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Hill signs for Arrows!

IN one of the most surprising Formula 1 moves in recent years, Damon Hill last Friday signed a deal to drive for Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team in 1997. The deal is for one year but there are options for Damon to continue in 1998. The surprise deal came about as Jordan struggled to find the money necessary to grab Hill before a 10-day option ran out on Friday morning.

Hill flew back to England after the Portuguese GP last Sunday night. He met Walkinshaw on Monday, had a tour of TWR's impressive headquarters at Leafield, and hammered out a possible deal with the Scotsman. He then flew out to Portugal again where he tested for Williams on Wednesday.

Arrows is an unlikely destination for the prospective World Champion. The team has failed to win an F1 race during its 19 year history - it was founded in November 1977 by a breakaway group of personnel from Don Nichols's Shadow team and their associates - and this year has scored only one point. However, in March this year, the last two Arrows founders agreed to sell their shares in the team to Walkinshaw.

There have since been major changes in the team personnel as Walkinshaw has prepared for a more competitive future. Despite this Arrows was not considered a strong possibility for Hill because there was no official word as to which engine Arrows would have in 1997. Walkinshaw had been hoping to land the Mugen Honda engine deal - and thus bid for the Honda works engines in 1998 - but when this went to Ligier, Walkinshaw had to look elsewhere. He tried Peugeot and Ford but eventually turned to Yamaha. We believe that he has now struck a deal with the Japanese, which will not only convince Yamaha bosses to stay in F1, but also to take a much more serious approach. The Yamaha V10 is smaller and lighter than all its rivals but this year has been very unreliable. Walkinshaw clearly believes that it has potential there that his engine department at Leafield will be able to turn the Yamaha V10 into a competitive unit. Hill's knowledge of the Renault V10 will also be invaluable for the Japanese engineers.

There are probably other incentives in the deal for Yamaha. Kenny Roberts - who runs theMarlboro-sponsored Yamaha 500cc works motorcycle team - was recently seen at Leafield. Roberts has been looking for engineering help in recent months and in May announced that he was relocating his team from Holland to Oxfordshire in order to attract engineers from F1's "Silicon Valley".

One of the things which will have helped to convince Hill to join Arrows is the fact that Walkinshaw has the tire-development contract with Bridgestone, which is planning to enter F1 next season. This means that the tires which Hill will use can be built specifically to suit his driving style. The Goodyear runners will have to use rubber which has been jointly developed between the Goodyear teams. For Bridgestone the signing of Hill comes as a much-needed boost to its F1 program. The Japanese tire company failed to sign up a single big team, allowing Goodyear to wrap up deals with Williams, Ferrari, McLaren, Benetton, Jordan and Sauber. Getting Hill will help give the program credibility.

The move is still a big risk for Hill and there is little doubt that Walkinshaw clinched the deal by offering Hill the same money as he is receiving this year with Williams - something in the region of $7.5m.

Hill also knows that Walkinshaw has an extraordinary record of success in motor racing. His Rovers and Jaguars dominated touring car racing in the mid-1980s, his Jaguar sportscars won World titles and the Le Mans 24 Hours. His first venture in F1 - as engineering director of Benetton - ended with Michael Schumacher winning the 1994 World Championship.

"Everything this man touches becomes a winner," Hill said of Walkinshaw at Friday's announcement in London.

"Tom has offered me more than I hoped for - a rewarding package and a great challenge to work in partnership with him to develop a winning Formula 1 team. He has fulfilled just about every single criteria that I set out for myself. I had a number of approaches from many different quarters and many different teams. It was not a very easy decision to make. There were a great number of very determined people out there who wanted to secure my services."

For Walkinshaw it is a remarkable deal and proof that Tom wants to be taken seriously by the F1 establishment.

"It goes without saying that I am delighted that Damon has agreed to join TWR Arrows," said Tom. "The team's goal is to be F1 world champions in the shortest possible time. Damon's recruitment brings the day when we achieve that goal considerably closer and considering the other attractive options available to him, by joining TWR Damon obviously recognizes the enormous potential of our team."

There will be a certain amount of personal pride involved as signing Hill is also part of a cat-and-mouse battle which has been going on between Walkinshaw and Benetton boss Flavio Briatore in recent months. After Walkinshaw realized that Briatore was never going to sell him Ligier - back in March - there has been a running battle between the pair. Tom took most of the Ligier technical staff to Arrows. Flavio countered by taking the Mugen Honda deal - which had been the corner stone of Walkinshaw's early planning. Tom has now replied by snatching the likely World Champion - who Briatore hoped would join Ligier.

It seems to be the perfect deal for all concerned. If the project flops Hill can blame the car - if it is successful he can take the credit. There is potential for the future and it is a well-paid option.

"I believe that the decision I have made is absolutely the right one," said Damon, "and I am very, very happy. We won't make any claims about next season - it's going to be the beginning. I believe we will make rapid progress and that's a prospect that really excites me."

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