Jehan Daruvala Interview: Mclaren F1 Test – How It Happened & What Is Next?

#
Jehan, whose junior racing record is best ever for any Indian, became only the fourth Indian to drive a Formula 1 car (the Mclaren MCL35M) – and still remains India’s brightest hope to race in Formula 1.

I have been working in Formula 1 for many years now and as most of us Formula 1 junkies, I am always happy to talk about the sport with people I meet. The one question I always get from them is. “When do we next see an Indian driver in Formula 1?”

The truth is, for a country obsessed with cricket, Formula 1 is a distant fantasy. The recent official links between India and Formula 1 have only highlighted how precarious the two are. First, the Indian Grand Prix falling off the calendar followed by Vijay Mallya losing control of the Force India F1 Team – and both events occurred in the distant past.

In fact, Formula 1 is so low on India’s priority (and vice-versa), that Star Sports – the official broadcaster, only showcases the on-track sessions without any pre/post programming. And it isn’t that the sport has a lack of fan base in India.

In 2019, Formula 1’s official figures claimed that India had over 31 million fans and it would be safe to assume that the number has only grown thanks to more seasons of the popular Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ and a controversial title battle last year.

To me, Jehan Daruvala’s maiden Formula 1 test with Mclaren last week was as against the odds as it was historic. Jehan, whose junior racing record is best ever for any Indian, became only the fourth Indian to drive a F1 car – and still remains India’s brightest hope to race in the series.

On 21 June, Jehan undertook a two-day test for the former World Champion team Mclaren. He drove over 130 laps in the team’s 2021 car (the MCL35M) at the famous Silverstone Circuit in the UK.

After years of training and thousands of miles in junior racing cars, the Mumbai-born lad went from making steps towards Formula 1 to making a step in Formula 1!

Speaking exclusively about his maiden Formula 1 test to Firstpost, Jehan shared, “It was a dream come true. It was a realisation of a lot of hard work over the years. It was nice that my family was present during the test.”

Rayomand Banajee (aka Rayo), one of India’s finest Motorsport tutors and Jehan’s first-ever karting coach, was present at Silverstone, too. After all, Jehan stepping into a Formula 1 car was a dream come true for Rayo as well.

Flashback

When the news of Jehan’s test broke out (a day before the actual testing session), I had a flashback of my own journey with Jehan. It was in 2011 that our paths crossed – when his first step towards Formula 1 was participating in Force India’s ‘One from a Billion Hunt’; a program launched by Vijay Mallya to find India’s next Formula 1 driver.

I was entrusted to run the One from a Billion Hunt and have had the joy of following Jehan’s career closely ever since. In the years that followed, Jehan won multiple races and championships across karting and single-seater categories as he made steady steps towards F1. Despite being in Oslo, a few thousand miles away from Silverstone, I had goosebumps on the morning of his test.

Must Read | ‘One in a billion talent’ Jehan Daruvala gets pulses racing in F1 pursuit

Jehan said of his nerves, “On the day of the test, I was surprisingly not nervous at all. I didn’t feel out of place, I felt that I deserved to be there. I was realising my childhood dream of driving a Formula 1 car.”

“I think my sister was more nervous than me – before leaving the garage I could see her hopping and moving around.”

“So when I was driving out of the pit lane, I felt that it was another car with four wheels on it – obviously, it’s got a lot more power. But at the end of the day, I was there to do a good job. I wanted to have a lot of fun, and that was important to me.”

“As for feeling emotional myself, I was focusing so much on driving the car itself. There were so many switch changes & procedures to keep in mind!”

The build-up to the test

Of all the Indian drivers to have driven a F1 car, none have driven for a team as legendary and successful as Mclaren. In their 57 years of racing in Formula 1, Mclaren have won 183 of the 911 races they have started; en route they have won 8 Constructors’ Championships. The team’s headquarters in Woking, the Mclaren Technology Centre (MTC), is a visual delight & not to mention historic.

The two-day test took over two months of preparation from Jehan and Mclaren. This included the ever-crucial seat fit followed by days in the simulator. In fact, the opportunity to test started to brew even before that.

“I was focused on my Formula 2 season – the season has been busy with back-to-back races. My dad, who was working things in the background with my management, told me one day that a testing opportunity was available with Mclaren and asked if I would be interested. So we went down the road, spoke to Red Bull & Helmut Marko – and after we had his support, we decided to go ahead with the test. And it was an opportunity with Mclaren, after all,” explained Jehan.

