Scotland’s Paul Di Resta admitted he was “scared, nervous and anxious” following his dramatic 11th hour call-up to the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Di Resta, who had not turned the wheel of a Formula One car in anger for 1,343 days, will line up in last but one place on the grid for today’s race at the Hungaroring.
The 31-year-old Scot, who competes in the German Touring Car series DTM but also acts as a reserve driver for Williams, was handed his surprise chance 90 minutes before qualifying after Felipe Massa withdrew from the event.
Massa fell unwell after complaining of dizziness during second practice here on Friday, and was taken to hospital in downtown Budapest for precautionary checks. He was given the all-clear to carry on following an FIA medical examination this morning, but lasted just 12 laps of final practice before he conceded defeat.
Di Resta had been due to deputise for Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle in Hungary as the broadcaster continues his recovery from a ear-related illness which led to him pulling out of the British Grand Prix a fortnight ago.
“I’m not going to lie, I was scared, nervous and anxious,” Di Resta said. “I’ve not driven one of these cars for three and a half years, apart from 10 laps I did in a 2014 car.
“Then you get thrown into qualifying which is the deepest of all deep ends. It’s like jumping off a cliff and seeing how you fight for survival.
“At 10.55 this morning I was ironing a shirt and sitting with Sky presenter Simon Lazenby and going through what questions I was going to ask. I had to text them at 10 past 12 and say that I would not be there.
“It was ironic because my wife said to me on Wednesday how funny would it be if Williams required your services this week.”
Given the circumstances, Di Resta turned in a commendable performance. He was within eight tenths of a second of Lance Stroll in the sister Williams and 2.6 sec off the pace of the front-runners. He also out-qualified the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.
And his display courted plaudits for the man he was set to replace in the commentary booth.
“Excellent job from Paul di Resta from a standing start in qualifying in Hungary,” Brundle tweeted. “Kept it on the tarmac and a decent lap time. Well done.”
Di Resta was at Force India for three years between 2011 and 2013 and tomorrow’s race will mark his 59th F1 start.
“I felt quite comfortable quite quickly,” Di Resta, whose only taste of this year’s car will have been on the team’s simulator at Williams’ Oxfordshire base.
“As soon as I let go of the pit limiter it was kind of there and I was improving by half a second a lap. There is still plenty of potential there.
“These cars are top of their game and it’s like being back at home driving the best balanced car you’ve ever driven. The team prepared me as best as they could. It was absolutely unreal.
“I was very safe in the high speed and a bit safe on exit. It’s about getting your bearings again.”
Lewis Hamilton fell short in his bid to match Michael Schumacher’s pole record after he qualified a disappointing fourth.
Hamilton was handed his first chance of matching Schumacher’s tally of 68 poles, but he was nearly half-a-second adrift of championship rival Sebastian Vettel who stormed to the front spot on the grid at the Hungaroring.
Kimi Raikkonen joins his Ferrari team-mate on the front row of the grid with Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas third.
Hamilton, with his father Anthony watching from the back of the Mercedes garage, ran wide at Turn 4 during his first attempt at pole and had to abandon his lap.
It left the Briton with one final go to match Schumacher’s record, but after complaining about vibrations on his car throughout yesterday’s session, he finished a distant 0.431sec off Vettel’s blistering effort.
To make matters worse for Hamilton and indeed his Mercedes team, Raikkonen pipped Bottas with his final throw of the dice as Ferrari secure their second front-row lockout of the season.
It was the perfect retort from Vettel, one point ahead of Hamilton in the championship race, after he finished a lowly seventh at the British Grand Prix a fortnight ago following a penultimate-lap puncture.
“It is only Saturday so there is nothing to get from today other than the best position on the grid, but we did that which is great,” Vettel said.
“The talk after the last race was a bit too much so it was good to deliver the answer on the track.”