"The dream is not over" says Formula 2 racing driver Jehan Daruvala
Jehan Daruvala is India's best single-seater racing driver and we got into conversation with him, ahead of the prep for his fourth season in Formula 2, Formula 1's official feeder series championship. "I have no regrets. Honestly, it will be disappointing if I don’t race in Formula 1, but it is very very difficult at this stage. But the dream is not over,” confesses Jehan.
Continued a philosophical Jehan, “It’s definitely not easy but there are a lot of drivers who have been in this situation over the years. We all set ourselves to achieve things but we don’t always end up achieving them. When I look back at my career, even if I don’t end up being the third Indian racing in Formula 1, I have definitely been the most-successful Indian in the ladder going up to Formula 1."
I have known Jehan through the years (since 2011, to be specific), ever since he joined the Force India Driver Academy that I managed. As I prepared for our pre-season chat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would Jehan be flustered and frustrated at Formula 1 being more distant than ever? Or would he be excited about the future possibilities in his racing career? I was pleasantly surprised to have experienced the latter.
“I would love to race full-time in Formula E. The level of drivers in the series is very high. Obviously, Mahindra Racing would be my preferred team for next season (2023-24),” revealed Jehan as we discussed ‘what next’ among several other topics that included his upcoming season in Formula 2, his appointment as Mahindra Racing’s reserve driver, the first-ever Hyderabad ePrix and not continuing as a member of the Red Bull Junior Team.
Formula 2 & Formula 1
Formula 2 is only a step away from the most-high profile single-seater racing series on the planet, Formula 1. Jehan explains, “Even though I am just a step away from Formula 1, it does seem really far away. I have come to accept that Formula 1 is a distant reality right now. If it happens hereon, it will be a bonus.” During our chat, Jehan confirmed that he wasn’t in talks with other Formula 1 teams for their junior driver programs nor were further test sessions planned for 2023 (like with McLaren last year). I quizzed Jehan on how he intends to keep himself on the radar of Formula 1 teams with a shot for a seat in 2024?
“I need to just win, that’s the best way. In my situation, coming second or third won’t not be enough. In fact, even winning might not be enough. But I want to give myself the best possible chance by targeting a championship victory. Then, whatever happens, happens." He continued, "There are a lot of high performing drivers (Dennis Hauger, Jack Doohan, Theo Pourchaire were the few he named) knocking on the doors of Formula 1. They are in their second or third year. I know that I am in my fourth year, but if I can beat them and win the Formula 2 championship, I will believe that I deserve to race in Formula 1. But whether I get there or not is a bit out of my control."
Jehan explains, "Frankly, even if I win the Formula 2 championship, I don’t have expectations but I would hope that I get a Formula 1 seat! But nowadays, not a lot of Formula 2 champions have directly got a seat in the following year. I have a single goal this year: to win the Formula 2 championship. If that happens and I still don’t race in Formula 1, at least I know that I left the series on a high. Maybe I deserve to race in Formula 1, but maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
India being ignored by Formula 1
After purchasing Formula 1 from Bernie Ecclestone, Liberty Media set out to achieve one major objective: to win the hearts of the American fans. After a series of planned moves that included releasing Drive to Survive on Netflix, the interest in Formula 1 exploded in America. For the first time since ages, Formula 1 in 2023 will have an American team (Haas), an American rookie driver (Logan Sargeant) and three Grands Prix (Las Vegas, Miami & Austin); and there’s pressure to add more. In comparison, the Indian market has been largely ignored by Formula 1 despite the sport releasing a report in late-2019 that there were 31 million fans in the country (note: this isn’t a direct comparison of the fan bases). The Indian Grand Prix, which ran for three years (2011-13), has no signs of a return. For 2023, Formula 1 is yet to announce an official broadcaster for India and the start to the new season is less than 20 days away.
Would Formula 1 adding India as its focus market help Jehan in his quest? “I think that would help quite a lot. Right now, there’s no added pressure from the Indian market for me to get into Formula 1 so it is more difficult. We have a population of 1.4 billion Indians but the motorsport market is probably not that huge in India. But I think there is definitely a market that can be explored; having an Indian race in Formula 1 could help nurture the market further. But at the end of the day, I want to get into Formula 1 on merit and not because I am Indian,” opined Jehan.
Fourth season in Formula 2
In my view, Jehan’s progress in Formula 2 has been hampered by team-car issues since the very first season. By the end of 2023, Jehan would be one of the more-experienced drivers in the series. Explaining his decision to race in Formula 2 for the fourth time, Jehan said, “My decision to race in Formula 2 for a fourth season is simple – there is no better championship to stay competitive and race against top drivers. It’s a much better option for me to race in Formula 2 than sit out for a year and miss out on racing!”
But the decision to race in Formula 2 wasn’t straightforward. Jehan had several options and considerations. He revealed, “I had a few options like Super Formula (in Japan), race IndyCar in America or continue to race in Formula 2. I had to keep in mind that there was no drive available in Formula E. Looking at all options, Super Formula was ruled out because the series has very limited interest in India (among sponsors). Formula 2 is still seen as a very prominent series since it is just a step below Formula 1. Also, it didn’t make sense to race in Japan for one year, if I was aiming to race in Formula E and the same was for IndyCar.
Jehan outlined that his preference is towards single-seaters, which led to his eventual decision, "The most-logical option, keeping in mind that I wanted to actively race in 2023, was to race in Formula 2 or endurance racing. Frankly, it was a last minute decision to race in Formula 2. Through most of last season, I was very sure that I wouldn’t race in Formula 2 in 2023. But if I wasn't going to race at all and a seat was available, I was happy to take it (in Formula 2). Also, I didn’t want to be in a team that wasn’t good enough. So when the chance with the reigning champions came along, I took it!”
