Renowned sim racer Cem Bölükbaşı has just joined the grid for the premier F1 feeder series. So we thought it fitting to recount his journey throughout both real and virtual racing.
Image credit: Van Amersfoort Racing
FIA Formula 2 has seen many of its alumni step up to Formula One. Such examples include 2017 champion Charles Leclerc, the top three from 2018 George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon, and 2020 champion Mick Schumacher.
It has proven itself the place to be if you’re serious about getting to Formula One, and as of next year, a certain driver will be competing that we have come to know from sim racing. Someone who has participated in the likes of F1 Esports, Veloce Esports’ Not The GP races and even our very own OverTake Clash of Racers.
Who wouldn’t be starstruck when meeting @alo_oficial?!— OverTake (@OverTake_gg) April 10, 2020
Even @G2Bolukbasi had to pinch himself when he first met Alonso. 😄
Check out our full episode of #NitroNights with Cem Bolukbasi right here: https://t.co/7tCngVHNLS pic.twitter.com/trFvTdREmj
Cem Bölükbaşı was born in Istanbul, the location of the F1 Turkish Grand Prix circuit. He fell in love with racing after his father’s friends encouraged him to take young Cem dirt bike racing. At the point he wasn’t even old enough for his feet to touch the ground on the minibikes. He then made the jump to Go Karts and made his competitive debut in the Turkish Karting Championship’s Mini category in 2007, with a best result of third overall in his third season.
An unlikely solace
As is the case with so many drivers in karting, you rarely ever find a driver whose parents aren’t rich, well-known racing drivers, or both. Bölükbaşı has none of that, and travelling out of Turkey to compete in various different championships inevitably resulted in the money eventually drying up.
To make up for losing his opportunity to race in the real world, Bölükbaşı turned to video games. He had already played Gran Turismo 5 on the PlayStation 3 but he picked up F1 2013 for his rather crummy laptop. This was coupled with a cheap wheel that didn’t even have any force feedback. He would play these games to fill that void in his life, but little did Bölükbaşı know that it would be this that would begin a journey which would one day see him back behind the wheel, as sim racing came to the forefront.
Fast forward to 2017, Bölükbaşı entered into the first ever F1 Esports Series and made it through online qualifications, ending up in the Semi Finals as part of the top 40. In his heat of ten drivers, Bölükbaşı got a third at Silverstone and a second at Interlagos which meant he qualified for the final, and in that final under the watchful eyes of the entire F1 paddock at Yas Marina, he won the second of the three races and was the only driver other than eventual champion Brendon Leigh to taste victory.
Connections with F1
It was during that event where he met his hero, two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso who was racing for McLaren at the time. He had just announced that he was partnering up with G2 Esports and McLaren’s sponsor Logitech to form his own esports team, FA Racing Esports. Bölükbaşı was the first major signing to the outfit, and competed for them in the 2018 VRS GT iRacing World Championship, ending up as the runner-up to champion Maximilian Benecke along with his three teammates Sebastian Job, Isaac Price and Frede Rasmussen.
Also during that year, he was selected by Toro Rosso in the F1 Esports Pro Draft to compete for them in the upcoming F1 Esports Pro Series. Along with Rasmussen and Patrik Holzmann, they managed to secure second in the team’s championship, with Bölükbaşı taking part in four of those races with a best result of fourth in his first outing.
Real world opportunities
A second season in F1 Esports saw Bölükbaşı claim two 9th place finishes, not having as great a season as he hoped. But it would seem that his esports racing career was beginning to take a back seat as an opportunity arose in 2019 to once again compete in some real racing.
After conducting an impressive test, Bölükbaşı was offered a chance in the GT4 European Series. He competed for the Borusan Otomotiv Motorsport team and drove a BMW M4 GT4 in the races at Paul Ricard and Misano. Alongside Turkish touring car racer Ibrahim Okyay, they took a Pro-Am class second place finish in the opening race at Misano.
He also earned himself a guest driver appearance in the penultimate round of the Formula Renault EuroCup season at Hockenheim with M2 Competition. Formula Renault EuroCup being where drivers like Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. among others competed in before making it to F1.
Considering Bölükbaşı had never raced single seaters before, he did rather well and ended the first race in 16th but retired in the second. He went back to the GT4 European Series full-time for 2020, again with Borusan Otomotiv Motorsport and alongside teammate Yağız Gedik took three Pro-Am class wins and finished the season second in class, but it seemed Cem had his eyes firmly set on single seaters.
Pursuing the F1 dream
At the start of 2021, Cem competed in the full F3 Asian championship. Being surrounded by established single seater pros like F2 drivers Jehan Daruvala and Guanyu Zhou (the latter of whom will be in F1 this season) among others, he only failed to score twice and one of them was due to a retirement from the race. After the last race, he ended up ninth in the final classification.
He continued in the GT4 European Series but he also signed to compete with the Van Amersfoort outfit that F1 champion Max Verstappen raced with for his solitary season in junior formulae. After missing the first three rounds, Bölükbaşı would compete in the EuroFormula Open Championship where he won on his debut outing and picked up a further win and many podium finishes to end up fifth overall!
The rapid rise of Bölükbaşı is a sight to behold but even with this ascension, it was a surprise to many that he would be participating in the end of season F2 test with Van Amersfoort. A test was just the beginning, and Cem has now provided the highest profile example of a sim racer now making it into a real world racing series, as he will compete in FIA F2 this season for Charouz Racing System!
The last time someone as high profile as this made it to the F1 feeder system was in the division below F2, when for 2020, the FIA Gran Turismo champion Igor Fraga competed in F3 (also with Charouz) after he had won the Toyota Racing Series title in New Zealand. However for Fraga, the results he got in that time were not reflective of his true ability and after a disappointing first season, he was initially set to compete in 2021 for a front-running team but for one reason or another it didn’t happen.
Hopefully, Bölükbaşı will have plenty of chances to impress in this big leap up from EuroFormula to F2. A lot of drivers who don’t have much in the way of a budget will typically be left without a seat before season’s end so here’s hoping Cem can do the full season and show the real racing audience what we have known for years through his sim racing efforts. Also let’s hope this means we can select Cem to race as when the 2022 F2 content comes to the upcoming F1 game.
Do you think Cem Bölükbaşı will make it to F1? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!