Ominously quick laptimes in pre-season testing has cast rookie Jehan Daruvala as one of the Formula 2 title favourites. Elliot Wood caught up with the new Red Bull junior to discuss his career in the latest podcast
At the start of March, the Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3 Championship paddocks were able to travel to Bahrain and complete their full pre-season test schedule before the global coronavirus pandemic shut down on-track action. During those three days (and nights) of running there were some surprising trends, and impressive work done by the two new teams.
The fastest driver on both one-lap and long-run pace in F2 was Carlin’s Jehan Daruvala, who had never driven the car before.
He had been set to enter the 2019 post-season test, but had tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee while playing football during the off-season and had been forced out of action for several months as a result. An initial four-hour surgery had been required to repair much of the damage, with an eight-week period that followed where he was not allowed to put his foot down – on the floor or on the throttle pedal of a racing car.
Daily trips to a rehabilitation clinic (which required avoiding actual tripping while on crutches) aided his recovery but the primary consequence of the injury had been a delay on putting pen to paper with Carlin for F2 and with Dr Helmut Marko to join the Red Bull Junior Team for 2020 until all parties knew his knee had fully recovered.
To understand how Daruvala ended up being in potentially the fastest car in F2 as a rookie and with a AlphaTauri Formula 1 seat on his radar for 2021, it’s best to start off with how the Indian’s motorsport career kicked off in the first place.
Daruvala had been karting in his home country for just two years before 2011, when the Force India F1 team launched its ‘One in a Billion’ hunt for local talent who it could support all the way to single-seaters’ top tier.
“The One in a Billion Hunt was for people between the age of 14 and 18, and I think I was just 13 at the time so I was not eligible to take part,” Daruvala says. “But out of 100s of finalists, they would have one above the age of 18 and one below the age of 14. So yeah, I was the one that got in below the age of 14.
“Finally, it was just 10 of us who came to England for the shootout [at Silverstone]. We had training at the Porsche Human Centre, we had media sessions at Force India, and also karting at Daytona. I was a mix of all stuff to evaluate us over a week. We drove not particularly fast go-karts, just 10 of us around Daytona, so I didn?t really have the chance to drive on any other tracks, or against any European opponents, it was just kind of us from India driving on our own.”
F2 and sportscar ace Arjun Maini was the overall winner, with Daruvala and former Euroformula racer Tarun Reddy chosen as the two runner-ups to tackle the British and international karting scene.
“It was quite difficult [coming to Britain], when I first came. I think more than anything in England the change of weather continuously was quite hard for me, with the rain and even snow. I was not used to that back home, it was always kind of dry. I never really drove in the rain until I came. So it was a big difference for me.
“[Force India’s expectations] was all about improving really. For them to see where we were at, as they themselves didn?t know how we would do in Europe. But after the first season I had where I got a couple of podiums, and it went quite well. So they kept me on for another year and expected me to win the championship the next season.”
While he was an F1 junior, Daruvala was already being quite independently-minded with his career and he ended up beating current Williams F1 development driver Dan Ticktum, F3 champion Enaam Ahmed and reigning BRSCC National Formula Ford 1600 champion Ross Martin to the 2013 Super 1 National KFJ title in the final race of the season.
For 2014 he stepped up to senior karts with top team Ricky Flynn Motorsport, claiming second in the German championship as well as third in the single-event CIK-FIA World championship behind team-mate Lando Norris and F2 rival Nikita Mazepin.
“I?ve been fortunate to be able to drive at good teams throughout my career going up the ladder. It?s just one thing leads to another. If you?re in a good team, then obviously you have better results so it helps you for the future. It was good that Force India gave me the opportunity to compete for a top team, and I also had a top driver coach who was Terry Fullerton.”
Fullerton certainly knows karting talent, having been Ayrton Senna’s rival, and team-mate, in the discipline in the late 1970s.
“Karting itself it gets very difficult because you have like maybe 100 people there [competing] at the World Championship. To be consistently at the top through the year, it gets very difficult. So to do that through the season, it gave me a lot of confidence that I can compete with the best guys.”