For the second season in a row, Jehan signed for the reigning champions for the following year. In 2022 it was Prema, in 2023 it is MP Motorsport. Jehan elaborated on his decision, “I inquired with the team (MP Motorsport) in Monza, already quite late in the season, and they were still vacant. I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of drivers in talks with MP Motorsport for their seats in 2023 after their performances in the last couple of seasons. They’ve got a great bunch of engineers. I know a couple of them from before; they used to work at Prema. They want to come back and defend both Formula 2 championships."
Jehan seemed optimistic about the team's chances for 2023, "I hope that not much has changed since last year. Hopefully, we are as strong as they (MP Motorsport) were everywhere last year. If the package is good, it’s all down to me to deliver. Fingers crossed that the car is good and I’ve got a good chance to fight at the front every race weekend. I have nothing to lose in my fourth year. I want to go out and win it!”
Red Bull Junior Team
The optimism for Jehan’s fourth season in Formula 2 was dwarfed a bit when it was revealed in January 2023 that he would no longer continue to be a part of Red Bull’s illustrious junior driver program.
Jehan said, “The decision wasn’t a surprise for me. It was pretty straightforward with Red Bull Racing and Dr Helmut Marko, there are no hard feelings. We had three great years together. If it wasn’t for the disqualification in Austria, I would’ve still finished 3rd in the Drivers’ championship. Could that have changed the course for my career? I don’t know. In 2022, I had the best season in Formula 2, from a driving point of view. But I just didn’t have the package under me. In the end, I was hoping that going to Prema would give me the opportunity to win the championship and go to Formula 1. It is what it is, there were no results, so it was natural for the relationship to end."
In 2023, Jehan is up against a Red Bull junior (Hauger). He revealed, "My goal is to beat him as much as I can & prove that I should’ve been on the program!”
While expressing his firm desire to race in the series in the next season (2023-24), Jehan said, “I am confident that I will be competitive and winning races in Formula E. Dan Ticktum and Jake Hughes are good examples, they came from Formula 2 and have delivered straight away in Formula E.”
While Jehan is yet to race a Formula E car, he shared his impressions of the electric-powered racing cars after his simulator sessions with Mahindra Racing. “A Formula E racing car has a lot of power and doesn’t have much downforce, but it makes for good racing. The tyres aren’t racing slicks, so it is sketchy & slippery while driving. There are no gears so it feels like a big go-kart! The street tracks are super-cool, driving so close to the walls, I think that’s the most-fun part about it,” said Jehan.
Jehan revealed that his first discussion with Mahindra Racing was initiated three years ago. “Three years ago, Dilbagh Gill (former Team Principal of Mahindra Racing) was eager for me to join Mahindra Racing. Had I taken the Formula E route earlier, I would’ve probably had a race seat by now. But the team was patient with me while I pursued my Formula 1 dream. 2023 felt like the right time to finally make this connection. Mahindra is a well-established and founding team of Formula E. Mahindra Racing signed me up because they believe I can win races in Formula E and not because I am Indian. Of course, it helps that I am Indian but I am there because I am good enough and have earned my spot on merit,” said Jehan.
Explaining his current role and future aspirations with Mahindra Racing, Jehan said, “I will be attending most Formula E races that don’t clash with my Formula 2 commitments and I will be doing simulator correlation sessions through the season. I wish to be as integrated as possible and target a seat with Mahindra Racing next year, if possible. But to get a seat in Formula E isn’t easy either! Mahindra Racing has made it clear that I need to perform at a high-level in Formula 2. There's always pressure since there aren’t a lot of places to hide when racing.”
In a bid to increase participation from rookie drivers, Formula E has planned a rookie test in April and has mandated two Free Practice 1 sessions for rookies in the season. Given that Formula E’s latest Gen-3 car is new-in-use and that the Hyderabad ePrix circuit will be a first-time for the teams, it is understandable that Jehan won’t take to the track in Free Practice 1. “Hopefully, I will drive the Mahindra Racing car in the rookie test after the Berlin ePrix (22-23 April),” expressed Jehan.
Jehan will attend the upcoming Hyderabad ePrix as a reserve driver for Mahindra Racing following which he will fly straight to Bahrain for Formula 2’s pre-season test (14-16 February). Sharing his excitement for his first-ever ‘home race’, Jehan said, “I’m super-excited and the team shares my excitement! It’s probably the first time that I am going to a race in India apart from the last Indian Grand Prix (where he made an appearance as a Force India junior driver). I’m certain that a lot of fans will be in attendance.
Formula E does a great job in making the event nice for the fans. Hopefully, the Hyderabad ePrix weekend is nice for everyone. I hope to make it a bit better by being on the grid next year! The combination of being an Indian racing for an Indian team in the Hyderabad ePrix is definitely on my mind!”
More than ever before, Jehan knows that success in Formula 2 is the stepping stone to better racing options in 2024, be it Formula 1, Formula E or other racing series. To aid his search for a competitive seat, Jehan also revealed that he had signed with the famous driver manager duo, Alexander and Julian Jakobi of GP Sports Management fame since the start of 2023. “We are pushing together to find our best options for next season. I love racing & I want to be in a competitive car next year in whichever series I will be racing. And more importantly, next year onward, I should definitely be earning a living from racing.”