Paul di Resta - Scots sportscar star is gunning for Le Mans glory
Bathgate’s Paul di Resta heads to the world’s most gruelling and demanding race this weekend, the Covid-delayed Le Mans 24-Hours, carrying the tag of ‘favourite’ to win the ultra-competitive LMP2 class.
And the 34-year-old former Formula 1 racer, who will drive the No22 United Autosports Oreca, partnered by Portuguese racer Filipe Albuquerque and England’s Phil Hanson, heads to the famous 8.46-mile La Sarthe circuit full of confidence.
“We’ve won the last three races in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), so I can fully understand why we’re being labelled as the favourites to win the penultimate race in the championship,” Di Resta stated.
“It’s something I’m confident with.
“We have everything we need to do the job. We’ve shown that throughout the season. But that isn’t to underestimate the other cars and teams which are coming to Le Mans. But we are going there with the intention of winning the race.”
Di Resta — now a familiar face on TV as part of the comprehensive Sky Sports F1 coverage, where his insightful punditry gives viewers an honest, no-holds-barred appraisal of the sport and its incidents — clearly enjoys being back in the drivers’s seat.
“I thoroughly enjoy racing, and to be honest, I wish I’d got into sportscars sooner,” admitted the Scot, who contested 59 F1 grands prix for Force India, before it rebranded as Racing Point, which itself will morph into Aston Martin next season.
After leaving Force India at the end of 2013, Di Resta returned to saloon car action with Mercedes in the DTM, the German Touring Car Championship he won with the manufacturer in 2010. When Mercedes walked away from the series at the end of 2018, he joined Aston Martin’s ill-fated assault on DTM last year.
Ironically, while WEC team-mates Albuquerque and Hanson know they can clinch the world endurance title this weekend with a win at Le Mans, the Scot will miss out.
“Bizarrely, because I missed the WEC round in Fuji, because I was competing for Aston Martin in DTM at Hockenheim on the same weekend, I’m actually 15 points behind the two guys,” Di Resta explained.
“I was surprised to learn I wouldn’t get the world title if we win, which is obviously a bit of a shame. But listen; it is what it is. But I think it’s a bit silly, because I’ve contributed to the car all season.”
Indeed he has. As the senior driver of the trio, it’s the Scot’s maturity, pace and sheer professionalism which as helped catapult the #22 car to the top of the standings. But, as the saying goes, "rules are rules".
Di Resta though is determined to stand on the top step of the podium at Le Mans on Sunday afternoon, even if the glorious start-finish straight, over which the stunning podium hangs precariously, will be devoid of the thousands of flag-waving, cheering spectators.
“Without question, Le Mans 2020 will definitely not be the same without the fans,” he said. “Anyone who comes to Le Mans is a different type of fan that attends an F1 race. They usually have an encyclopedic knowledge of sportscar racing and Le Mans.
“Their knowledge of this sport is on a completely different level. They are your absolute, in the nicest possible way, motorsport history geeks. They’re fantastic.”
This will be Di Resta’s third appearance at Le Mans. His first, in 2018, ended abruptly when he speared into a concrete wall after 20 hours when he was lying fourth and fast-charging towards for a podium.
Now, with a self-confessed better understanding of sportscar racing, the Scot is ready to utilise that experience to maximise his assault on the 24-hour race.
“I’ve taken loads of things from the experience of the last two years of sportscar racing,” he continued.“How much to be on the limit? How much not to be on the limit? How much to chase things? In endurance racing, far more than F1, you’ve got to let the race come to you.
“You need to be quite narrow-minded and just try to do the best race you can. You can’t control the way the safety car impacts on the race, nor the slow zones during an incident. You can be very unlucky at times, lose time and on-track position, but generally it will come back to you if you’re patient.”
And with this year’s race moved from its traditional mid-June date, to the second half of September because of the Covid pandemic, Di Resta is fully aware of the changes in conditions the 59-car grid will have to face.
“First, we’ve less time on track ahead of the race,” he explained. “We’ve lost the pre-test day which usually happens a fortnight before the race, plus this week we’ve really only got testing on Thursday, ahead of the new ‘Hyperpole’ shootout on Friday morning for final grid positions. Then we’re into the race on Saturday at 2.30pm local time.
“And while we’ll obviously have more hours of darkness to race in, simply because the days are shorter now, the biggest problem is the weather forecast.
“The first five hours or so of the race should be fine and dry, but from around 8pm the forecast is horrible. Thunderstorms, wind and rain. And that’s a shame, because it’s such a terrific event.”
One thing remains certain. Di Resta knows that not even the autumnal French rain will dampen his committed determination to join the illustrious breed of racers who can call themselves Le Mans winners.