Graham Keilloh  |    27 August 2017

Feature: Paul di Resta's reminder


F1 reserve driver is rather a misnomer. Plenty of teams don’t really have one. Plenty of those that do rarely give the impression of having them poised to go. For the most part they linger around the place awkwardly; nothing apparently to be done.

But in Hungary the Williams equivalent Paul di Resta got the rare experience of living up to the role, having to step into the cockpit after Felipe Massa was taken ill before qualifying.

He got a grand total of one hour and 50 minutes’ notice. He hadn’t done a practice session. Aside from a handful of laps in a 2014 car as part of Lance Stroll’s test programme he hadn’t driven any F1 machine since 2013 – four years and two major technical shifts ago. He hadn’t even been in the simulator since before the Australia season-opener in March.

Quite why so-called reserves are so ill-equipped is another story I suppose.

Yet di Resta stunned – his qualifying best was just three-quarters of a second off his team mate Stroll’s, and he spilt the Saubers. Then he kept his nose clean in the race before stopping with an oil leak.

We’re always told that the modern F1 car is complex to the point of incomprehension. We’re told too how this year’s variety is particularly hard to adapt to. We’ve seen a lot of examples of both. You can point at Stoffel Vandoorne doing well in Bahrain last year, but he at least got all of practice.

Paddy Lowe called di Resta’s performance “incredible”; Toto Wolff “unbelievable”.

And “exceptional” was how the man himself rated it.

“I had a lot of team principals text me and say ‘credit to what you’ve done’.”

Paddy Lowe called di Resta’s performance “incredible”; Toto Wolff “unbelievable”. And “exceptional” was how the man himself rated it.

But what most gladdened me was that it reminded us of di Resta’s talent, that he demonstrated plenty in his three-year F1 race career and yet the sport seemed to lose sight of before he was even out of its exit door at the end of 2013. F1 then discarded him almost with relish. The fraternity barely had a backwards glance.

His bogeyman image was shared by many fans – I recall that any praise written of him would guarantee to light up notifications and below the line comments (few were complimentary) more readily than for just about any other driver. Astonishing for a midfielder.

Yet in his driving he was hard to fault.

Entering the sport for Force India from the (then) unlikely route of DTM di Resta turned heads immediately, displaying Jenson Button-like smoothness and polish. In his freshman year no one completed more racing laps than him. Team mate Adrian Sutil outscored him, but it reflected that Sutil was in better form late in the year when the car was most competitive.

With this we recalled di Resta’s 2006 F3 Euro Series title win, when his vanquished team mate was someone called Sebastian Vettel. And that the series triumph came one year on from that of a certain Lewis Hamilton.

It reminded us of di Resta’s talent, that he demonstrated plenty in his three-year F1 race career and yet the sport seemed to lose sight of before he was even out of its exit door at the end of 2013.

But while the other two swiftly got F1 breaks di Resta was guided by Mercedes into DTM, as noted not viewed as somewhere to look for F1 up and comers. Only via winning the title there, and impressing as Force India’s Friday tester, did he get a belated seat at the top table.

Nico Hulkenberg is rightly lauded, and history concluded that in 2012 when he and di Resta were paired the Hulk was well on top. Yet prior to a slump in the final six races – that was traced eventually to a cracked chassis – di Resta was well ahead on points, 44 to 31.

And at the same point in history the Scot was on the wrong side of a sliding doors moment. When Hamilton surprised everyone by decamping to Mercedes di Resta was in the reckoning to replace him at McLaren (there also was a vague Ferrari link in the air).

The slump mentioned hardly helped, though McLaren’s then team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted commercial considerations counted against di Resta – that the Woking team had ‘shaken the tree’ of being a British national team to its limits and wanted to broaden its markets. Thus he plumped for Sergio Perez and his pesos.

Nico Hulkenberg is rightly lauded, and history concluded that in 2012 when he and di Resta were paired the Hulk was well on top. Yet prior to a slump in the final six races – that was traced eventually to a cracked chassis – di Resta was well ahead on points, 44 to 31.

Before long in 2013 still at Force India di Resta however steered his ship back to calmer waters, scoring in seven of the first eight rounds and firmly getting the better of his new/old stable mate Sutil. He even came within a few laps of a podium finish in Bahrain, and showed his aggression when wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton at Silverstone, which seemed to tick the final box.

But... after the popping Pirellis at Silverstone the tyres changed, and it impeded Force India more than most. The team had moved most of its resource onto the 2014 car and entered a technical blind alley. And worse for di Resta he not long later crashed out of four rounds in a row. One was definitely not his doing, but two assuredly were.

The other, in Singapore, was both the most curious and regrettable. Di Resta couldn’t work out what the error was and telemetry didn’t offer anything either. The best hypothesis was that there was an unusual wash over his front wing. But the end result was the same, and F1 doesn't always heed such nuance. Worst of all he was well on the way to a substantial points haul having driven brilliantly.

Nevertheless after a late fightback he totalled 48 points, not far off double Sutil’s and just one shy of Perez who had an undoubtedly superior McLaren. Yet it was di Resta that got F1’s heave-ho; the other two mentioned were retained within the charmed circle. And as noted the sport and many of its fans barely regretted the fact.

Perhaps it was image – di Resta appeared all taciturn severity out of the car; maybe he was similarly unexciting in it.

Perhaps it was image – di Resta appeared all taciturn severity out of the car (those close to him however speak of an engaging and witty individual, albeit a cautious one). Maybe he was similarly unexciting in it, one who ghosted into position on long strategies rather than providing action for the highlight reels.

I recall also in one online debate the view espoused that the British F1 media were excessively ‘bigging him up’. Now I don’t doubt some British pilots do get excessive protection from a primarily British F1 media (*cough cough Jolyon Palmer cough*).

But it doesn’t follow that all praise of British drivers is underserving, and perhaps those suspecting a stitch-up were dismissing di Resta’s reviews too readily. I struggle also to cite examples of di Resta’s praise that were excessive versus his performance.

Force India’s deputy head Bob Fernley last year shed light on it though, that it owed to di Resta’s habit of criticising his team in front of microphones.

“I bought Paul into Force India through DTM and he did a good job for us,” said Fernley. “But there are two aspects to motor racing, both in and out the car.

Paul did a very good job technically in developing the car, but there are times when you become a liability in how you’re putting forward the team. Paul overstepped the mark - Bob Fernley

“Paul did a very good job technically in developing the car, but there are times when you become a liability in how you’re putting forward the team. Paul overstepped the mark, and regrettably the decision was made to replace him.

“If the team lose confidence in a driver, it’s not recoverable. I’m sure if you could put back the clock, he’d think in a different way.”

I grew up with Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell who would trash their teams in public a few times before breakfast. But perhaps such things hang more easily on the back of multiple race wins and championship challenges. Perhaps – as Fernando Alonso might attest – F1 became precious at some point. Fernley was happy to employ someone who’d stuck a champagne glass into someone’s neck…

So did di Resta feel his Hungary performance put him in the frame for a 2018 race seat? “You never know, I'd love to,” he said.

“There’s no secret I want to be in a Formula 1 car, but at the very least I hope I’ve showed I’m a reliable reserve driver kicking around the paddock.”

Even with his reminder of his skills in Hungary, a full-time return remains a long shot. But the least we can do is reassessing what he did before.


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