After the last race of the final round of the 2010 National Racing Championship at the Madras Motor Racing Track, I was chit-chatting with Rayomand Banajee, who was waiting for the podium ceremony to begin. He was among the winners in his class, waiting to receive his trophy. Rayo was still an active racer, but he was clearly looking at the future. Given his passion for racing, he had informally started training a handful of kids in Mumbai.
On that humid Chennai afternoon, our conversation veered towards the next generation of young drivers. Rayo mentioned a few names, who had the potential of making it big. But he singled out one 12-year-old kid, whom he was training. “Watch out for him, he is very good. If he manages to hold everything together, he will go places,” said Rayo, who has a habit of replying in short bursts. That kid’s name was Jehan Daruvala. Ten years later, since that trackside conversation with his mentor, that kid has grown up into a strapping young man. And, at 22. he is India’s next big hope to make the cut for Formula 1.
In 2020, the Indian driver moved a notch up when Red Bull Racing signed Daruvala as part of their junior driver development programme for the FIA Formula 2 Championship based on his performance in the 2019 FIA Formula 3 Championship, in which he finished in third place in the drivers’ points table. On Jan 15, the famed stable of racing drivers announced that the Daruvala will be retained in the programme for the 2021 calendar. The FIA Formula 2 Championship is considered as the penultimate step before entering the hallowed portals of Formula 1. Formula 2 is considered the most competitive racing championship outside F1. He finished in 12th place in the Drivers’ Championship with 72 points and two podiums.
A few days before the Red Bull Racing announcement, I spoke to Jehan Daruvala about his debut in Formula 2, racing in bio-bubble, and a life away from family and friends. Excerpts:
How would describe your Formula 2 debut?
To be frank, I expected a bit more from myself. The best way to describe is that it was a season of two halves. In the first half of the season, I struggled a bit in the races mainly due to poor starts despite good qualifying results, and with tyre management. In F2, if you drop down a few places going into the first corner, it’s always going to be a struggle because these tyres degrade very fast. But the second half of the season was much better, culminating with a win in the last round in Bahrain. I worked on my starts; learnt to make the clutch work best at the start and learnt a lot how to manage the tyres. It was a steep learning curve.
Could you talk a bit about tyre management, because it seems it’s a critical factor in determining the race results?
Actually, F2 tyres that are used on the new 18-inch wheels deliver peak performance for only one lap in qualifying. That’s why qualifying at the top is the best place to be. One can’t be overly aggressive on the brakes going into the corners because it will degrade the tyres even faster. Also, when is dicing for a place with another driver, it might be a better option to back off a bit to conserve the tyres for later part of the race. If you don’t have the tyres, you are just a sitting duck. The best option is to stay at the front and not drive in the dirty air (turbulence behind a race car), which takes a toll on the tyres. I learnt more about tyre management as the season progressed. But next year, the format of races is changing. Hopefully, I will do better.
How do you compare the F2 cars to ones in the previous championships that you have raced in?
To start with, driving an F2 car is a lot more physical with those big 18-inch wheels. You need to be physically strong to last the races over a weekend. And this year, it was very intense because of a packed calendar due to Covid-19. The way these cars feel is completely different from anything that I have driven in the past. Also, the F2 grid is highly competitive and the racing is extremely close. In fact, watching an F2 race is more interesting than Formula 1 because you don’t know the outcome until the very end. The intensity of racing us much higher in F2.
Since you talked about the physicality of driving an F2 car, how did you prepare yourself in the midst of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic that forced all the gyms to shut down?
Fortunately, I am physically strong. So, I never really struggled at any point during the season. Also, I have a lot of training stuff in my flat in the UK. I had a regular training routine. I would say the lockdown didn’t make much of a difference as far as my physical training was concerned.
F2 is considered the penultimate step before Formula 1, which might be creating some pressure to keep performing at the peak because the big boys of racing are watching for the next exciting for talent?
There is always pressure when you are racing, especially when you know that you are just one good season away from Formula 1. But I have been racing long enough to let any pressure to affect my performance. More important for me is to enjoy racing, since I love racing so much.
What kind of a relationship you need to have with the engineers and mechanics in the team?
I have been with Carlin for a while since I raced in F3 with the same team. As a result, there is a degree of comfort with the team. But still, you need to have a very clear line of communication with your race engineer. You have to give the engineers precise feedback because these cares are loaded with so many sensors that generate an enormous amount of data and if your feedback is not correct or aligned with what the data is saying, they know it instantly. Over the course of the year, I have built a good relationship with the team and my race engineer. They are a fantastic bunch of people. The race days are extremely long. I often leave the track late in the night after all the debriefing is done.
What was the experience of racing in bio-bubble?
It was certainly a new experience for everyone. There were Covid-19 tests once every four days. I must have undergone around 40 tests during the season. Initially, it used to feel a bit uncomfortable when they collected the sample because they went really deep, but gradually I got used to it.
And how does it feel to be back home?
It feels really good to be with my family and friends, because this year I have stayed away from home for longer due to the pandemic. In previous years, I would visit home once every three or four months. Also, this year, my parents were not able to attend the races because of the bio-bubble. To be honest, I have got used to staying away from home since I moved to the UK when I was 13. So, there is a bit of sacrifice there, but this is what I love to do, and I don’t mind the price.