One of the most exciting racing talents in the country, Jehan Daruvala has re-kindled hope of an Indian returning to F1 after more than a decade. The 23-year-old is the only Indian currently racing in F2, a feeder series for F1.
Even though his third season in F2 hasn’t gone according to plan, Jehan received a boost this summer when he completed an F1 test for McLaren at the iconic Silverstone circuit. He covered 130 laps over two days in the McLaren MCL35M as part of the British team’s Testing Previous Car (TPC) program.
In an interview, the Red Bull junior driver talks about Indian motorsport, his experience in the F1 car and his prospects for the future.
How would you asses your F2 season so far?
The season started quite well. I was fighting in the front of the championship, consistently in the top 3. We weren’t too good in qualifying but we definitely were the fastest car in the race. I kept scoring good results; in the first five races I think I scored four podiums. And then the race in Barcelona, in the feature race I actually had the right strategy to win and my car failed. Again, in Austria I won the feature race, at the home of Red Bull but the team made a mistake so got disqualified from that race. I missed out on a lot of points. Just as a team we haven’t been on top of things.
You got to do an F1 test with McLaren earlier this summer. How was the experience?
It was really cool. Generally, as a person I am quite laid back and relaxed. I don’t let the occasion get to me too much. To be honest, I felt very comfortable straight away. I didn’t feel like I was out of place at all. I felt like I deserve to be there. The first two laps I felt a lot of power in the car but after that it was like any other car. The car feels most natural when you are pushing it. If you are not driving fast enough, the car doesn’t handle as well. It took me 2-3 laps to get used to it.
It went really well from a physical point of view too. I think everyone was pretty surprised because Silverstone is the hardest track, physically. Especially for the neck. I could hold my neck for two days without suffering at all. It is not easy to get a test in F1 after working for 10 years. I wanted to make the most of the two days I had.
How long did you get to prepare for the F1 test in Silverstone?
In F2, they don’t have power steering. In F1 they do. F2 races are pretty much as difficult as F1 races, apart from (the forces on) the neck. I continued what I was doing for my F2 training regimen and I just doubled on my neck training. With power steering, you can even steer the wheel with one hand. That’s not too difficult. It’s just that there is so much speed and downforce that you pull 6Gs in corners in Silverstone, and over 5Gs in braking. It’s more about being able to cope with the forces.
Apart from the physicality, what was it like to sit in an F1 car?
In F1, the steering wheel has a lot of buttons. They are like tools for you to use. If you feel like you have understeered in one corner, come next lap, you can change the switch on your steering wheel and it helps. I am not saying it in a bad way but F1 car is the easiest car I have driven, compared to any other car. Obviously to be right on the limit is difficult. The more speed you carry, the more downforce you get. They are not designed to slide around or move around like a F2 or F3 car. As soon as you start to slide, you overheat the tyres and lose grip. The F1 cars are just designed to stick to the ground and go through corners.
Looking ahead, do you see these tests eventually resulting in an F1 spot?
I am not associated with McLaren as such. I am the Red Bull lead junior in F2. I was hoping to get a free practice this year but I am not really sure about that anymore. A seat with Red Bull, for 2023, doesn’t seem likely at all.
It’s the same for all of us. We are all really good drivers in F2. But out of 20 seats in F1, there only one or two seats that open up.
I do feel like I am ready to move up. I am not the only one who would feel so. But you need to have the opportunity to be able to prove yourself. I do hope that I get a test against a current F1 driver in an F1 car to see where I stand. I am definitely confident in my abilities. I have no doubt that I should belong in F1.
Have you started weighing options for the next season?
To be honest, I am still looking for a reserve role in F1 for next year. Then hoping for a race seat in the following year. It happens to all the drivers. You keep waiting for the decision for F1 seat, but then you run out of options for that year of racing.
For next year, I still don’t know what I’m going to do. If it’s not F1, I would still like to be racing somewhere. Whether its IndyCar or Formula E, I would like to stay in single seaters. I am willing to wait a year on the side to be a reserve driver, to go to F1 the year after. But I can’t keep waiting.
How does it feel like to be the poster boy of Indian motor racing?
I don’t look at it like that. I have been the most successful (Indian) over the last decade or so. But I am trying to be the best driver that I can be in the world, not only in India. When I win an F2 race and hear the national anthem on the podium, it’s the best feeling. You feel like you have achieved something. Not just for myself, but for my family, for my country. Representing the country does mean a lot and I hope I can do that in F1 as well.
Since you first started racing, have you seen any changes, any growth in Indian motorsport?
I do think Indian motorsport needs some sort of backing. In countries like France, they have the motorsport federation that backs athletes all the way from karting to F1. Everyone knows motorsport is an expensive sport, so you do need help. Without any sponsorships or money, it’s practically impossible to move up the ladder. Somehow, we need the support of the nation more.
Motorsport is elitist not only in India. Even karting is expensive nowadays. If we were to have a national academy for karting, where people could participate for free, then we would be supporting talent the right way.
We don’t have enough Indians competing abroad. Right now, there’s only me in F2, Kush (Maini) in F3 and few others here and there. Compared to the rest of the European grid, we are definitely, barely any.
Do we think we have enough motorsport competitions in India?
We still have our national championships in India. There are not too many people participating now. Obviously, it’s because of a lot of factors. You require time and commitment. It’s not like in badminton, you can wake up and go to the courts for a couple of hours before school. It requires a whole weekend. You need the support of your parents, of your school. Luckily, my parents gave me all the support I needed at a very young age.
When I did race in India, I was competing against 15 people. When I went abroad I was competing against 115 people in one race. Small mistakes here and there and 20 people out qualify you. It teaches you to be a perfectionist and that helps you in your career.
Which are your favourite racing circuits in India?
My favourite karting circuit is in Kolhapur. When I was starting in the sport, there wasn’t a real track to go to in Mumbai so I used to travel every weekend with my grandfather to Kolhapur. I used to drive straight from school. Then I used to practice Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday till evening then drive back home and go to school on Monday. I did that for a whole year. That was also the biggest track in India for karting. Nice facilities, nice environment.
Do you think that the Formula E race coming to India will help raise the profile of the sport?
It should help. If you look at the growth of Formula E in the last 10 years, it’s has been phenomenal.
If F1 is not in India, I think Formula E is the next best thing. It’s a World FIH Championship. You have world class manufacturers and teams. Probably some of the best drivers in the world. There are 20 drivers and if you see their junior records, the drivers in Formula E all deserve to be in F1. In terms of competitiveness, it’s great.
We have an Indian team in Formula E in the form of Mahindra Racing. And they are quite competitive as well. Having it on the streets of Hyderabad should attract more people and hopefully lot of advertising. I think it takes one person for a sport to grow, hopefully I am that one.