You don’t need long, and you don’t even need an entire hand of fingers to count them – there have been just three drivers in F1’s entire history to hail from one of the world’s most culturally diverse regions.
The first came from here at home – Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, otherwise known as Prince Bira of Siam, who raced in the first five seasons of the world championship, but to limited success, scoring points just three times before retiring.
It took 46 years for our region to earn its second driver, this time from neighbouring Malaysia. Alex Yoong debuted at the 2001 Italian Grand Prix with Minardi, but his F1 career was short-lived – he was entered into just 18 races before being dropped by the team at the end of 2002.
But today Southeast Asia can again lay claim to a presence on the Formula One grid.
His name is Rio Haryanto, an unassuming and softly-spoken Indonesian, and at the British Grand Prix, as he hurtled rapidly towards the halfway point of his debut season with the Manor team, he sat down with The Phuket News.
Born in 1993, Haryanto tried his hand at karting at just six years old, but as an aspiring race car driver he had only the traditional European idols for inspiration.
“At that time I was always looking up to Michael [Schumacher],” he said. “I think it was 2000, and he was dominating back then.
“I always looked up to him, and I think I remember I said to my dad that one day I wanted to be a Formula One driver.”
In parallel with Schumacher’s increasingly dominant hold on the sport, Haryanto’s own talents grew, pushing him up through the karting ranks.
“As the years go on you have to show your potential. I went to the world championship of karting when I was 15. I managed to get fourth in the World Cup.
“I think that was the turning point, right after I came fourth in the world championship – I then went into Formula Renault, GP3, and GP2.”
But raising the attention of the world’s motorsport elite from the Indonesian archipelago so far-flung from Europe is only half the battle. As is always the case in motorsport, a driver’s ability to raise funds to match his ambition is almost as important as driving itself.
“Motor racing is an expensive sport. Of course for us it’s never been easy. To get sponsorship back in Asia or Indonesia at that time was really difficult.
“Thankfully I got a sponsorship deal with [Indonesian state oil and gas company] Pertamina – I think they came on board in 2010 – and they asked us to write a plan for going to Formula One as it’s also a great opportunity for them to get a bigger market.
“Thankfully they’ve been really supporting me for the past few years.”
But that support hasn’t always been enough, and the finance attached to Haryanto’s contract with Manor has been understood to secure the first half of the 2016 season only.
Some of the fog that hung low around his future has been dispersed by his comparative performance against his highly rated Mercedes-backed teammate Pascal Wehrlein, and at Silverstone Haryanto told reporters his management was confident his deal would be extended to the end of the year.
“I feel like it’s good to have Pascal as a teammate and as a benchmark, because I think he will be a future Mercedes driver,” he said. “I think it shows my potential. It’s a great opportunity to work with him.”
If making it to Formula One is one thing, staying there is another, and to help his cause Haryanto is hoping him forging his own path will cultivate interest amongst Indonesia’s 256 million-strong population sufficient to keep up his momentum.
“I think it’s increasing, especially nowadays. There is one local TV channel that broadcasts Formula One … and I think this helps a lot for the audience.
“I think it’s great to have this support, and I think that motorsport back in Indonesia now has much more interest. I think there are much more young karters, and in GP2 we have two Indonesian drivers as well right now, so I think the interest in motorsport is going up.”
Time will tell if Rio Haryanto can hold onto his seat at Manor long enough to confirm his potential and vie for a contract with a more competitive outfit, but even to continue his confident performances to the end of 2016 could be enough to deliver him a legacy to inspire young racing drivers in Southeast Asia to take the leap.
“Being the first Indonesian driver I think gives a lot of inspiration to the other drivers as well so that they also can do the same. It is good to be an ‘icon’!”
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