The final step is sometimes the hardest. At the age of 13, Jehan Daruvala left his plush family home in Mumbai to enter the cut-throat world of single-seater racing. His progress through the ranks has been steady rather than spectacular. For the past two years, Daruvala has plied his trade in Formula 2, which sits just one rung below the pinnacle of the sport, Formula 1. Having inched towards his goal for a decade and a half, Daruvala is hoping his third season in F2 can see him vault the last hurdle.
“This is going to be the most important year for me,” the 23-year-old tells Lounge. “I feel like this is the year for me to perform, to fight for the championship. If I do so then I believe I can get the opportunity to go to F1.”
The 2022 F2 season begins on 18 March, at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain. And Daruvala is well-positioned on the starting grid as he has secured a drive for Prema Racing, which has won the team and drivers’ championship for the last two years. After a fruitful stint with them in F3, where he finished third in 2019, Daruvala resumed his association with the team for this season. “They are the team to be with,” he says. “They have had a good record in all their categories so far. We worked together in 2019 as well, so I share a good relationship with them. So if everything goes to plan, I can fight for the championship throughout the year.”
The only Indian in the field, Daruvala is in pole position to become only the third driver from the country, after Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, to make it to F1. But his journey is another reminder that even 17 years after Karthikeyan’s debut, F1 remains a near impossible quest for Indian drivers.
“I look at it as an opportunity,” says Daruvala, of being India’s best shot at an F1 seat in the near future. “I am not going to lie, there is always going to be some pressure. But if you want to go to F1, you have to learn to deal with at least this much pressure.”
Motor racing received a fillip in India in the mid-2000s when Karthikeyan (2005) and Chandhok (2010) broke through into F1. India had an F1 team on the grid in Force India from 2008 to 2018 and the country hosted a Grand Prix from 2011 to 2013. Although the momentum was lost, Daruvala is one of the discoveries of that exciting era. Hailing from an affluent Parsi family in Mumbai, Daruvala began karting at the age of 10. He was one of the winners of Force India’s ‘One in a Billion’ hunt in 2011. Daruvala then moved to Europe and did his apprenticeship in the lower levels of motor racing, like Formula Renault 2.0, Toyota Racing Series, Formula 3 European Championships and F3.
“I did start (karting) quite late compared to the others,” he says. “In Europe they start at around five years of age. I tend to be a bit older to the guys right close to me. We don’t have the same opportunities in India as these guys have here. I did do a lot of my racing since I was 13 years old in Europe, just because all the races are here; the competition is a lot higher. You know where you really stand when you come here. Definitely motorsport still has a lot of scope to grow in India and currently it is on the right route.”
In 2020, he was taken on by the Red Bull Junior team as a part of its driver development programme, and made the jump to F2. Driving for Carlin, Daruvala finished 12 in his first season and he moved up the leaderboard to No 7 in 2021. He had two wins and three podium finishes to his name in the sophomore season. “The two seasons, I have learnt a lot and developed a lot as a driver,” he says. “I have got a lot better at my starts. Also, my qualifying speed has improved but that’s still one place where I need to find more improvement. In the third season, another thing I am looking for is to not have a rollercoaster season and be more consistent. Its 14 races, so it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s more about being there every week, scoring solid points.”
F2 replaced GP 2 as the feeder series for Formula 1 in 2017. Since then, four of their champions have graduated to F1, including Charles Leclerc and Mick Schumacher. 2021 winner Oscar Piastri was signed on as the reserve driver for Alpine and McLaren F1 teams. So far, nine F2 drivers have made the step up.
The feeder series focuses on the man rather than the machine. F2 cars, which travel faster than 300kmph, use the same chassis, engine and tyre supplier to ensure the onus is on the driver’s skill rather than how sophisticated the technology is. There is plenty of driving talent on show, all of them racing towards a coveted seat in F1.
“The competition is at a really high level,” Daruvala says of F2. “There are a lot of drivers who are already good enough to go to F1. But unfortunately, in this sport, not too many spots open up every year. The level of drivers is really, really high. Most drivers who are in F1 have been in F2 and won there. It’s one of hardest championships in the world. And just to be fighting at the front, with all of these drivers gives me a lot of confidence.
“I have not really put a timeframe to be going to F1 as such. It’s never going to be easy. To be a part of the Red Bull Junior Team, I have that opportunity that if I really perform well I can make it to F1.”
Daruvala’s return to Prema Racing began on an encouraging start as he recorded the second-fastest lap time during the pre-season tests in Bahrain. He clocked 1:42.074m during the afternoon session on Day 1 and completed 153 laps over the three days before testing was interrupted by a sandstorm.
“Overall pre-season test went quite well,” he says. “We had a day session and night session on all three days. We were trying to simulate the stuff we were going to do on the race weekend. We qualify in the night next week. So all out qualifying simulations we tried to do in the night session. The day sessions were more focused on the long runs. We had good speed on the race runs and the qualifying runs. We are in a good place going into the weekend.”
Beginning with Bahrain, the F2 season will see drivers take on some iconic racing circuits like Monaco, Silverstone, Monza, Imola and Spa-Francorchamps over the next nine months. The Indian will head into the new season with renewed hope of making the cut for F1.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.