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Indonesia and Motorsports

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

Written by: Hafiz Akbar, Edited by: Daniel Yi

Indonesia, an island nation stretching over 1.9 million square kilometres with its fast-rising economy, stands 16th-largest by nominal GDP and 7th by PPP GDP and has a current resident population totalling more than 270 million> Indonesia’s population surpasses that of the entire western Europe combined, which is where we see most Formula One drivers hail from.

From those 270 million individuals currently living in Indonesia, only two drivers in history have driven in a Formula One car.

Rio Haryanto

Let me introduce you to Rio Haryanto. he is an ex-Formula One driver which to be frank, is not all that special. But he is special because he is the first and only Indonesian in Formula One history to have ever driven competitively in a Formula One World Championship season when he started back in the 2016 Australian Grand Prix for Manor Racing. He hails from a rather higher class family (compared to society in Indonesia itself, at least), with his father owning a national stationery brand. Although his career isn’t one to immediately turn heads, his determination and sheer will to make it to Formula One surely turned heads, with massive growth in Formula One viewership in Indonesia, despite it shrinking globally.

Haryanto’s Formula One career didn’t last long though. After his teammate, Pascal Wehrlein scored points, skeptics started questioning whether he was capable of being a Formula One driver. Combined with his sponsors not coming through, including the Indonesian government pulling their funding support, a string of bad results ended his career shortly after it started. His last entry was in the 2016 German Grand Prix in Hockenheimring.

Sean Gelael

At the same time, Indonesia also had another countryman in the GP2 championship. Introducing the chicken connoisseur, Sean Gelael. He is the second Indonesian to have ever driven a Formula One car in history, but not in a competition. Since 2017, Gelael was contracted by Scuderia Toro Rosso, now Scuderia AlphaTauri, as a test driver. He went on multiple drives of the STR14, the same car driven by Alex Albon, Daniil Kvyat, and Pierre Gasly when he was swapped with Alex Albon for the infamous Red Bull second seat. Gelael appeared in the Toro Rosso outfit on a few occasions during the length of his contract, with test days at the Hungaroring and Yas Marina along with FP1 and/or FP2 sessions in Singapore, Malaysia, the United States and Mexico for the 2017 season.

Gelael testing the STR14

As apparent as his talent in F2 and GP2, so was his funding. Just like Haryanto, Gelael originates from a family of considerable wealth. His father, Ricardo Gelael, is the owner of KFC Indonesia. That’s why you see KFC branding in almost all of his racing chassis, including the ones he currently drives, an LMP2 car run by Jota Sport.

Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Why did only two drivers make it to the big stage? Many factors come into consideration but it ultimately boils down to two things: money and exposure.

What about money?

Well, we know that racing is a very expensive sport to be in. Both Haryanto and Gelael, as mentioned in their respective paragraphs, hail from considerably wealthy families with multimillion-dollar industry companies. This further solidifies the fact that racing is undoubtedly very expensive. Take Esteban Ocon, for instance. His father sold their house to live in a motorhome to move between circuits for Esteban’s races, or Lewis Hamilton’s father, who worked up to four jobs at a time to keep Lewis’ races. Indonesian kids—nor parents in that matter—think that the extra cost of both monetary expenses and possible physical harm comes at a fair price (but let’s be fair, it does). Not to mention that Indonesian kids also think of the safest way possible for their future, like being an accountant or a civil servant, not to waste it all on some sort of racing career that might not even work out in the future.

And what about exposure?

Some of you might not know this but racing in Indonesia is viewed rather negatively since most of the races that are documented and reported (usually via social media and when things go from bad to sh*tstorm, mainstream media) are illegal street races. Instead of officially organized races in categories such as shifter karts or city cars, these toolbox-headed, so-called “racers” tarnish the image of what motorsport itself is all about, integrity and sportsmanship with their half-witted actions whilst breaking the law on public streets. The actions of those small groups of individuals sometimes result in big crashes and in some cases, death.

That being said, with no rise in the serious interest of kids pursuing motorsports as a viable career option, we may see fewer and fewer Indonesian drivers in the motorsports scene. Personally, I’d hate to see that happen, since Indonesia is a vast country with loads of untapped potential (this opinion might be slightly biased since I’m an Indonesian national). As for the motorbike racers on the international stage, well that’s gonna be another topic for another article.

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