Interview: Paul Di Resta, racing driver

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Paul Di Resta has accelerated from test driver to team leader at Force India in just over a year, and this season things could get even better

IT’S A truism in Formula One that the only battle which really matters is the one against your team-mate. If so, then Paul Di Resta, last year’s Rookie of the Year and the winner of the prestigious BRDC’s Fairfield Trophy for outstanding performance, should have spent most of the off-season in Bathgate with his feet up puffing on a foot-long Cohiba while contemplating a job well done.

If Di Resta pronounced his opening year in F1 to be “pretty good and very satisfying”, it was by no measure plain sailing. Indeed, to uninitiated outsiders, it may have appeared that the Scot actually came off second best in his internecine battle with Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil last year. After all, his veteran team leader scored 42 points and finished the Drivers’ Championship in ninth place, compared to Di Resta’s 27 points and 13th-place finish.

Yet the view from the paddock was an altogether different one. The grid’s perspective was one in which Di Resta out-qualified the vastly more experienced Sutil in the first three grands prix of the year (and six out of the first eight) when he had no right to do so, in which the high quality of technical feedback during the difficult first half of the year was crucial in developing the car, and in which, when the going got tough, the Scot responded not by blowing his own horn but by going full throttle.

Di Resta’s fighting sixth in Singapore, and the promise he showed in the torrential conditions in Canada, where he ran fifth before Renault’s Nick Heidfeld unhelpfully removed his front wing, was enough to convince team owner Vijay Mallya that he was worth sticking with. By contrast, Sutil’s meek surrender on the last lap in Japan, when the ninth place he had held for virtually the whole race was turned into an 11th-place finish after Vitaly Petrov and Niko Rosberg cruised past him to push him outside the points, is said to have infuriated the team. The final nail in Sutil’s coffin came when he excelled at the last race of the season, finishing sixth in China, only to not so much blot his copybook as soak it in ink when he glassed Lotus co-owner Eric Lux in a Shangai nightclub. He was was subsequently fined ¤200,000 by a German court and given an 18-month suspended jail sentence (though he is appealing the verdict).

Equally importantly, 24-year-old test driver Nico Hulkenberg – who raced for Williams in 2010 and won the team’s first pole in over five years before joining Force India – was widely viewed on the grid as one of the rising stars, and so either Di Resta or Sutil had to make way to create a seat for him. On the strength of his rookie season and his record of achievement coming up through the ranks, Di Resta not only retained his seat but has assumed the position of team leader.

“The circumstances in which Adrian left the team weren’t unsettling at all for me,” said the Scot last week. “It was a decision for the board [of Force India] and they got on and took it. Personally, I was just out to try to secure a drive for the team and was pretty happy when that was confirmed. Adrian is a really good friend, and we’ll stay friends, but the team obviously felt that pairing Nico and myself was the best thing to do. But it’s not as if there’s any huge disruption because Nico was part of the team last year, and we’re such a small team that we’re more like a family. He and I will compete really hard against each other, just as Adrian and I did, but we’re both desperate to be on the money when the season starts.”

That day will come in the early hours of next Sunday morning when, if all goes to plan, Di Resta and 23 other drivers will line up on the grid at Albert Park in Melbourne to get the 2012 Formula One Championship under way. It’s a track where the Scot got his F1 career off to a flier last year, qualifying 14th but holding off Heidfeld and Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari on the last lap to finish tenth and claim a point. It’s a memory which has fired him up.

“Melbourne is very special,” he says. “Albert Park is quite a challenge because it’s half a street circuit and half a normal circuit, but it’s got a great atmosphere and a crowd which really gets into it. Last year I started my Formula One career with a point and the plan is a simple one – to go there and do the same again, only to get more points this time.”

In his own uniquely understated way, that almost qualifies as a war cry from Di Resta, but there’s no doubt that expectations are riding high and that the Scot will soon come under enormous pressure as the team’s lead driver. His manager Anthony Hamilton, father of Lewis, has talked enthusiastically of his man carrying on where he left off at the end of the 2011 Championship, when he scored 25 points in the final nine grands prix of the season after scoring none in the previous eight, and getting a podium. That may sound hyperbolic for a driver whose best finish last year was sixth in Singapore, but an uncharacteristically punchy Di Resta was doing nothing to dampen expectations after what he saw as a steep upward curve of achievement.

“Last year was a difficult one because the car was a work in progress so I always knew we’d take a big hit at the beginning of the year,” he says. “But as the updates came through we got more and more competitive and ended the year really well, which is why I’ve got high hopes for this year.

“I went into last year with a really open mind, but I think that all things considered I was pretty happy with my first year. Of course I wanted more, and I’ll always want more for myself and the team, but there’s not much I would have changed. I’m greedy for success and highly critical of myself, but this year I’ve grown in maturity, I’m a bit fitter, I know the circuits and the team better, so of course, yes, I’m really hopeful.”

Di Resta has a well-documented habit of improving his performances exponentially in his second year, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Force India have placed so much faith in him. Indeed, after the team finished in a record sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship last year, expectations are now even higher despite the fact that several of the other mid-table teams from last year have either had an injection of funds or of young drivers with burgeoning reputations.

Not that Di Resta will be cowed. It’s easy to forget, but he has a remarkable pedigree that includes winning the Formula 3 Euroseries championship in 2006 ahead of his then junior team-mate Sebastian Vettel. The German took a quicker route into F1 and is now the youngest double world champion in the sport’s history, earning £12m a year while Di Resta’s take-home pay is less than when he was in DTM. But Di Resta’s memories of their previous existence ensure that he will not be overawed or cowed just because a rival driver has a better or quicker car.

“We had the same car, same engine, same tyres and I beat [Vettel],” said the Scot of their year as team-mates. “I don’t want to diminish his achievement, but he won the championship because he had the best car. He did his job, but another driver in the same car would probably have achieved the same results. I hope one day to have the same opportunity.”

That seems eminently likely. As is the way in the restless world of F1, Di Resta has already been linked with Michael Schumacher’s seat at Mercedes and Mark Webber’s spot at Red Bull. Yet he is quick to scotch such ideas. After all, he has a whippersnapper of a team-mate to subdue and a new shiny reputation to live up to.

As he says: “I’m not thinking about Mercedes or about Nico right now – the only thing I’m thinking about is winning grands prix.”