Elaborating on the preparations, Jehan said, “For Mclaren, the key part was getting the correct seat fit. Formula 1 seats are very different from Formula 2 seats, so that was a new experience for me as well. I think the Formula 1 seat is a bit more snug!”

“In the simulator, we were focusing on driving techniques and getting used to the buttons on the steering wheel.”

“A Formula 1 car steering wheel is vastly different from what I have raced in any junior racing series before.”

Fitness

A key part of the build-up for his first-ever Formula 1 test was fitness.

“I had never driven a Formula 1 car before, so I had no idea what to expect from a physical standpoint,” said Jehan.

He revealed, “I was following my regular routine, but I did ramp up the load on my neck. I bumped up the weight – I went from a 20 kgs all-round load on my neck to 25 kgs; that’s a 25% increase in load.”

As known over the years, the true physical training for a Formula 1 car is driving the car itself. While a driver can prepare in the gym, simulating the G-forces is difficult in the real-world.

Jehan, who trains at the same fitness training company as current Mclaren driver and friend Lando Norris, said, “Frankly, one doesn’t know until you drive these cars. The main thing was to drive & feel where I am – and I felt quite good. Silverstone is one of the toughest tracks physically, especially for the neck. I didn’t use any additional help to keep my head up!”

The Test

“I expected myself to settle in quite quickly & perform at a good level,” said Jehan of his pre-test expectations.

He continued, “I had it in my mind that I hadn’t done this before and you never know what to expect when you jump in a Formula 1 car but after I did my first run, I felt at home.”

“I was just staying focused and the rest of it just flew. I knew that I had prepared myself physically and mentally as well as I could. So I wasn’t too stressed & was looking forward to the two days of driving a Formula 1 car.”

“I never doubted myself – because I knew I deserved the test. I was just very excited to drive – and the (good) nerves were actually coming from the excitement.”

“I was learning all the time, there was a lot of information to deal with as compared to Formula 2. I wouldn’t say that anything was easy, despite me feeling at home.”

Understandably, the key question on everyone’s mind is — how well did Jehan fare? An easy lap-time comparison would be between Jehan’s low-fuel run from the test and the fastest qualifying lap time by a Mclaren driver in the 2020 British Grand Prix (also held at Silverstone).

But in reality, a true comparison is far harder. Firstly, this was a closed test session and neither Mclaren nor Jehan are obliged to release performance data. Secondly, engine modes and tyres could be a differentiator. Teams normally run their most-aggressive engine modes in qualifying and as for the tyres, Pirelli does have a separate range of testing compounds.

Formula 2 vs Formula 1

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, as Jehan explained, “The high-speed cornering in a Formula 1 car is in a different league as compared to Formula 2. Corners that are flat out in Formula 1 even on race fuel loads aren’t flat out in Formula 2 in qualifying! The downforce is a vast difference. It’s nowhere close to what I have previously raced.”

“Maggotts, Becketts, Chappel – super-impressive and fun in these cars. Maggotts-Becketts was pretty much flat-out apart from braking for the last bits. It’s through these corners one feels the abundant downforce of a Formula 1 car.”

Explaining the step-up to Formula 1 further, he added, “Formula 1 cars have power steering – and that was quite different. That’s definitely easier on the hands and the body.”

“The other difference is the braking – at times you pull over 5.5 Gs under-braking; mainly it was also the intensity of braking. It was more about getting used to the fact that the car could stop rather than me being able to do it. After I got used to it, it came to me quite naturally.”

For the first time in his racing career, Jehan also experienced Formula 1’s hybrid-turbo power units. “In Formula 2, we use a turbo engine, and the end of straight speeds Formula 1 cars are 15-20 kmph quicker than Formula 2; so you don’t feel as much of a difference. But there’s so much downforce that there is more G-force on acceleration. I think I got used to the increase in power in my first run itself,” explained Jehan.

British Grand Prix

Jehan now joins a list of drivers who have tested Formula 1 machinery and have returned to complete their regular racing season with Formula 2. But would the Formula 1 experience help him with his performance in Formula 2?

