Formula One is one of the hardest sports in the world to compete in, not only because it’s so physically and mentally demanding, but because it’s so hard to access.
By convention, there are only 10 teams and 20 drivers in F1 – that’s not a lot of room. F1 drivers typically start their racing careers very young in go-karts, and then move their way up the formulae – Formula 4, 3, 2 or other formats like Indycar in the US or DTM in Germany – before they get a chance at F1. It’s very, very competitive.
On top of that, you need a lot of money. Motorsports aren’t cheap, and most drivers who make it to F1 have the support of either an F1 team’s driver academy or big-name sponsors who’ll help bankroll their efforts.
But what if you didn’t need to spend money on expensive equipment? What if you could instead hone your skills on driving simulators and eSports, and then graduate to the big time? Well, that’s exactly what one young driver has successfully pulled off, in a move that’s sure to be an absolute gamechanger for motorsports and eSports.
Cem Bölükbaşı, a 23-year-old driver and eSports athlete from Istanbul, made headlines around the world when it was revealed earlier this week that he would be racing in F2, the main feeder series for F1, for 2022. That makes him the first gamer ever to go from F1 eSports to real-life racing, as well as the first Turk to compete in F2.
“If I was never in F1 Esports, I would never have had the chance to get into a real car. I would not be where I am now,” Bölükbaşı has shared.
“I think it’s also very important to be the first gamer to do this, because it can give people hope. If people see that one person can do it, they will believe they can do it as well. If I can go from F1 eSports to F2, I think anyone can.”
It’s a remarkable turn of events that demonstrates how much momentum eSports has gained in recent years. It’s the kind of things kids dream about: being able to turn being good at a video game into a career. This also opens up the pathway for other eSports athletes to make the jump from games to real cars in the future, especially if Bölükbaşı does well in F2.
Over the last two years, F1 and the FIA have made a concerted effort to elevate F1 eSports, in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it’s had on the F1 calendar. This was especially noticeable in 2020, when many races, including the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, were cancelled: F1 filled the holes in the calendar by aggressively promoting their eSports series, to great success.
It’s worth taking all of this with a grain of salt, however. It’s not as if Bölükbaşı has gone straight from his PlayStation to pole position: aside from his impressive eSports results, Bölükbaşı has also had plenty of experience (and success) competing in real-life motorsports.
Bölükbaşı has even managed podium finishes in the GT4 European Championship, European Le Mans Series, F3 Asian Championship and the Euroformula Open Championship, where he drove for the same team a certain young Max Verstappen saw success with.
It’s also worth pointing out that while he doesn’t come from money like some F2 or F1 drivers – hell, he couldn’t even afford a proper gaming computer when he first got into sim racing, as this interview relates – he does enjoy the support of big Turkish sponsors, such as the huge Doğuş Group conglomerate.
Watch young IndyCar driver Pato O’Ward show what it’s like to drive an F1 car for the first time below.
Still, Bölükbaşı joining the F2 grid is a seismic shift for world motorsports as well as eSports. Not only does it demonstrate the validity and influence of sim racing, but could also help make F1 (and other tiers of motorsport) become less of a “billionaire boy’s club”; less dependent on access to expensive machinery and track time.
If he does well in F2, it could see him make the jump to F1 as well – which would be huge. Most of the drivers on the 2022 F1 grid ascended to F1 after success in F2, including Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Mick Schumacher and F1’s newest driver, Guanyu Zhou.
It’d be a cracking story if he made it to F1…