LOUIS DI RESTA replies to my enquiry about his son's readiness to take up a place in Formula One next year with a trip down memory lane. The year is 1999 and the venue is the south of France where the Monaco Cup is being held on a sawn-off version of the grand prix circuit. The best young drivers in the world are gathered for a trophy that has a mythical status as a guide to future achievement in motorsport. This year the drivers are very quick: everyone knows this is the best crop of boy r
"And there was Paul on the front of the grid, on pole," says Di Resta senior. "He was only 13, at least a year younger than all the drivers around him. Robert Kubica was in second place on the grid, Nico Rosberg was fourth and Lewis (Hamilton] was sixth. They were all driving for factory teams with money no object while I put Paul's car together myself and drove it down from Bathgate in a lorry to save money. We didn't have a back-up team: I was Paul's mechanic, his manager, his everything.
"Paul's not like these guys, he's done it the hard way. I worked all my days to finance his racing. We had no sponsors so we scrimped and saved to give him a chance to make it. From the time that Lewis Hamilton was 10 years old, the chequebook came out. He could crash a car and it made no difference, but that was never the way with Paul. Guys like Lewis and Sebastian Vettel had diamond-encrusted silver spoons placed carefully in their mouths while Paul ate with a wooden spoon. It's made him hungry, though. He knows how to fight and to scrap."
It's worth pointing out that scrimping and saving are relative terms. Louis, a businessman whose interests include a cafe and nightclub in Whitburn, reckons that he has sunk 1.3m into Paul's motorsport career. Which is why Paul says: "My dad sacrificed a lot in his life for me. His family life for a start. He spent a lot of time away, virtually every weekend watching me racing and running me from one end of the country to the other, or into Europe or wherever. He could have had a lot more in life but he decided to put the budget towards me. He's been the biggest inspiration in my life so far."
That, though, is small beer compared to the funds poured into the progress of Di Resta's contemporaries. "If anyone came to me and asked me to put their kid through the same career path as Lewis," says Di Resta senior, "I'd say to them: 'OK, just give me between 5m and 6m, because that's what it cost to get Lewis to Formula One'. We've done it on a fraction of that amount. We've spent less on Paul's career than Lewis spent on one year in GP2."
But if Di Resta gave his time, dedication and hard-earned cash to his son, he also presented him with another gift that has arguably proved more valuable than any of those: his genes. Louis was a decent go-kart racer who went on to win four Scottish Formula Ford titles, and his hard-wired enthusiasm for speed has proved infectious. The first to catch the bug in his family was his nephew Dario Franchitti. Di Resta took the youngster karting, bought him his first racing car and took him to his first three world championships, launching a career that has seen the Bathgate boy go on to win the Indy 500. But if Dario was quick, Paul Di Resta was going to be every bit as fast, maybe even a good bit quicker. Franchitti admitted as much himself, once saying that "the sky's the limit" for his young cousin.
Now 22, it's exactly two decades since Di Resta first sat in a go-kart aged just two years and seven months. His dad, predictably, has it on video, preserved as the moment when his budding speed merchant began his journey to the big-time. Racing quickly became an obsession for the tiny kid from West Lothian, to the exclusion of all other activities. In his early years he had a quad bike, motorbikes and raced remote-controlled cars before finally getting a proper racing go-kart at the age of seven years and eight months. When he was allowed to race, aged eight, he beat 12-year-olds every week, winning his first race when he was just eight years and eight days old despite starting at the back of the grid. "I knew straight away that he was not just fast but lightning quick," says his dad. "I'm not stupid; every father thinks his son is special. But the results were there for all to see."
Plenty of others have seen the same potential as his father, and the young Scot has long been seen as a future Formula One driver. Little wonder, as Di Resta won nine British championships as a junior and has gone on to win virtually every category in which he has raced (he finished second in that Monaco Cup behind Kubica). Four years ago he not only eased any financial worries when he joined the prestigious Mercedes-Benz Young Driver Development Programme but also became the fourth Scot to win the prestigious Young Driver of the Year Award, following in the footsteps of David Coulthard, Andrew Kirkaldy and his cousin, Franchitti. For much of his career, Di Resta has shadowed the new generation of drivers dominating the Formula One grid at the moment, spending a year in Formula Renault with Hamilton and crossing swords with him once again in Formula Three Euroseries, where he succeeded the McLaren driver as the European F3 champion in 2006. Competing head-to-head with the man who could claim the world championship next Sunday, not to mention drivers like Vettel, Rosberg and Kubica, has given the young Scot the confidence to believe he can make his mark in Formula One.
