At a time when most Indian athletes' sports careers are in limbo, Jehan Daruvala's is roaring forward. Last weekend, at the legendary Hungaroring, he won the first points of his debut Formula 2 season, finishing sixth. And he's aiming higher.
With a little over a week to go to his next race, the 21-year-old is back at training. That means a lot of gym work, specifically targeting his neck, something that he's been doing a lot of. The regimen - meant to condition his neck to high speed g-forces experienced on the race track, goes beyond what he requires for a Formula 2 race. The level of fitness needed in Formula 2 is vastly different from what he needed as a Formula 3 racer last year, he explains. But that's because Daruvala is already looking forward, to what has been his goal since a 10-year-old. " I'm always preparing myself for the next level. If I ever get the call from Formula 1, I need to be ready for it," he says.
Daruvala's ambition is entirely plausible going by his career graph. He finished third in the Formula 3 drivers' championship last year, was signed by Formula One giants Red Bull as one of their junior drivers and also by Carlin, for the 2020 Formula 2 season. Carlin were the 2018 champions and subsequently graduated one of their drivers - Lando Norris - to the Formula One ranks. Prove himself here and there is certainly precedent for Daruvala to follow.
Yet, in March this year, Daruvala, found his dream slipping away from his grasp. Normally based out of Silverstone in the United Kingdom, he had been visiting home in Mumbai when he found himself caught in the Indian government's efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, that saw the country locked down and its borders shut. While the Formula 2 season itself had been postponed as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, Daruvala knew his window of opportunity was closing as well.
"I was spending a lot of time with my family, which was good because normally I don't get to do that. I was having daily Facetime sessions with my trainer as well. But at the same time I knew I had to get back to Europe. If I couldn't get back, that was the end of the season for me. This was a really important season for me," he says.
With only evacuation flights being permitted in and out of India, Daruvala had to make his decision quickly. While his family was worried about him having to return alone to England, Daruvala says he was clear about what he had to do. "I knew I had to get back to Europe. I also felt I needed to fly to England before the condition in India got worse. So when I got the opportunity I took it," he says.
It wasn't simply a matter of hopping onto a flight though. "I had to get letters from Red Bull and Carlin to get me on the flight. I had to cover myself up completely and I had to get through two weeks of quarantine when I got back to England," he says.
While he made it safely to Europe, Daruvala didn't seem to be having much luck in his races. In his first race weekend in Austria, he finished 12th and 16th after being spun out by teammate Yuki Tsunoda in the feature race and then going out of the track himself in the sprint race. A second poor weekend followed with him finishing 12th and 9th.
It's been frustrating for Daruvala who can't recall making a single mistake in his F3 campaign last year, but he admits that this is the nature of his sport. "When you push the limits, you make mistakes. When I look back (in the first sprint race, where he eventually finished 12th), I was pushing to catch the guy in the eighth position. If I had managed to pass him, I'd have finished in the points. You have to take these calls as a racing driver. I wouldn't second guess these choices. Sometimes these mistakes make you pay a big price but you have to stick to your instincts," he says.
After a relatively steady previous weekend in Hungary where he finished 6th and 7th in the feature and sprint races, things are looking brighter for Daruvala, although he admits there is still plenty of work to be done. "In both my races, my car was having starting troubles. I was almost last in the first corner in both races. I managed to come through both times but the start is still an issue. There's enough speed in the car to fight for a podium finish but I'm working with the engineers to resolve the start issues for the next time around," he says.
The next race will be in Silverstone on the 1st of August. Daruvala has good memories of the circuit, having finished second there in the F3 season last year. "Silverstone is one of my stronger tracks. I'm just hoping I have a clean race. If that happens I'll be pushing for a podium," he says.
The competitor that he is, Daruvala will certainly be going into the race with that result in his mind. "When you are with a team like Carlin, you aren't just looking to win points. You are trying to finish on the podium. There are always high expectations. But that's part of the job," he says. But at the same time, Daruvala is also glad he can follow his passion once again. "A lot of people will have an opinion of what you should be doing; and of course, it's easier to enjoy what you are doing when you are winning. But the main thing is to have fun and enjoy my racing," he says.