How Paul di Resta staked his claim for a Williams F1 seat
Paul di Resta has put himself firmly back in the frame for a full-time Formula 1 return with Williams in 2018 following his star cameo in Hungary earlier this year. Adam Cooper caught up with the Scotsman.
The sport of F1 moves so quickly that drivers easily fall off the radar once they no longer occupy a race seat. Teams are always looking for the next big thing, and the chances of anyone who hasn't competed for a season ever returning are slim indeed, unless there's a commercial imperative.
Paul di Resta hasn't had a full-time F1 drive since 2013, and yet the Scot now has a serious chance of returning with Williams in 2018, thanks to being in the right place at the right time to state his case at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
He first accepted the role of reserve driver with Williams, taking over from his former Force India teammate Adrian Sutil, early in 2016.
There was no testing involved, and as with Sutil, di Resta might never have sat in a contemporary car, and would perhaps been replaced by someone more "current" next year, or the year after.
However, Felipe Massa's illness gave him a chance in Budapest, and what could have been nightmare circumstances worked in his favour. By jumping straight into the car in qualifying, with no practice at all, he faced an incredibly tough challenge – but equally expectations were low.
Against the odds he did a superb job, picking up pace with every lap he did. The race was more of a challenge, in a car that he was not fully comfortable in, and ultimately he retired.
It was enough to make him a serious and unexpected candidate for a 2018 race drive. Consider that until Hungary, di Resta had not raced an F1 car in the hybrid turbo era.
As such there are many drivers with more recent and thus relevant experience – the list includes the likes of Sutil, Pastor Maldonado, Felipe Nasr, Kamui Kobayashi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Alexander Rossi, Will Stevens, Rio Haryanto and Roberto Merhi.
The chances of any of those guys ever returning to F1 would appear to be slim, and yet at 31, di Resta now has a serious shot with one of the longest established teams in the business. And that one qualifying session in Hungary made all the difference.
"I was in the deep of all deep ends," he told Motorsport.com. "When I let go of the speed limiter at the end of the pitlane, that's when I felt comfortable, actually.
"Everything in the hour-and-a-half before that it felt like you were a bit out of your depth, but as soon as you let go of the speed limiter down the end of the pitlane, it just came back.
"It's natural ability, you kind of feel like you're back at home. I was somebody sitting watching the TV, that's kind of where it had got to, but it just builds with confidence.
"I didn't do anything silly that day, but more importantly there was plenty still in reserve. I was trying to manage it, that was the best way to learn. Should you get another opportunity, you can stand on it again…"
DTM to F1, and back again
It's easy to forget that, not so long ago, di Resta was regarded as a guy with serious potential. He won the 2006 European F3 title, beating the likes of Sebastian Vettel, and having been diverted into DTM by Mercedes he secured the championship in 2010.
The Stuttgart connections helped to propel him into Force India, where he spent three seasons. He scored a lot of points, but he fell out of favour towards the end, and was dropped at the end of 2013.
"I could always have done things differently," di Resta reflected. "But I guess at the time…
"They are a great team Force India, there were some difficult things going on in the background, it was never easy within that team and that's what made it a little more difficult.
"But the actual race team, the people you were dealing with day-to-day, were great, I think that's why they outperform what people expect."
DTM provided a safety net, as there was no opportunity to stay in F1, but he hoped to at least be in the frame for reserve or testing role at Mercedes.
"It was a very different end of the business back then I think," he added. "This new generation of engine had come in, budgets had shot up. I guess I wanted to actively stay involved as much as I could, I was hoping to do something with Mercedes back then.
"I guess it lets you reset and look at other avenues, and that's why I ended up doing the Sky TV thing. And obviously that put me in the frame, and Williams got in contact with me at the beginning of last year, quite late on actually, before the season started. From there the relationship has grown massively.
"I'm very respectful of what Claire is doing, and I get on very well with her. I don't think we quite expected the relationship to be as strong as was so quickly. It's 10 years ago as well that Frank was trying to sign me to drive with Williams. It didn't happen for different reasons back then, because I'd basically started in DTM.
"It was strange to come back, having sat with Frank 10 years ago, and be sitting in the same room with Claire, and doing a different deal."
Neither di Resta nor Williams could really have envisaged that he would soon become a contender for a race seat, but thanks to Hungary, that's what happened. He'd done a bit of running in the 2014 FW36, but that wasn't much preparation.
"I'd had a few laps… I guess that's where simulators help," said the Scot. "To me the workload is very much the same as when I was still here.
"It's still the same engine people. The engine guy at Williams is the guy who was in charge at Force India. Just with the conversations you have when you're having lunch, you're kind of up to speed with it all, and it's all very well-managed.
"From a team point of view what I ensured was anything that couldn't be actively coached, and I had to learn, I did. Anything that they could coach me into I had a basic understanding and I could deal with that in the race when they instructed me to do it, and that was the way we went forward."
Back in the spotlight
The chance to race in Hungary proved something to di Resta himself, as well as the outside world.
"It would be wrong to say I lost my appetite for it," he insisted. "The longer it went on [being absent], the more difficult it was becoming. I think more so, it proved to myself that I can certainly still do the job, although you always believed it.
"And maybe it showed the outside world a bit more that given the opportunity again, that was only a sniff of what you can do, given a proper chance."
Felipe Massa obviously remains in the frame, and Robert Kubica is the other high profile candidate for the vacant Williams seat next to Lance Stroll, although creating an opportunity to properly assess the Pole in the FW36 hasn't proved to be easy.
Marcus Ericsson and Jolyon Palmer, both of whom come with financial backing, have also pitched their hats into the ring, although their chances are slim.
And then there's di Resta, who is working as hard as he can to get the job.
"They know me well enough now," he said. "I've been here over a year and a half. I've very actively tried to get as involved as I can here, as I will continue to do.
"It shows how important it was when I got the chance, how well I know everyone, the difference it made by doing that, by paying attention and integrating yourself as much as I can.
"I combine it with doing TV, so it is quite hard work. It's quite labour-intensive when I'm working over a weekend. But it was important that any time I got a glimpse of getting in that car I was aware of the controls and so on. As time goes on I've made it very clear what a dream it would be to get in the car.
"I'm racing DTM alongside what I'm doing, but being here and under people's faces is obviously the biggest thing. It was a nice reception that I got from the whole paddock, and more importantly Williams, when I did drive the car. I think I'm at a very good age as well.
"Plus I've learned from my mistakes in the past, and I can try and put it to rights. It's a bit of a waiting game. I'm actively trying to do as much as I can to try and put myself in contention for it, because it is there, and it's an important time for the team as well."
Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images
A different driver
Di Resta is a different person than he was in 2013, when at times he had a frosty relationship with Force India's management.
The passing of time and the growth of his family have seen him take a more relaxed approach to his job and life in general, and forging a career after F1 makes any driver appreciate how lucky he was to be there.
"I'm in a better place," he said. "You're always in a better place, the older you get and the wiser you get. I had three years out of it, a lot's changed in my life since then. I've got married and had two kids. That doesn't change how ambitious I am at my job, and I think they fully understand that.
"Especially my wife, she was actually calmer than I was when it happened, she was, 'You just have to do it, your best is normally good enough Paul. Why worry about it? Just see how it goes, you can't really lose by doing it.'
"I like to think I'm still young, and I feel it! I've got a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, obviously, with the family. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm out there to do the job I love doing.
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