Norris had already started racing cars that year, as had many of Daruvala’s other karting rivals, and the Indian was looked set to lose ground to them when he was advised to stay in senior karts for 2015 so he could become world champion.
“I think I made the decision by myself to move up. I felt that I was ready to move up to single-seaters [for 2015], and when I arrived there I learned that it was a completely different skill.
“There is a lot of stuff similar to karting, but it doesn?t mean that if you?re good in karts you?re going to arrive in single-seaters and be good at it. It takes a lot of practice and hard work to move up the ladder.”
While his rivals all went to British F4 for 2015, Daruvala leapt straight to the Formula Renault Northern European Cup.
“I just took the advice of other people [on that decision]. In hindsight it was a step, a really difficult step, because I was competing against guys who had been in FR2.0 for three, four years. It was quite difficult for me in my first season to do well. But it helped me learn a lot and also gave me a perspective of how tough the competition is and how hard I needed to work.”
He finished fifth with Fortec Motorsports in his rookie season, behind drivers with an accumulated nine years of single-seater experience between them. Over the winter he reunited with Norris in the Toyota Racing Series and was runner-up to the Briton, and they joined up again in Europe at Josef Kaufmann Racing. Daruvala’s second season didn’t quite work out, improving only to fourth place in the NEC (with one win) and coming ninth in the Eurocup while Norris won both titles.
“To be fair frankly a lot of the time I was down on power. We couldn?t figure out why. Even tracks like Spa-Francorchamps, I qualified second but I was losing four, five tenths on my team-mates down the straights. I changed the engines, gearbox, everything, but it didn?t really help. Everywhere I went I was lacking power. It made it really difficult, we changed chassis and stuff, but nothing seemed to help. I kind of felt like I was being held back. I actually had a better first year than I did in .”
Those are strong words, but Force India kept its faith in its protege, and supportive comments from Norris suggested there was more to Daruvala’s poor results than a lack of ability.
“Lando, who was my team-mate, he could see it himself that I was being shown to be as not as good as I was. He clearly saw that I had the potential to do very well, that?s why the next season I decided to move up a category to do Formula 3.”
Prior to his rookie FIA European F3 season, Daruvala returned to TRS and won the prestigious New Zealand Grand Prix.
In F3 he was once again teamed up with Norris, and ended up as second best rookie in the points to his title-winning Carlin team-mate. He took a pole in his second race weekend, which he turned into a podium, and took a first win at the Norisring. There were no podiums in the season’s second half, but he was the only driver to finish all 30 races and he scored 25 times.
“It didn?t take me too long to adapt [to F3]. The car has so much downforce compared to other cars that in a way it just gives you confidence to keep pushing. There were very good drivers that year, a full field, so in the end to finish just outside the top five and as second rookie was a good year for me after having a poor season the year before in Renault.”
But it was another tricky second season, with Prema dominating and Carlin struggling with Hankook’s tyres. Daruvala was a distant 10th in the points, the top Carlin driver, and besides pole and victory at Spa he took four podiums after entering the year as a title favourite. Even worse, his Force India support ended as the team went under new ownership.
“We went from being really competitive the year before to being like either alright or just completely out of the picture. It was a weird year. I felt like I was driving a lot better than in 2017. Also I had very good team-mates again, Sacha Fenestraz and Ferdinand Habsburg, and they struggled a lot as well. I outqualified them through most of the year.
“At the end of the day, however bad the car is you have to drive it as fast as you can. And I tried to do that as much as I could through that season. A lot of times I qualified sixth or seventh, and I was pulling out really good laps.
“They were good laps so I had confidence in myself even though it did look [bad] from the outside as I was qualifying sixth. But those laps felt like pole laps. I was still believing in myself that if I had good machinery that I could compete at the front.”
That opportunity came not long after, with an impressive GP3 test showing and a deal to join Prema as it moved to the new FIA F3 series coming in for 2019.
“When I was having a tough time [in 2018], my driver coach Pieter Belmans knows [Prema boss] Rene Rosin, so we started the conversations then. Peter kind of told Rene: I think he?s good, but he?s not been given the car to perform.”
