Paul di Resta: 'What Jackie achieved is something to aim for'
Ahead of his debut tomorrow, Di Resta tells David Tremayne about the challenge of living up to Scotland's rich F1 heritage
Saturday 26 March 2011
Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart amassed 52 grand prix victories and five world championships between them, while David Coulthard won 13 and was runner-up in the 2001 championship. Innes Ireland scored Team Lotus's first victory in 1961, then there is Dario Franchitti, three-times IndyCar champion.
Paul di Resta, the 24-year-old Scot from Livingston, West Lothian, who will make his grand prix debut tomorrow in Melbourne with the Silverstone-based Force India team, is acutely aware of his country's lustrous heritage in Formula One, while there is no way Franchitti's success could escape him – he is his cousin. Not that Di Resta is weighed down by it; he already puts more than enough pressure on himself to worry about history.
Di Resta might not have raced a single seater since 2006, but he is a seasoned competitor and a champion. That year he beat his German team-mate to the European Formula 3 Championship, and last year that driver, one Sebastian Vettel, became world champion. While the Red Bull racer was reaching the pinnacle, Di Resta was busy justifying Mercedes' faith in him by winning the prestigious German DTM touring car series, and turning out for occasional Friday morning runs in F1 for Force India alongside Adrian Sutil and Tonio Liuzzi. He acquitted himself well.
The reasons why team owner Vijay Mallya chose not to honour a contract with Liuzzi and to give Di Resta a drive instead this year may well revolve around the free KERS system – which improves acceleration – that Mercedes is believed to have used as a $10m carrot. But the Scot clearly merits his chance.
At first acquaintance Di Resta can come across as taciturn. Tall and red haired, he is naturally quiet, perhaps introspective, comfortable in his own skin and unmoved by any need to prove himself to everyone he meets. There is a steeliness there, too, and a deep understanding of the sport and what he needs to do to progress in it. In that endeavour he is helped not just by his father Louis, a no-nonsense businessman who adores racing, and cousins Dario and Marino Franchitti, IndyCar's double Indianapolis 500 winner and his sportscar champion sibling, but also his manager, Lewis Hamilton's father Anthony, who he has known since he was eight. But while Di Resta is in good hands, he also has his feet on the ground and is perfectly capable of thinking for himself.
"I was confident in some sense," he says of his overdue graduation to his non-racing F1 role last year, "but in other ways you never really knew because it is quite a tricky business to get your head around. There are obviously different sides to it. I'm a driver, there's a commercial market there as well, so I can understand where things are going. It's been a progression I definitely worked hard to do, and I think that was one of the things when I first went into Force India. They set their plans down, and I saw a natural progression.
"It was definitely a good route to getting a race drive. Gladly it's all paid off and they've delivered on what they've said they were going to deliver on, and equally I've been able to deliver in terms of driving the car last year, the press work, the testing and simulator work."
Nevertheless, eight hour-and-a-half sessions on Friday mornings amounted to scant seat time. "It's not a lot," he admits, "and it's very difficult to judge somebody on that. You hadn't driven on any of the tracks, you're in somebody else's car, so it was always a difficult one, how to approach it. I approached with care, but at the same time you had to approach quite aggressively to try and get a reasonable bit of time out of it, yet you only had one set of tyres. You could have gone from hero to zero in a short space of time, but naturally the track time was the most precious bit to me."
Over the winter, however, Di Resta has had the opportunity of plenty for testing, and again he has shown well. It is clear he belongs.
"We've made a lot of good progress on the car over the first three tests with the VJM04. The first test was with the 03 car so it was to get used to the Pirellis and understand the behaviour of the different compounds. Then on to Jerez with the new car, which was principally a learning experience for the team, shaking down the systems, determining the aero direction and getting a good basic set-up.
"Then on to the next test, that's been about learning about KERS, the movable rear wing and other new systems. There's a lot to learn and get used to but it's all good experience. I'm getting up to speed with everything expected of me."
So far, so good, then. But what about that Scottish heritage? Stewart and Coulthard obviously root for him, but it is 38 years since the former became the last Scot to win an F1 world championship back in 1973. How is he going to handle the pressure of Celtic expectations?
"For such a small nation to have what we have got is good, and I just hope it continues like that," he says. "Listen, it's something to aim for, what Jackie achieved and what Jim Clark achieved. Jim Clark has probably got the best name in the motor-racing world... I have got an Italian family so I am very close to that, so the name doesn't sound that Scottish but I was born here, I grew up here."
The message is clear. He is well aware of his heritage, but he has to follow his own path and see how things pan out, and he is not going to agonise about anything publicly, thanks. It's a smart answer.
Of course the Franchittis have given him advice. "Dario's not really a cousin to me, he's a big brother," Di Resta smiles. "We speak a lot. My dad went karting all over the world with him and was a huge influence in his career, and equally I speak a lot to Marino as well. I speak to Dario probably three times a week. The nice thing was we had a good Christmas together. He'd won the IndyCar championship, and I had the DTM. We went out to celebrate – in Scotland. And it was nice because he was in the house when I got the go-ahead call, so it was nice for him to be part of that."
They saved all their celebrations for Christmas night, because the Franchitti brothers had won their championships in America, and when Paul triumphed in China it was just him and his girlfriend. "Christmas night was a good night," he adds. "We don't get toys anymore, so..."
Dario and Marino were there in Jerez when he first tested the new Force India. "They didn't give any advice as such – they've been supportive but they understand it's for me to do my own thing and learn how to work to the best of my abilities within the structure of the team and our own capabilities."
Naturally, he has given a lot of thought to what will satisfy him in his first grand prix. "I'm not going to say a target as there are so many variables," he reveals. "All I know is that the team has high hopes of finishing higher than last year, which means at least sixth, and I have my part to play in this. Regular points are of course key, but let's build up to that."
The more you talk to Di Resta, the more you realise how much is going on behind that deadpan countenance, and that the F1 newcomer is quite the philosopher. He is adamant he is not frustrated that Vettel and Hamilton, against whom he's raced for years, have both won world titles.
"I wouldn't say I was frustrated, but looking at it they were luckier than I am," he says. "They had different backing and that got them there a bit quicker and they had it a bit easier than I did. But I've got there.
"Just hopefully in the future I can beat them. Of more importance to me is when I'm actually racing on the track against them."
He is finally doing that again, and he will be giving it everything he has got. And if a title for Scotland is somewhere down the road that stretches ahead, so be it.
"I'm a great believer that in life what's for you won't go by you," he says quietly. "That's how I tend to live my life. If things are for you, they're for you."
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