Cem Bolukbasi started his life in motorsport on two motocross racing wheels, then four little ones in karting, and then no wheels other than the one attached to his bedroom desk. Now he’s running 180 miles an hour in F3 and has a realistic chance of becoming the first player to get behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car.
The path from a speed-obsessed toddler to a professional racing driver has never been easy, and it is far from meritocratic. It is no coincidence that half of the current F1 grid has either a former racing driver or a millionaire, or both, as their father.
Bolukbasi has neither. It was his father’s friends who encouraged him to take his son to a race track, and he was immediately amazed by the adrenaline rush of motocross racing, the motorcycles raced around a small dirt track. made of sharp turns and jumps.
At five years old, Bolukbasi entered the track for the first time. His feet couldn’t even touch the ground, so if he wanted to stop he had to either fall or find his dad to hold the bike as he got off. At six, he was Turkish champion – but his parents started to lose their temper. He had to ramp up, where the bikes were bigger and the jumps bigger. Karting has become the safest option. He quickly rose through the ranks on the Turkish scene and started racing internationally, but even then the cost of travel to Italy, Germany and Spain started to catch up with the Bolukbasi family.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff recently described F1 as “a club of billionaire boys”, estimating a “good” kart season to be around € 250,000 (£ 213,000), with at least two years of experience required to win a seat in a more serious series.
Bolukbasi was not a member of the billionaire boys’ club, far from it, and without the willingness of big sponsors to foot the bill.
He did, however, have a computer and enough money to buy the 2013 F1 game. It wasn’t the same, but it was something. His laptop at the time was not technically compatible, however, so he drove with the handbrake on. There was no force feedback, the vibrations that modern F1 games create in order to give the car a fairly precise semblance of driving.
“I actually didn’t know I didn’t have force feedback so it felt normal for a long time,” Bolukbasi said. I.
“And because it was a MacBook, it was mostly like 25 frames per second, or something crazy like that. It was like watching a slideshow.
“But I still played this game for about 400 hours, so that didn’t really stop me from playing it!”
Previously, weekends were spent riding through Europe and tune-up a kart.
“I would wake up on Saturday and start playing a few games until I went to bed. I was just playing all day, maybe sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes more, I just enjoyed it. And I was really motivated because I couldn’t drive these cars in real life.
It was just a hobby to start with. Simulation racing, as it is now called, didn’t really exist as a career, and certainly not as a route to “real world” racing. But Bolukbasi has always remained hopeful.
“I always wanted to know if I was able to show my talent on the eSport scene or as on the video game scene [whether I could] going back to real racing life, and I’ve always had that in mind, ”he says.
In 2017, F1 organizers saw the multi-million dollar gaming industry worth and Bolukbasi was competing in an open qualifier for a flagship event in Abu Dhabi. After spending thousands of hours on the game, combined with his natural talent, Bolukbasi defeated a field of 60,000 and then won one of two races in the Grand Final in the Middle East. This put him on the radar of esports teams and McLaren invited him to their hospitality suite. Two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso awaited him with an offer for a place in his racing simulation team, a joint venture with G2 eSports FA Racing.
It was not an offer to refuse and suddenly Bolukbasi was facing Alonso in a virtual showdown live on Sky Sports.
But Bolukbasi’s dreams were even bigger. He always had in mind the idea that he could and should have the chance to prove himself in the real world. The only problem was that he didn’t have a driver’s license. Despite all of his sim racing experience, he couldn’t actually drive. So when a BMW team in Turkey took him to the south of France and put him in a GT4 race at Paul Ricard, just to see what he could do in a real car, there was some operational issues.
“I qualified for that and then I got to the pits. Said Bolukbasi.
“You have to park at 45 degrees, nose out, and I didn’t know how to do it, so I jumped out of the car and gave it to my teammate to park the car. I said “sorry, I can only drive around corners, you have to park it!”.
Aside from early youthful issues, Bolukbasi is now two years into his professional pilot career and is climbing the ranks, living the dream to some extent. With the Dutch team Van Amersfoort Racing, where Max Verstappen cut his teeth, he is competing in the Euroformula Open Championship this year in single-seaters. We talk like he’s in a hotel room in Berlin, but he tells me his next month will see him head to the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the famous Monza circuit. He is living the dream, I suggest with some jealousy. Not quite, he seems to indicate in return. F1 remains the objective.
“We know we can do well in the championship, and with every race we add something. We are improving, ”said Bolukbasi, having already claimed a race victory and two more podiums in his six races so far this season. (He only joined his current series in July).
“So we know we can improve a lot. I want to switch to Formula 2 next year, and I want to be ready to do so for the next two years.
“In a few years, our most important goal is to be the first driver to switch from F1 eSport to real Formula 1.
“I think it would be pretty amazing, if we can, if we can do it.
“I would be the first Turkish driver in F1 and I’m already the first Turkish driver to win a single-seater race, and the first eSports driver to win a formula race as well.
The hope is that Cem can be a pioneer. Estimates of the bottom-up cost in motor racing have been set at € 8million (£ 6.84million). Cem Bolukbasi will have spent a fraction if he succeeds in F1. And where we go, others must surely follow.
The 2021 F1 Esports Series Pro Championship kicks off with the Preview Show on September 15 from 7:30 p.m. BST and can be watched on the official F1 sites YouTube, Facebook and Twitch.