Salih (left) and Sonuc Saltunc are the first pair of brothers to qualify for the inaugural F1 Esports Series Finals in Abu Dhabi. (James Pike photo)
For most of the competitors in this weekend’s F1 Esports Series Finals, the competition has been about individual performance. But from the start, Sonuc and Salih Saltunc have done it together.
The Saltunc brothers, who are British with deep ties to Turkish Cypriots, are the only pair of family members to qualify for this weekend’s finals at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
Sonuc won both of his semifinal races at Interlagos and Silverstone to qualify for the finals, while Salih qualified after a massive stint of defensive driving on Giuseppe De Fuoco to lock down a transfer spot.
Cheering on his brother to a place in the final was a nerve-wracking affair for Sonuc. He had already qualified for the finals in Abu Dhabi, and watched from the crowd as Salih attempted to join him.
Salih’s race took an unexpected early turn when he had to replace the front wing on his Mercedes. From there, it was a nail-biter for both brothers:
“When I saw his front wing break in the last heat, my heart just dropped. It stopped for a minute. I thought that was it”, Sonuc said.
“But it was good that he was close to pit lane when it happened so he just pitted straight away. I knew he was going to be on fresh tyres and have clean air and I knew he had the pace, so he was still in it.
“Once I saw that he was in 7th after everyone pitted, I was like, ‘You need to overtake this guy’! And he didn’t know that, so as soon as Salih overtook him and he was sixth, I was screaming, ‘Come on! You got this’! When he got over the line, we got up and went back and forth with each other.
“I was screaming, ‘You made it’! and he asked, ‘Did I’?, and I said ‘You made it’! He couldn’t believe it at first, so he asked again, ‘Did I go though’? And of course I said, ‘Yes, you made it'”!
Sonuc’s Twitter handle, @STSF1_Alonso14, is a nod to his favorite driver. He is also an avid supporter of all things McLaren.
The relief was palpable on both sides, especially considering how hard both brothers had worked to make the finals. The Saltunc brothers recognised from the beginning that their combined qualification was far from assured:
“The risk going into this competition together was the chance that one of us would not make it, but at the same time, there was the chance that both of us would not have made it either”, Salih said.
“For us to both go through makes things easier. If only one of us had gone through, we’d feel really bad for each other.”
They both revelled in their accomplishment at the end of the semifinals, carrying each other on piggyback as their names were announced to the crowd.
The Saltunc brothers represent what motorsport can become in the world of Esports – a gateway for drivers with an interest and talent to prove that they can race with the fastest.
In real-life racing, it is partially about the talent of the drivers and partially about the quality of the car they are driving. In Esports, the emphasis on the equipment is significantly decreased, and that allows talented drivers a better chance to naturally shine through.
The Saltunc brothers’ home simulator is a perfect example of this. Though it is possible to spend millions of dollars to create a true-to-life rig (as many Formula 1 teams have done in recent years), it is not necessary in order to be fast. It might be surprising to hear that the brothers’ have a relatively simple setup.
“It’s nothing special, to be honest”, Salih said.
“I have no shame in saying that it’s a garden chair. Because it’s got no wheels, it doesn’t spin, so it’s pretty stable.
“I put my wheel on a table and race with that. We feel comfortable with them and we don’t feel like we need the luxury seats or whatever.”
Salih can be found on Twitter at @TheFlyingFinn08. His handle is in honour of his all-time favorite driver, 1998 World Champion Mika Hakkinen.
All those hours in the garden chairs have carried both of them to Abu Dhabi, where they are excited to take part in the experience Formula 1 have provided.
“In terms of the opportunities, and the event, and the organsiation, it’s pretty amazing. Going out to Abu Dhabi – it’s a great venue, great track, and it’ll be nice to be there.” Salih said.
Sonuc is equally excited to be a part of the season finale. “The only Grand Prix I’ve been to is Silverstone”, he said.
“Watching the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on television, when it was all new and I saw Ferrari World and all that, I really wanted to go there and I wanted to go there pretty soon. I think everyone loves that track because the atmosphere just looks amazing. To be there will be an amazing opportunity”.
The more time spent around the Saltuncs, the easier it is to see how close they are.
Their mother left the family when they were both young, and that only served to draw the brothers closer to their father.
“After our mum left, it was really tough for us, so for me and my brother to come through now is really emotional. I guess we’ve made our dad proud”, said Sonuc, holding back the tears that made so apparent how much this achievement means to him.
Likewise, both drivers were quick to credit their father for their successes.
“He’s just done everything for us – not just in sim racing, but in our whole lives”, Salih said.
“He’s directed us the right way, both in education and racing. Everything I know from F1, everything I know from karting has all come from him.”
The brothers have also been blown away by the social media support, which is beginning to develop with Esports drivers in the same way it’s already been established with real-life drivers.
“Everyone that’s supported us through social media is immense too. It’s crazy having fans that you’ve never met, but they follow you and they have amazing support.” said Salih.
Of course, only one driver can win the F1 Esports Series. But regardless of what happens, both Sonuc and Salih will be there in Abu Dhabi, to race and to support each other. That might just be enough to push one of them to the inaugural F1 Esports Series title.