake in choice by the reigning World Champion. The expectation of Hill's performances each weekend hit new lows. Indeed, the Daily Mail's post-Silverstone issue saw a cartoon of spectators cars leaving the track with the caption "Nice to get away early instead of having to wait hours for Damon to finish..."
Rather unfortunately for the sports editor of that paper who left that cartoon in, Arrows recorded their first points finish of 1997 with Damon Hill coming home in 6th place.
Even so, last weekend started badly for the World Champion. Thursday and Friday saw articles throughout the majority of the British press, claiming Tom Walkinshaw had attacked the performance of Hill so far this season. Whether this was the case or not, it seemed unclear. Both Walkinshaw and Hill downplayed these reports subsequently. However, the general feeling is that Walkinshaw was venting frustration (as was Hill) at a combination of attributes, not just team and driver, that were not working to expectations.
Walkinshaw seemed to be of the opinion that Hill was not qualifying the car where it ought to be. And, his performance -- namely the high number of race accidents -- were costing the team dear in both points and important TV exposure.
On the other hand, the performance of the Yamaha powerplants has been mediocre at best and the reliability has been a hard fought quality of this year's package. Even if Hill had managed to place the car in a respectable position on Saturday, more often that, on Sunday, we saw a disappointing mechanical retirement.
To be fair to both Arrows and Hill, the intense expectations which has been levied on their challenge this year is unfortunate. The Yamaha powered Tyrrell of 1996 suffered an extremely long run of poor reliability. Although they amassed 5 points, finishes were few and far between.
So why is Damon still with Tom?
Damon has been linked to joining every team in Formula One since that first fateful retirement in Australia earlier this season. Prost and Sauber are generally accepted as the most likely positions that he could fit into before the season was out.
The theory was that Walkinshaw was interested in releasing Hill for the remainder of the season to Prost so that Arrows would be assured of a Mugen-Honda engine contract for 1998 has vanished with Jordan signing a deal with Mugen-Honda. The Sauber announcement that Alexander Wurz will race for them in Germany (should Gerhard Berger be fit for his regular Benetton duties) has closed another door for Hill.
Like it or not, Hill is stuck at Arrows at the moment, and aside from some miracle or otherwise, he will be there for the remainder of the season.
Most interesting of all was Bernie Ecclestone's statement to the pinnacle of English journalism, News of the World, that he would do his very best to ensure that Hill would have a top line drive for next year.
The real problem Damon faces is: where?
While there is bound to be much movement within the top teams at the end of this season, McLaren or Jordan would seem his best options. Can Hill really afford to join these two teams though?
Assuming David Coulthard was to remain intact at McLaren, Hill would be joining a previous teammate who certainly showed us a lot more than Hill did in the later stages of 1995. David Coulthard will have the advantages of familiarity of the team and its workings. This kind of move may not revive Hill's career; it might finish it.
Likewise at Jordan, Ralf Schumacher seems likely to stay and again Hill faces the same problem: an undoubtedly fast teammate with the advantage of team knowledge.
Ecclestone's comments may result to nothing in the end. Some may recall his last commitment: Hill to remain at Williams to defend his title.
I wouldn't be holding my breath this time, Damon.