By the time of the Macau GP, he had already signed for Prema and was “looking forward to a fresh start”. With two Ferrari juniors as team-mates, Daruvala was more focused on beating them than speculating whether Prema be the team to beat.
It took two races for Daruvala to win, in a reversed grid race, but he followed that up with a second more conclusive win.
“From then on, I never really looked back. The season just kept going better and better, and I had just one round at Budapest which was bad. I was blocked in qualifying and qualified P17. Other than that, the whole year was very good. I always qualified in the top four, and I think in qualifying I was the best throughout the year. On general speed I was really happy with how the year went, I was just pretty unlucky in the last race in Sochi.”
Daruvala had taken the title fight with team-mate Robert Shwartzman to the Sochi season finale, but a throttle issue meant he had to start the final race from the pitlane and it cost him second in the standings by one point. It was the Sunday races, where Shwartzman had excelled, where Daruvala feels he lost the title.
“I didn?t really think about the title too much because I knew that in one weekend it could all go away. I think, if anything, I was maybe a bit too cautious in the sprint races. Just maybe on the first laps, knowing that I had the pace to come through. Instead of being more aggressive and having a fighting chance to win, I was kind of just seeing how it was developing… while Robert was more aggressive at the start, making up more positions.”
Shwartzman outscored his team-mate in both Saturday and Sunday races, but Daruvala’s title challenge brought him to the attention of Red Bull’s Marko – meeting him in the Sochi paddock straight after Shwartzman pipped him to pole.
That was the last time he was in a car until he put pen to paper with Carlin and Red Bull in February, hopped in the car for his seat fitting and then flew to Bahrain for testing. Reuniting with Carlin was arguably the more important deal, especially as Daruvala puts his development as a driver down to the teams he’s raced for rather than the support of F1 junior programmes.
Having access to Red Bull’s simulator and support may make the difference this year, given Daruvala is certainly in the thick of it. He was convincingly fastest on long-run pace in the Bahrain test, and was on for the fastest lap of the whole test before he encountered traffic. His compromised effort still put him second, just 0.008 seconds off the top. According to the man himself though, conclusions from testing are shaky at best.
“It?s really hard to judge timings through testing, it all went as well as it could really. I didn?t feel that I was completely out of the game as soon as I started driving the long runs. I just drove on feel for most of the test. I think the short-run pace was even better because on the lap I did a 1m41.2s which was the second fastest, I actually got blocked three tenths in the middle sector, and it was the only lap I did on options in the cold.
“All the other drivers did option-option in the night [when it was faster], while at Carlin we decided to do just one option run. The speed is something that you can?t really judge too much in testing, but I was very comfortable in the car straight away. It took me like one session to adapt to the delay a bit on the turbo, but after that I just felt really comfortable.
“I didn?t drive the old version of the car so I didn?t really know the difference [on new 18-inch wheels] to how the other one was. Probably that helped me in a way not to really think about the other tyre. I just drove to how this car felt. And for me it felt alright. It?s quite easy to lock up late in the braking zones if you have too much steering opp, but apart from that I felt it was quite normal. Just the tyres are higher, which I quite like because you can see more of them while you?re driving.
“I?ll try [for the title]. Similar to last year, even though FIA F3 was a new series for me, I was quite competitive out of the box. That?s going to be my goal for this year as well. I think to more than anything just be consistently fast and try not to make mistakes throughout the season. I don?t really know how many rounds and stuff we?re still going to have. I’m quite looking forward to now going racing. We?ve had quite a few months off and I cant wait to start the season.”
If Daruvala is a serious title threat for 2020, and go one better than Norris in winning it as a rookie, who does he think his opposition will be?
“I?d say Ghiotto, if he does the full season, will obviously be one of the favourites just down to his experience and speed. Then the rookies from last year who did well like Callum Ilott, Guanyu Zhou, Mick Schumacher and Giuliano Alesi. Apart from that,? us rookies that are coming in are going to be really fast so overall I think the whole season?s going to be really competitive.”
To hear the interview in full, listen to the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast. You can find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.