Richard Bath: Formula one season on the horizon

Paul di Resta with the new Force India car. Picture: Getty
Paul di Resta with the new Force India car. Picture: Getty
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WITH all sporting eyes glued to football’s transfer window and rugby’s Six Nations at this time of year, with Lance Armstrong’s confessions of cheating providing an intriguing sideshow, few other sports get much of a look-in.

This, I suspect, will be an enormous relief to one of our brightest sportsmen, Formula One driver Paul di Resta.

The Bathgate driver begins serious testing this week in preparation for the start of the 2013 Formula One Championship in Australia next month, yet Di Resta’s profile is lower than the new Force India car that he will be putting through its paces in Spain this week.

Di Resta is a surprisingly spiky but naturally reticent soul who has never given the impression of enjoying talking about himself but, even by his own standards, his silence is as deafening as it is instructive.

When he started racing for Force India two years ago after a year as their practice driver, he arrived with a big reputation from his days in DTM and Formula Three Euroseries, where his achievements included beating current world champion Sebastian Vettel.

Big things were expected of Scottish motorsport’s great white hope, with track legends ranging from Dario Franchitti, Sir Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard and Allan McNish lining up to explain at great length why their compatriot has what it takes to be a huge success in Formula One.

As recently as six months ago, Di Resta’s star was in the ascendant. Heading into Silverstone at the soggy height of the British summer and the halfway point of the Championship, he had finished in the points in five of the previous eight races, and his name featured prominently in the rumour mill for a move to another, “bigger” team. Force India were resigned to losing him, and the number of potential suitors seemed almost endless.

There was inevitably talk of him heading back to Mercedes, his motorsport alma mater, but Ferrari and Red Bull were both in the mix, as were Sauber.

Indeed, every team seemed to be keeping tabs on the Scot. Not that this was altogether surprising. At that stage he was well ahead of veteran drivers such as Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and led his own rookie team-mate, Nico Hulkenberg, by ten points.

By that stage of the season Di Resta had already beaten his 2011 points total, and could have even have overtaken Williams’ Pastor Maldonato to force his way into the top ten had Force India not made crass errors at Montreal and Valencia.

However, even before Silverstone, there were already signs of discord in the Di Resta camp. He had jettisoned his manager, Lewis Hamilton’s father Anthony, for his failure to land him a better drive for 2013, and things began to unravel in the race itself when a collision with the crash-happy Roman Grosjean saw his tyre puncture and the resulting spin put him out of the race. From there on in, a season which had promised so much hit the skids.

Of the last 12 races of the season, Di Resta scored points in just four. He ended up scoring 19 more points than in 2011 but finished the season in 14th place, compared to 13th in 2011.

Even worse, while he finished 15 points and four places behind team-mate Adrian Sutil in 2011, he could at least point to the fact that he was a rookie. Last year he was completely eclipsed in the second half of the season by his rookie team-mate Hulkenberg, right, who was sublime in the wet and finished five places and 17 points ahead of Di Resta.

From Silverstone onwards, Hulkenberg scored 27 more points than Di Resta and finished in the points in five of the last six races, compared to Di Resta’s solitary points finish in Abu Dhabi.

To make matters worse, none of the expected opportunities for Di Resta arose, while Hulkenberg was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by close rivals Sauber, who jettisoned Kamui Kobayashi and lost Sergio Perez to McLaren, where he replaced Lewis Hamilton.

If Di Resta is to make good on the promise he undoubtedly possesses, it is now imperative that testing in Spain, which starts this week, is followed by a barnstorming start in Melbourne when the season kicks off next month.

Force India have started slowly for the past two years, only to become increasingly competitive once the races switch back to Europe, with Hulkenberg leading for 30 laps in Brazil before a collision with Lewis Hamilton left him fifth.

Addressing that tendency to be slow out of the blocks was the main theme at last week’s launch of the new VJM06, which was described by Di Resta as “very impressive – aggressive and fast”.

The car has lost last year’s platypus nose, but otherwise looks very similar to the 2012 version. Looks can be deceptive, though, say the team’s hierachy.

“It’s a brand new car from the ground up,” said technical director Andrew Green. “We discussed carrying over big chunks of last year’s car, including the chassis, but decided not to.”

“The VJM06 doesn’t look massively different to its predecessor but, beneath the skin, we’ve looked at every detail to try to find more performance,” said team principal, Dr Vijay Mallya.

“The objective now is to make sure we build on the promise of last year and have a strong start to the season.”

For all the positive chat, however, Force India look like a team which is struggling to get into race mode.

With practice now beginning, Di Resta is their only driver, with the once-discarded Adrian Sutil and Jules Bianchi, who was the team’s reserve driver last year, reportedly battling it out for the second spot.

Unlike Hulkenberg, neither man is a driver who is on the radar of the bigger teams, so Di Resta is sure to start the season as Force India’s lead driver.

The sport, however, is notoriously fickle. Nowhere is the maxim about today’s rooster being tomorrow’s feather duster more accurate.

Despite his travails in the second half of last year, the Scot is still well-regarded on the Formula One paddock, and few doubt that Di Resta still has the ability to be a top driver. Tellingly, even fewer are in any doubt that, if he doesn’t prove it this year, there’s no certainty that he will ever get another opportunity to do so.