Although well known for his success in Esports, Cem Bölükbaşi's experience extends beyond the virtual world, with his racing career beginning in Motocross at the age of six, before a switch from two wheels to four two years later.
Race wins followed in karting, sportscars and, as of 2021, single-seaters, with Bölükbaşı debuting in Asian Formula 3 last January and Euroformula Open in July. It was in the latter where he stood out, winning on his debut in Budapest. He went on to add a further seven podiums, including a second victory, with Van Amersfoort Racing.
And it’s his experience in Euroformula that he believes will benefit him most when making the “very big step” into Formula 2 with Charouz Racing System.
“I think Euroformula being a very high downforce car helped me,” said Bölükbaşı, who made his F2 debut at the Abu Dhabi post-season test. “I think that because the Euroformula car is such a high downforce car, I wasn't surprised by the downforce of the Formula 2 car. It was more the acceleration, the top speed and the technical side of things.
“Although it looks like a very big step, I think it is closer than people think it is, at least that is how it felt for me. Getting used to the top speed is easier than getting used to the downforce of a car. I drove different cars last year, I drove GT4, LMP3, the Euroformula car, the F3 Asia car, so I think that was helpful in me adapting quickly.
“I've never had the opportunity to do testing in my career so far because we run with a sponsor budget, which was focused on finding a budget for the racing. The Abu Dhabi test was actually the first time I've driven a car not in a race, so when you think about it like that, it is a real step-up for me to even test a Formula 2 car.”
Completing 84 laps with Van Amersfoort on the final day of testing in Abu Dhabi, the Turkish driver was bottom of the timesheets in an opening session that was focused on adaptation, before punching in the 10th quickest time in the afternoon.
“The test was very positive because that's the first time that I've driven the car,” said Bölükbaşı, who will become the first Turkish F2 driver. “I had actually tested the old GP2 car because at the end of the day, moving up from Euroformula is a big step, so I wanted to be a bit familiar with the Formula 2 car before the test.
“But I think it went well. The adaptation was quicker than I thought it would be, so it was very positive. I learned a lot in terms of race sims and Quali pace. The technical side of things in F2 is very complicated, but it’s the closest thing to Formula 1, so it has to be. Overall, it was a very positive test.”
Having competed in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 F1 Esports Series, Bölükbaşı will become the first driver to tread the path from sim racing to F2.
Having previously stated his desire to become the first person to go from Esports to Formula 1, the 23-year-old’s seat at Charouz puts him one step closer to that goal, a fact he’s still coming to terms with.
“I always wanted to be in F2, but when you are actually there, you surprise yourself because it was always a dream, so it takes time for that to sink in,” he continued. “It’s getting more real every day the closer the season gets.
“Even coming this far, I’m the first in the world to do it, but I think we can definitely continue. Although it was always the aim to be in F2, it was really hard to even imagine ending up here.”
The on-track experience he’s picked up over the past three years has helped to make that dream a reality. The 23-year-old finished second with two wins and seven podiums in only his second season in the GT4 European Series, and managed fifth in Euroformula Open, despite only contesting five of the eight rounds.
With a seat now secured for the 2022 campaign, what are Bölükbaşı’s targets?
“I never set result-based targets, it is more about how close I am to the potential that I think I can reach,” he said. “I want to get as much information as I can from everyone else, be that my teammate, the mechanics, engineers, everyone.
“As it is a new car, in a different series, I will try to learn as much as I can both in pre-season and during the season. I am still fairly new to single-seater racing, I only did my first championship at the beginning of 2021, so my main goal is just to reach my maximum, and the results will come after that.
“I trust the team and everyone around me, and I know that if we work hard, don't make mistakes and if we continue to get better, then that will bring results.”