Racer’s edge: A Wknd interview with Formula 2 driver Jehan Daruvala

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Even off the track, Jehan Daruvala’s life has been a place of tight bends, sharp corners and chicanes, and they’ve led him from the streets of Dadar in Mumbai to Hammersmith in West London, with stops on racetracks in three continents along the way.

He’s still not in the lane he wants. India’s only competing Formula 2 driver dreams of making it to Formula 1. He’s now 23, he’s been racing for 12 years, and he plans to keep going for another 20 if that’s what it takes, he says.

F2, the main feeder series for F1, is a second-tier racing championship where young drivers get to show off their skills in the hope of being spotted and signed by F1. F2 currently has 11 teams and 22 driver slots. F1 has 20, with only about a couple opening up to new drivers each year.

It’s a dream Daruvala chases in a rather solitary manner, cheered on by his family but few others in a country with no F1 race or team of its own. That doesn’t faze him, he says. “I have dreamt of F1 since I was a kid. It is what drives me. Racing is the biggest thing in my life by far.”

Last week, Daruvala realised part of that dream when he tested a Formula 1 car for the first time, for McLaren, at England’s iconic Silverstone circuit, home of the British Grand Prix (where Daruvala is also racing today). He logged 130 laps over two days, around the historic track that hosted the first-ever F1 race in 1950.

Daruvala drove McLaren’s 2021 race-winning car, making him eligible for a Formula 1 super licence. Additionally, he’s had five podium finishes in the 2022 Formula 2 Championship and is currently third overall in the standings. Could this be his year?

Most junior drivers who make it to F1 do it after one or two F2 seasons; it helps to win the championship. Daruvala is in his third season, and though he won three races in the last two years, is yet to stand on the top step of the rostrum this term.

He comes from a country with a slim history in the sport. India has had only two F1 drivers so far, Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, and no race winners.

Daruvala hopes he’ll be the one to change that last bit. “It’s like badminton. You need one person to do well and succeed and then the sport grows massively. It’s a process. India has not been up there in the highest tier of racing but it’s only a matter of time now,” he says.

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Daruvala currently drives for the Italian outfit Prema Racing and is a member of the Red Bull Junior Team (where F1 champions Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen were groomed).

His interest in the sport began in 2005-06. Watching champion Fernando Alonso on TV spurred him to get into a go-kart at the age of eight. “I couldn’t reach the pedals; I had to put cushions behind me. But it was the most fun thing I did,” Daruvala says. “I wanted to race but I didn’t think there was any scope in India at the time.”

It was his father, businessman Khurshed Daruvala, who noticed a newspaper advertisement for a go-kart training camp and signed his son up. By the time the then-F1 team Force India organised the One in a Billion hunt for Indian formula-racing drivers in 2011, a 13-year-old Daruvala was ready. He was one of three winners; suddenly, things were getting serious.

At 14, he moved to the UK so he could dedicate most of his time to training. High-speed racing puts the body, particularly the neck, through G-forces that could snap it without the proper strength and training. It’s been pretty much all work and no play for 10 years as Daruvala trains, rides, works on his times, on a loop. His visits home have been his only real vacations. He doesn’t mind. “Racing is my life,” he says.

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Of next year’s 20 F1 seats, 12 are already taken, with teams retaining their drivers. Most of the eight that remain will likely retain their drivers too, with one or two seats likely to open up. Only one new driver debuted in 2022, three in 2021 and one in 2020.

How does he deal with the stress of chasing this mirage of a goal? “Mentally, I’m quite a relaxed person. I don’t really worry too much about what could or should happen. I just focus on the present.” He tries not to let the game take over his head, Daruvala adds. “It’s about having the right balance between being disappointed and learning from it.”

Homesickness can make it harder. “I am busy, so I don’t have too much time to think about it, but I miss spending time with my family and friends. Those are the main things,” he says.

When he’s home in Mumbai, he turns to sports that don’t involve a steering wheel: badminton, table-tennis, squash. He played football, before hurting his knee in 2019. “I’m not into music or reading but I am a sports freak,” he says.

He loves cricket too, “of course”. “My favourite cricketer is Virat Kohli. I’ve met him a few times. He’s quite a relaxed guy but quite determined and focused as everyone can see. He’s got that hunger to always do well and win.” Behind his calm demeanour, Daruvala has the hunger too. Now he’s waiting for the win.

FAST FACTS

* Jehan Daruvala, 23, has lived away from home since he was 14, to focus on his motorsport career. He first got behind the wheel in a go-kart, at age eight. “I couldn’t reach the pedals; I had to put cushions behind me,” he says. Last week, Daruvala tested a Formula 1 car for the first time.

* Formula 1 cars can reach speeds of up to 370 kmph, but it’s the G-forces from acceleration, deceleration and cornering that a driver must get used to. An F1 car can go from 0 to 100 kmph in just over two seconds. F1 drivers regularly experience up to 6Gs during the course of race.

* This puts the body under such severe strain that the neck in particular could snap without the proper strength and training. Formula 2 cars, incidentally, reach top speeds of 330 kmph and take 2.9 seconds to reach 100 kmph.

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