Circa April 2011. The Force India F1 Team had just announced their junior driver program, the ‘One from a Billion Hunt’. The program was aimed at school students aged 14-17 years and the objective was to find Force India’s first-ever Indian Formula 1 driver. As the person who was responsible to organise the ‘One from a Billion Hunt,’ the decision to work with this age-group was a complex one. From the global racing context, the age group could have been considered too old (yes, they start racing much younger in Europe). However, in the Indian sports' context, this was just about the correct group, or possibly even younger.
What made the age-group selection even more complex was that there were talented drivers on either side of the scale who missed the cut just by a few months or even weeks. After numerous inquiries and discussions, we decided to issue two wildcard entries — one each for the 12-14-year and 17-19-year brackets. After all, we (Force India) wanted to give all current racers a fair chance too. It was the issuance of these wildcards that gave Jehan Daruvala, who was barely 11 years old (and hence outside of the original age bracket), a chance to participate in the programme. As we now see history in the making at the hands of Daruvala, I wanted to offer Motorsport fans this historical context.
Daruvala, the only driver to be retained by Force India after a gruelling first year in the British Karting Championship in 2012, has proved with every passing season why he is one of India’s brightest prospects to make it to Formula 1 — Arjun Maini, who I spoke to for Firstpost last month, being the other. The greatest endorsement of Daruvala’s talent is this tweet from Narain Karthikeyan, India’s first Formula 1 driver and the original ‘Fastest Indian in the World’.
By far India's brightest prospect of making it to F1. Today's superb drive in the most competitive junior grid seals that. Awesome mate!
— Narain Karthikeyan (@narainracing) July 2, 2017
After years of going through the grind and achieving phenomenal success in karting and junior formulae, 2018 could well be the year that defines Daruvala’s proximity to Formula 1. As a Force India junior driver, he already has a connection in the fastest racing car series in the world. However, he knows that it is one thing to be a junior driver, but altogether another to get a chance to race for one the most coveted mid-field teams in the sport.
"As a part of Force India Formula One Team’s Academy, I am in close contact with them (the team) all the time. They track my performance and are quite happy with my results so far. There haven’t been any discussions about me driving a Formula 1 car or being their development driver yet, but I think we both agree that it is best for me to focus on my own (F3) season right now and getting a Formula 1 drive would be a consequence of my results in F3," Daruvala says.
"My focus for 2018 is to do the best I can and hopefully I should be rewarded with what I deserve in the coming years."
It was at the Cumbria Kart Racing Circuit in Rowrah in 2012, the last round of the British Karting Championship, when Daruvala announced his arrival in the European karting scene. Subsequently, he won the 2013 British KF3 Championship (first and the only Indian ever to do so) and was crowned vice runner-up in the World Karting Championship in 2014. In 2015, he switched to racing cars and honed his skills in the Formula Renault 2.0 car across various series (NEC, Alps and Eurocup). In 2016, Daruvala made history by becoming the first Indian to win a Grand Prix in Motorsport when he won the New Zealand Grand Prix in the Toyota Racing Series. In 2017, Daruvala made the jump to the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.
The FIA Formula 3 European Championship is regarded as one of the best series to prepare yourself for Formula 1 and hence attracts a very competitive grid of drivers each year. Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing) and Esteban Ocon (Force India F1 Team) are graduates from this series and Lando Norris, the winner from 2017, is Mclaren’s test and reserve driver for the 2018 Formula 1 Season. In 2017, Daruvala notched up a win, a pole position and three podium finishes which saw him finish sixth in the championship overall and second (behind Norris) in the rookie championship.
After a decent string of results in 2017, most drivers would have considered graduating to a different series — either faster (like Formula 2) or alongside (like GP3). However, Daruvala has chosen to spend a second year in the FIA Formula 3 — a decision that resonates with the ones he has made in the past too when it came to answer the key question — ‘which series to race in this season?’ Daruvala has used the first year in every series to acquaint himself with the cars, tracks and his team and prepare himself to launch a championship assault in the second year. In 2015, Daruvala finished a respectable fourth in his second year in the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC after clinching a win, pole position and fastest lap and five podium finishes.
"My main reason to do another year in F3 is because compared to the other junior series out there, I have a lot more track-time than I would get in GP3 or F2. I think I am still young right now and extra track-time will help me improve and develop as a driver since F3 is the best grounds to hone one’s skills. Also, more races mean more start practices and more opportunities to go wheel-to-wheel racing. Overall for me, F3 will offer more of a learning curve than other series," he says.
But how realistic would a championship win be for 2018 for Daruvala?
"My last year in F3 was pretty competitive for my rookie year. For 2018, I have more hopes and aspirations. But I have to be realistic — my title chances depend on the performance and reliability of the team and how consistently I perform throughout the year. The target would be the Championship, but even a top-three result would be a great result considering that F3 is probably the hardest junior series out there," Daruvala explains.
Like Formula 1, the FIA Formula 3 too has limited pre-season testing — a move that ensures that every driver gets an equal opportunity to learn and showcase their talent, instead of favouring drivers with larger budgets. In the 2017 pre-season tests, Daruvala and his team (Carlin) didn’t scorch the timing sheets. Daruvala insists his team's focus is more on improving cars.
"If you refer to the time-sheets from this season’s pre-season test, it might look as though it didn’t go off too well for us. But to be honest, as a team we didn’t really consider the time-sheets (during the tests) and instead tried to focus on improving the car in different ways. If you refer to last season’s (2017) pre-season tests, we were outside the top-15 at the Red Bull Ring, but when we arrived at Round 1 (Silverstone), our cars were running in the top five. I trust the team and I am sure they are on top of things. As a driver, I am focusing on being my best and beating my teammates.
During each of my interactions with Daruvala, there’s been an air of calm and patience about his career and possible breakthrough in Formula 1. Red Bull Racing’s liberty to their junior drivers — Verstappen, Kvyat and others — has definitely lowered the age of entry into Formula 1, but thankfully, Daruvala isn’t fazed by that. He is happy to bide his time, perform to his targets and let things come to him rather than chase them down impatiently. For 2018, he clearly labels his areas of improvement.
"My race craft has been pretty good over the last few years of my single-seater racing career. I think my key area to improve would be qualifying. If you qualify at the top, you finish at the top — it is like Formula 1 these days. The cars are very aerodynamic so it is very difficult to pass when behind, hence, it is important to qualify well and get off the line; once you do that and have reasonable pace in the race, it is hard to get overtaken. My main focus would be to perform consistently well in qualifying, race up ahead and grab opportunities when I can," he says.
The 2018 FIA Formula 3 European Championship starts next weekend (12-13 May) at the Circuit de Pau-Ville in Pau, France. The championship will have 10 rounds (3 races per round) some of which will be hosted on iconic Formula 1 circuits such as the Spa Francorchamps, Silverstone and Red Bull Racing. Daruvala, who will be racing a pink-coloured racing car (a la Force India) in 2018, has listed Mick Schumacher, Dan Ticktum (a member of the Red Bull Racing junior driver program), Ralf Aron and Marcus Armstrong as some of his main rivals. A championship win or a top-three result will add a definite spring in Daruvala’s steps towards Formula 1.
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Updated Date: May 06, 2018 20:19:44 IST