Jehan explained, “Frankly, both cars are very different and I am excited to see how my Formula 1 exposure makes a difference in my preparation for a Formula 2 weekend. It only helps that my Formula 1 test was at Silverstone as is the upcoming Formula 2 race weekend.”

Fellow Red Bull junior Juri Vips recently made a similar switch. He drove for Red Bull Racing in the Free Practice 1 session in the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix and returned to race in Formula 2 the same weekend. Helmut Marko, the head of the Red Bull Junior Program, was neutral when expressing the benefit a driver experienced in Formula 2 after testing Formula 1 machinery.

Future in Formula 1 & Super Licence

While not the primary objective of the test, Jehan is now eligible for the FIA super licence – one that he needs to compete in Formula 1 full-time. “I am in the process of applying for my super licence. If an opportunity comes about in Formula 1 at least I have the super licence and I don’t have to spend time getting it,” explained Jehan.

Based on my experience, there are two possible outcomes after Jehan’s maiden test (in order of likelihood):

1. Jehan continues to participate in closed test sessions in 2022 – either with Mclaren or another team

2. He steps into the cockpit of a Formula 1 car for a Free Practice session in 2022. The new rule where every Formula 1 team has to allot two Free Practice sessions to rookie drivers make this far more achievable than before

Marko confirmed that he hadn’t decided about Free Practice exposure for either AlphaTauri or Red Bull Racing – the two Red Bull-backed teams in Formula 1.

As for Mclaren, they’ve got at least three other potential candidates – Pato O’ward, who races for Mclaren in the USA & tested their Formula 1 car in Abu Dhabi last year, Nyck de Vries’ former Formula 2 champion & Mercedes junior driver. Mclaren is a power unit customer of Mercedes and it is publicly known that Mercedes is eager to get de Vries exposure in Formula 1. The third option for Mclaren is the reigning Formula 2 champion and Alpine reserve driver, Oscar Piastri. Piastri was appointed as one of Mclaren’s reserves earlier this season.

Explaining his chances further, Jehan said, “No, there are no talks with Mclaren. I am focussing on my Red Bull commitments and if other opportunities come my way, I may evaluate them. Once you drive an F1 car, you just want to keep driving it!”

The third, an outside bet, would be for him to get a full-time drive in Formula 1 in 2023. There may be limited or no opportunities at the moment, but the interest in Jehan could drastically change if Formula 1 decides to focus on the Indian market and unlock the potential of the 31 million-strong fan base. This is what they are attempting with the American & Chinese markets – Zhou Guanyu being the beneficiary of the latter.

2022 Formula 2 Season

Jehan reiterated that despite testing for Mclaren, his allegiance remained to the Red Bull Junior Driver program and that his main focus for the season was Formula 2.

“The immediate goal is to focus on my Formula 2 season and then hopefully after that I can land a drive in Formula 1 in 2023, hopefully. If not in 2023, I am open to a reserve role in 2023 with a race seat in 2024,” said Jehan.

Marko continued, “Jehan has improved in all areas this season and the goal is to win the championship this season.”

As it stands, Jehan is third in the Drivers’ Championship and 59 points behind championship leader Felipe Drugovich. In the 2022 Formula 2 season, eight rounds still remain. So how does Jehan intend to catch Drugovich?

Jehan said with a laugh, “It’s easy, I need to win some races and hope that he doesn’t win! I can’t really control what he’s doing but I need to definitely win some feature races in the next few rounds. That’s my immediate goal in Formula 2.”

Explaining his key area of improvement, he said, “My main area of improvement is qualifying. I’m quick in race trim, made good starts and I’ve been moving forward. But it is always easier when you qualify on the front row. So the aim is to have clean qualifying sessions and stick it in the front of the grid.”

“I’ve made a couple of mistakes here and there in the last few rounds but it is something that I am working on and trying to cut out.”

2012 Brazilian Grand Prix was the last time an Indian driver (Narain Karthikeyan) raced in Formula 1. Let’s hope that the wait to see the next Indian in a Formula 1 cockpit is almost over.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

Shares
Open chat
Let's Talk Formula 1
Hello,
Happy to share my passion for Formula 1 with you. If you have specific queries about the sport, feel free to ping me.

In the meanwhile, I welcome you to subscribe to the Inside Line F1 Podcast for insightful conversations around Formula 1. We release an episode every week.

Regards,
Kunal