By Jamie Klein
This season has seen a welcome influx of new foreign talent to the Super Formula grid, and one of the more interesting newcomers is TGM Grand Prix driver Cem Bolukbasi.
Turkish driver Bolukbasi has enjoyed a much more successful start to the season than his modest CV might have suggested he was capable of. In the opening race at Fuji Speedway, he finished eighth, right behind team-mate Toshiki Oyu, and then in Round 3 at Suzuka, he scored his second points finish in three races with an impressive drive to ninth.
The 25-year-old from Istanbul has taken an extremely unconventional route to where he is today, partly because of Turkey’s lack of motorsport heritage and funding constraints. The fact he has been able to ascend from such humble beginnings all the way to the fastest single-seater category outside of Formula 1 is a testament to his talent and determination.
Looking back on his journey, Bolukbasi admits his family had no connections to racing - “my parents were not even that interested in cars that much” - and that it was family friends who were responsible for him first getting involved, initially in motocross, aged five.
As the speeds and the danger factor increased, Bolukbasi made the move to karts, and was able to take advantage of the growing interest in motorsport in Turkey at the time thanks to the first Turkish Grand Prix being held at the brand-new Istanbul Circuit in 2005.
“There was massive hype around F1 coming to Turkey,” he recalls. “There was a big oil company [Petrol Ofisi] that sponsored the event and they had this programme where they picked 25 kids from Turkey and paid them to race. I was one of the 25 selected out of over 200 kids that entered. That was how I got the opportunity to race karts properly.”
Budgets were still an issue though, and after several years competing nationally, Bolukbasi spread his wings to nearby Cyprus, which boasted a more high-quality karting scene. Victory there earned him an invitation to race in Italy, where he made an important realisation.
“There were 90 kids racing in Italy, and maybe I was 75th,” he says. “We realised how amateur we were compared to everyone else. And we realised it wasn't going to happen by staying in Cyprus or Turkey. We tried a few races in Europe, but it was too costly to do the whole championship, so it was only two or three races a year, in Germany or sometimes the UK. We did as much as we could afford, basically, until I was about 13.”
Besides a chance to turn a handful of laps in a BRDC Formula 4 car while he was studying in the UK as a teenager, that was seemingly it for Bolukbasi’s ambitions of becoming a professional driver. Instead, he turned his hand to sim racing, which was still in its infancy at the time: “My dad bought me a steering wheel, and I was playing Gran Turismo, the official Formula 1 game, iRacing before it became really popular, for eight or nine hours a day.”
All those hours playing games paid off when F1 launched the F1 Esports Series in 2017, and Bolukbasi qualified for the semi-finals and then advanced to the finals. In the process, he earned a contract with G2 ESports, a well-established outfit that tied up with none other than then-McLaren F1 racer Fernando Alonso, competing with the team for three seasons.
Success in the virtual arena eventually afforded Bolukbasi the chance to get back into the cockpit of a real-life racing car, some five years after his F4 test, as he was invited to contest a round of the GT4 European Series driving for the Turkish Borusan Otomotiv team in 2019. A strong first race meant he was able to complete the season, and landed a free seat for the 2020 season. This compelled Bolukbasi to give up esports to focus on his real-life racing exploits, although it was the following year that his career really gained momentum.
The youngster got his first proper taste of single-seaters in the F3 Asia series, finishing ninth overall in a strong field headlined by current Formula 1 driver Zhou Guanyu. A connection from that series led to the chance to appear in a round of the European Le Mans Series in an LMP3 car at the Red Bull Ring, and he finished second.
Bolukbasi explains what happened next: “I was supposed to do the rest of the ELMS season, but after I finished second I was suddenly upgraded [by the FIA] from a bronze-rated driver to a silver. We tried to contest it but it didn’t work, and suddenly my seat was gone. For that reason, I went back to the sponsors again to raise a budget to race in Euroformula Open. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think we would have considered it.”
Joining the Van Amersfoort Racing team, Bolukbasi made headlines in his native Turkey by winning on his Euroformula Open debut at the Hungaroring despite his lack of experience. He was able to complete the season for the team, winning another race and ending up a creditable fifth in the standings, despite missing the first three rounds of the season.
By now, Bolukbasi’s profile was growing in Turkey and his sponsors were encouraging him to make a big step up the single-seater ladder: “The sponsors wanted me to do Formula 2. It was much easier to find a budget to do F2 than F3, because it’s just a step below F1 and much more well-known than F3. The initial plan was to race there for two years.”
After an encouraging start to the 2022 F2 season in Bahrain with the Charouz team, things soon turned sour for Bolukbasi. He suffered a huge 72G crash in the second round at Jeddah - “I don’t really remember it; I had an oversteer moment and then I woke up in hospital, basically!” - which left him with a cracked rib that wasn’t properly diagnosed until he drove again in the in-season Barcelona test.
“The first two laps of the test were normal, but on the third lap, I took a bit of kerb and my cracked rib broke, and I crashed,” remembers Bolukbasi. “Not only did I miss the three days of testing, which are crucial for a rookie with no experience of Pirelli tyres, but I also missed the next round at Imola. I got back in the car in Barcelona, but my confidence was low.”
After several more tough rounds, Bolukbasi and Charouz parted ways before the end of the season, leaving the Turkish driver to look around at alternatives. But a move to Japan had always been on his radar, and had been his Plan B in case he couldn’t get a seat in F2.
Bolukbasi was able to get his first taste of Super Formula in that year’s post-season rookie test at Suzuka, and a deal to race in 2023 for the reborn TGM squad was quickly agreed. And after a strong start to his 2023 season, the sometime sim racer is hoping to remain part of the Honda fold in Japan long after the current campaign comes to an end.
“Short-term, my sponsors are very happy that I’m racing in Japan, we are getting a lot of good feedback,” says Bolukbasi. “I don’t want to be there for just one year; I want to stay here for next year and go for the championship. SUPER GT is also on my radar.
“I have a great relationship with Honda, they are supporting me a lot here, and I want to repay that faith. I think I have improved a lot this year so far, and I want to keep improving.”