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Why an ex-Super Formula racer thinks Bolukbasi’s the real deal

Little was expected of Cem Bolukbasi in Super Formula after his short-lived Formula 2 spell, but the Turkish driver has acquitted himself well so far this season with limited experience.

Cem Bolukbasi, TGM Grand Prix

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

One of the factors that led Bolukbasi to consider the Japanese series for 2023 was the advice of his mentor Richard Bradley, who raced in Super Formula back in 2013 for the KCMG team before embarking on a successful sportscar racing career.

And Bradley says he has been impressed by Bolukbasi’s performances so far at the TGM Grand Prix squad despite the 25-year-old only being in his third full year of single-seaters.

Bolukbasi finished his first Super Formula race at Fuji inside the points, just one place behind team-mate Toshiki Oyu, and scored a second top-10 finish at Suzuka, although struggles in qualifying have kept him from adding to his tally in the three rounds since.

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Ahead of this weekend’s seventh round of the season at Motegi, Bradley says he has been impressed by Bolukbasi’s progress given his lack of experience and is certain that he will be a force to be reckoned with once he masters Super Formula’s tricky qualifying format.

“The cars are so complex and there’s so much you can do to them, and there’s so little track time, it means you almost have to be a driver-engineer,” explains Bradley, who contested a single season in Super Formula for KCMG before going on to drive for the team in the World Endurance Championship, taking a Le Mans 24 Hours class win in 2015.

“You have to understand what you want and get on it immediately, and for a rookie who doesn’t know the tracks, and with the language barrier, you can’t believe how difficult it is. 

“The thing Cem has struggled with is qualifying, but along with IndyCar, this is the hardest qualifying in the world. You have a very difficult tyre warm-up procedure, and you’re against these Japanese drivers who grow up on these six tracks and it’s ingrained in them.

“For me, he is doing a remarkable job. Cem is on pace with guys like Yuji Kunimoto, who has been racing here since 2011. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. His rate of progress is meteoric. We just need to stop starting on the 10th row! And that will come.”

Bradley, right, raced in Super Formula in 2013 for KCMG

Bradley, right, raced in Super Formula in 2013 for KCMG

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

With a background mostly in esports, Bolukbasi didn’t start racing real cars until 2019, at the age of 21, and only started in single-seaters when he joined the Formula Regional Asia series in 2021. There, he would place ninth in the championship against rivals of the calibre of Alfa Romeo F1 racer Guanyu Zhou and F2 drivers Jehan Daruvala and Ayumu Iwasa.

He then moved on to Euroformula Open, where he won on his debut for Van Amersfoort Racing and finished fifth overall, before making his ill-fated move to F2 with the Charouz team at the behest of his Turkish sponsors. The team’s financial issues forced him out after 10 rounds, two of which he missed following a high-speed crash at Jeddah.

Bradley began working with Bolukbasi during his Formula Regional Asia campaign, and is convinced that he could have made the big-time had he had a more conventional upbringing in motorsport - something that was made impossible by a lack of financial backing.

“In his first ever qualifying session in a single-seater he was P6 and only four tenths slower than Zhou,” recalls Bradley. “If Cem had the same background as those guys, he has the natural ability to be up there with them, no question at all. 

“But he doesn’t think like that. He makes the most of what he has. And the other thing is that he has been a celebrity back home [in Turkey] since the F2 thing started. You think that would get to him, but he’s the most humble kid you’ll come across.”

Bolukbasi had a rough time in F2 last year, something Bradley feels hurt his reputation

Bolukbasi had a rough time in F2 last year, something Bradley feels hurt his reputation

After his tumultuous half-season in F2, Bolukbasi was fortunate to be able to land a drive with the Servus Japan-run TGM squad and be partnered with a driver of the calibre of Oyu, who has scored two poles in the opening six rounds of the year.

Bradley notes that Bolukbasi and Oyu “bounce off of each other well” and that they have been able to complement each other with different strengths, given Oyu’s one-lap prowess and Bolukbasi’s consistency over a stint.

“Having looked at the data and on-boards, Oyu is one of the most natural qualifiers I’ve ever seen,” says Bradley. “He reminds me of Nick Tandy. I was team-mates with Tandy in WEC in 2015, and over a lap that guy is something else, like, ‘how did he do that?’

“Oyu is very much the same, but his race pace is not that impressive. Cem on the other hand needs to improve his qualifying, but on race pace, Oyu is learning things from him. If he can qualify better, he’ll be a regular fixture in the top 10, no problem.

“The thing that stands out for Cem is that, because of his sim racing background, his racecraft is unbelievable. He does things you wouldn’t expect. At Monaco last year, he was P12 after the first lap [from 18th on the grid], nobody crashed and he didn’t touch anyone.”

Bradley has been particularly impressed by Bolukbasi's racecraft

Bradley has been particularly impressed by Bolukbasi's racecraft

It remains to be seen what Bolukbasi will do in 2024, but at the moment it appears likely he will have the chance to stay in Super Formula for a second term next year. Should that be the case, Bradley expects his protege to establish himself as a regular frontrunner.

“The level here is unbelievably high, but he was starting to get pretty good in F2 once he got used to the Pirelli tyre before all the bullshit with the team started happening,” opines Bradley. “His reputation was unfairly damaged by that, but he has started repairing it.

“I don’t think he will be on the podium every race, but he’ll have had a solid winter of doing his homework, and I’d be disappointed if we weren’t in the top six every race.”

Motorsport.tv is showing all Super Formula qualifying sessions and races live in 2023. Click here for further information and to sign up today.

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