The Hungarian Grand Prix was the eleventh round of the 17 round 1997 Formula 1 season and the battle between Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve was poised nicely.
It was a battle that had swung one way, and then the other since the opening round in Australia.
Going into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, Michael Schumacher’s lead to Villeneuve at the top of the table was ten points – extended with a second place at his home Grand Prix in Germany – a Grand Prix Villeneuve failed to finish after a disastrous race.
With ten points for a win, Schumacher was still within striking distance of the Canadian, but it was important that Villeneuve lost no further ground to his rival, otherwise the added pressure that would come with such a points deficit might be just the sort of opportunity Schumacher and Ferrari were famous for capitalising on.
Damon Hill meanwhile, was in the middle of a character building season.
Following a glorious championship season with Williams in 1996, the two parted company and Hill was replaced at Williams by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
He’d allegedly received offers from McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton, but they weren’t prepared to pay Hill the kind of money he believed he was worth.
One team who were prepared to push the boat out to get the #1 on one of their cars was Arrows, now led by ex-Benetton director Tom Walkinshaw.
Recruiting the world champion was seen as a coup for a team who had never won a race in their entire 20-odd year history and who’d scored a single point in the entirety of the season before.
Hill was not expecting his defence of his World Championship to be successful.
Little did he know that he wouldn’t see the chequered flag again until Canada.
He barely qualified for the season opener in Australia and broke down on the parade lap, and Yamaha engine trouble and collisions bid adieu to any hopes he had of finishing the subsequent five races.
A top ten finish in Canada and a 12th place in France hinted at a resurgence in fortunes for the Englishman before Hill stormed to a glorious point at Silverstone in front of an unashamedly partisan crowd.
He couldn’t hope for better than that in the remaining eight races could he? He bloody could!
Another top-ten finish in Germany set the team up for the Hungarian Grand Prix that was always a great leveller for underpowered cars – the tight, twisty nature and short straights of the Hungaroring circuit negating any major advantage the more powerful engines could allow elsewhere.
In first practice, Hill was immediately on the pace, setting fifth fastest time in a session he thought he’d miss entirely due to problems with a sensor.
It got better on Saturday when he put his car in 3rd place on the grid for Sunday’s race with a lap time over two seconds quicker than the best his teammate Pedro Diniz could muster.
Come the race, Hill made a good getaway, quickly passing Villeneuve for second before closing on Schumacher’s Ferrari in the lead.
By lap six he was on Schumacher’s tail, the two having pulled clear of the rest of the field.
Damon passed Schumacher to lead on lap eleven, by which time Villeneuve had slipped to fifth behind Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari and McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen.
Not content to be leading, Hill extended his lead with fastest lap after fastest lap, until he’d built up over half a minute gap to second place Villeneuve, who’d muscled his way past the Ferraris.
But with three laps to go, Hill’s Arrows showed signs of slowing. The ever-unreliable Arrows had returned, replacing the Ferrari-beating, race-winning one we’d been watching agog for the previous 80 minutes.
A hydraulics problem meant that Hill was stuck in third gear and his lap times tumbled.
Villeneuve closed and closed on the ailing Arrows, but he was running out of time to take the lead and deny Hill as unlikely a win as it would be sensational.
Damon started his last lap with his lead in-tact, but Villeneuve was close behind. Jacques saw his opportunity a mere km or two from the flag and he took it, passing with two wheels on the scorched grass for good measure.
Despite being denied the win, Hill was able to limp home in second place for by far his best race of the season – a race he should have won in a car that would generally be recognised as the worst on the grid.
But it was Villeneuve on the top step of the podium scoring Williams 100th race win in Formula 1, and with Schumacher down in fourth he’d closed the championship deficit to just three points.
The 1997 F1 World Championship battle had taken another swing – this time towards Williams and Villeneuve.
It would swing again before the end of the year.