He might only be 22, but it’s likely that the evening of Sunday, December 6, will remain one of the highlights of Jehan Daruvala’s racing career. By taking the chequered flag in Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit, he became the first Indian to win a race in Formula 2. And while Daruvala prides himself on being the stoic sort, he admits there were a few goosebumps when he stood on top of the podium. “I’m not really an emotional guy but hearing the national anthem made me feel really proud. That’s when it sinks in a little bit,” he says.
Daruvala didn’t really get the chance to soak up that feeling, though. He soon rushed off the stage to head to the Carlin team paddock for a debrief with analysts and engineers on how his race had gone. On Monday, he was on the track once again. “There’s no real time to celebrate because I have to be back on the track and focus on next year’s plans. There’s a three-day post-season test starting immediately. You have these in Formula 1 and it’s the same in Formula 2 as well for the drivers who will be back next season. So there’s literally no rest,” he says.
Daruvala, who remained with Carlin for post-season testing, doesn’t want to disclose much about his future prospects but for the fact that he will remain in Formula 2 for another season.
In doing so, he’d want to improve on his debut season. Having signed with a top team, Daruvala had high hopes at the start of the year, saying he wanted to replicate what Lando Norris — another Carlin driver who now competes for McLaren in Formula 1 — had done. An F1 spot remains the ultimate destination for Daruvala, who’s hoping to be just the third Indian to compete in that competition. That progression, from the penultimate rung of the motorsports ladder to the top, hasn’t happened.
Although he ended well, with a maiden podium finish last week and a win in his final race of the season, the Indian’s season has been of the middling sort. He finished 12th in the Drivers’ Championship, over a hundred points behind his teammate Yuki Tsunoda, who finished third overall. To no one’s surprise, Tsunoda is widely tipped to be heading to the marquee Formula 1 next year. This wasn’t all Daruvala’s fault. His car had technical troubles for much of the first half of the season. While Daruvala was routinely among the fastest in qualifying, clutch issues meant he regularly got off to terrible starts in the actual race. He began finishing among the points only after his engine was changed midway through the season.
There’s no reason Daruvala can’t turn things around as others have done so. Like Daruvala, Mick Schumacher — son of the legendary Michael — also finished 12th last season. This year, he’s finished top of the Drivers’ Championship and, having been signed by Haas, is headed to Formula 1 next year. It’s a tough ask, which is why Daruvala doesn’t want to play up his win. “My goal isn’t to have one podium or one win in the year. It’s to be at the sharp end of the grid consistently,” he says.
But this is also why Daruvala’s solitary win is important, if only to give him the self-belief that he can finish on top. “It’s great for his confidence,” says former Formula 1 driver Karun Chandhok, who won two races in GP2 — the precursor to Formula 2. “Jehan will be able to carry that confidence into the next season. For myself and of course for Jehan and most drivers, there is an element of relief as well on getting your first win. You achieve what you believe is your potential,” says Chandhok.
The win was doubly important, especially in light of his teammate’s success. “It is critical because you need to show — not just to yourself but also your sponsors that they are right in backing you. Jehan is a Red Bull junior racer like I was. And with a sponsor like that, there’s a lot of pressure. They expect you to win races and fight for the championships. There is of course added pressure because his teammate has won races and will be in F1 next year. It was the same when I was racing as well. There were four Red Bull junior drivers in GP2 and we were constantly being compared to each other,” says Chandhok.
Sending it to win the race ��
– Formula 2 (@FIA_F2) December 6, 2020
As he goes into his second season in 2021, Daruvala will have to outperform his colleagues. “For next year, my target is to fight for the championships and be in the top three. If things go right, there’s no reason I can’t be in that position,” Daruvala says.
Unlike this season, he can’t just count on a strong second half but will have to set the pace from the start. “A lot of the negotiations for a spot in Formula 1 will begin around the halfway stage. So you need to start putting in your performances by that stage,” says Chandhok.
Of course, admits Chandhok, a lot of puzzle pieces have to fall in place simultaneously. “The vast majority of drivers who get into Formula 2 will never compete in Formula 1,” says Chandhok. “First of all, if someone has to get into Formula 1, there has to be some driver who has to be cut from his Formula 1 team. That number changes from year to year. When I got into Formula 1, there were another four who came in from GP2. In other years, there is maybe one guy or no one who graduates. It’s even harder because there are just 20 drivers spots in Formula 1 today compared to 24 when I was competing 10 years ago. ” he adds.
Chandhok adds that Daruvala will have to put himself out there. “At this stage, you need someone backing you. You have to sell yourself to Formula 1 teams. You have to put yourself on their radar. You can’t just expect your management or your father to do it for you. When I was driving, I’d mail Bernie Ecclestone every month, just in the chance that he might remember hearing about me at some point,” he says.
Chandhok says this might be challenging for Daruvala, who he reckons is a bit reticent. “Jehan has a lot of great qualities. He has a great work ethic, very analytical when it comes to thinking about the car and understands the engineering aspect of his car. He’s a little shy though and not at all pushy like I was. He has to change that,” says Chandhok.
“My goal isn’t to have one podium or one win in the year. It’s to be at the sharp end of the grid consistently.”
None of this will matter unless Daruvala can make an impact on the racetrack. “If you do finish in the top three in Formula 2, you are always going to have a good chance to be picked by a Formula 1 team,” he says. This holds true even in the finance-driven world of Formula 1, where potential sponsorship brought in by drivers can weigh in heavily on the prospect of a driver looking to compete. “Honestly, there are maybe two teams — Haas and Williams — where drivers are expected to bring in sponsorships. That is a lot fewer than it was in the past and with more equitable distribution of revenue expected next year, the pressure of landing a sponsored driver is going to reduce further.
Of course, if you have to bring the backing of 15-20 million dollars in sponsorship that’s helpful, but the teams want a good driver at the end of the day. If you take two drivers who pay 10 million each and they finish last, that’s not very useful compared to a driver that can end up even sixth or seventh in the Drivers’ Championship,” says Chandhok.
P1!!��✅…Feels really good to end the season on a high..A big thank you to team���� and everyone who’s supported me throughout the season …See you next year�� @FIA_F2 @CarlinRacing @_winway @pap_sc pic.twitter.com/pq280JPRmY
– Jehan Daruvala (@DaruvalaJehan) December 6, 2020
As it stands, 2021 will be a crucial year for Daruvala. “I think he’s doing the right thing by giving himself another year in Formula 2. At the same time, he has to read the market. I believe a racer is putting up some two million dollars a year in order to compete in Formula 2. If he does a good job and there’s a seat available in Formula 1, that’s great. But (if) there isn’t any seat available, then there are hard choices that need to be made. But that isn’t something that can be predicted,” says Chandhok.
Daruvala knows this as well. “My plan is to get into Formula 1 but if you don’t do well in Formula 2, you won’t go to Formula 1. At this stage, my goal is to prepare well for Formula 2 and if things go well, this time next year, I’m in the frame for an Formula 1 seat. That would be a real special moment,” he says.