"I've raced against Sebastian (Vettel] and Lewis (Hamilton] and done the same job as them so hopefully I can get into Formula One and do a job against them," says Di Resta. "Sebastian was my team-mate in 2006 in Formula Three when I was the European Champion and won the Ultimate Masters as well. I beat him in both those things and I definitely beat him on far more occasions than he ever beat me. I'm not saying that I'm a faster or better driver than him, but if you look at the results we achieved when we had equal cars then you'd have to say there's at least parity between us.
"As for Lewis, people ask whether I see him as a role model, but how could I because I've raced against him and beaten him. He's always been a year in front of me so he's always had that little bit more experience, but when we had the same machinery we were equally good. It's important not to look up to people who I'm hoping to be racing against, who you should be expecting to beat. The achievements of Lewis and Sebastian in Formula One haven't shocked me. I knew how much ability they have. I think it shows how strong this generation of drivers is, and the fact that we all came through at the same time spurred us all on and made us better drivers. It was no surprise that they have done so well in Formula One because they're real racers and really competitive people."
The speculation that Di Resta could soon join his old sparring partners in F1 has intensified around the Scot because opportunities seem to be opening up for him. Already a favourite of Mercedes Motorsport boss Norbert Haug, after he impressed in a test at Silverstone two weeks ago well-placed paddock chat has Di Resta in line to become McLaren's test driver or, given Heikki Kovalainen's disastrous form this season, even a dark horse to replace the Finn. More likely is a drive for Force India, the team owned by billionaire Indian businessman Vijay Mallya, the man behind Kingfisher lager. Way off the pace this season, if they can conclude an engine deal with Mercedes they could be next year's Toro Rosso. There is even chat in the paddock that Williams could stage a raid in the unlikely event that Di Resta isn't offered a Mercedes-backed drive.
Where Paul tries to dampen expectations, his father can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of his son making it to the Formula One promised land that eluded Franchitti. He's entertainingly forthright on the subject. "It has been very frustrating watching guys he knows he can beat doing so well in Formula One," said Louis. "Paul's proved he can kick Sebastian's arse and he's shown he can beat Lewis despite always being that year behind and arriving as Lewis was almost out the door. Paul's got more ability than Sebastian and is equal to Lewis, who's very good but no superman. Paul has won championships at every level and it'd be good to see him have a right good go in Formula One. He's not the sort to hold back, that's for sure."
Actually, Di Resta junior is holding back. He has seen from the treatment endured by Hamilton what happens when you're perceived as too precocious and too sure of yourself. Although he happily admits that "Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport and has been my aim for as long as I can remember", he seems reluctant to do his talking anywhere but out on the track. It's a sensible race strategy, especially as he could come over loud and clear this afternoon by winning the German Touring Car Championship in front of 200,000 spectators at Hockenheim.
"I really don't know what's going to happen in the future and I've been careful not to talk about it or even think about it too much because the main focus has to be concentrating on making sure I perform at Hockenheim and then going from there, from a position of strength," he says. "Not that I think this weekend will be a defining moment for me. Whether I win or lose this championship, I think the decision will still be the same: Formula One is where I want to be."
SCOT PIPPED FOR HOCKENHEIM POLE
PAUL Di Resta will start one place ahead of Audi's Timo Scheider, the man he must beat in today's German Touring Car Championship finale at Hockenheim if he is to be crowned champion.
But the 22-year-old Scot had to content himself with second on the grid after narrowly missing out on pole position by four-hundredths of a second after clocking 1min 32.284secs in his Mercedes, 0.208s quicker than third-placed Scheider.
The Audi driver will come under intense pressure as the three Mercedes of Jamie Green, Bernd Schneider and Bruno Spengler – all pledged to help Di Resta – line up immediately behind him on the grid.
"It was always going to be very tight, and though I'm pleased to be starting in front of Timo, I'd rather have been on pole than second," said Di Resta, who was pipped by reigning champion Mattias Ekstrom in an Audi.
Di Resta is the man on form and starts today's 60-minute race just two points adrift of Scheider. Victory would clinch the title.
Meanwhile, his cousin Dario Franchitti will start today's IndyCar season finale at Surfer's Paradise in forth place on the grid after a brilliant qualifying performance yesterday.
The Scot was back behind the wheel of an IndyCar for the first time since switching back from a troubled spell in NASCAR.
• JIM McGILL