February 13, 2017 8:00 pm JST
Asia's Standouts

Indonesia's high-speed hero

F1 driver Rio Haryanto unites a diverse nation

JUN SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

F1 driver Rio Haryanto now races at the level his childhood idol, Michael Schumacher, once dominated. (Photo by Akiyoshi Inoue)

JAKARTA -- On a circuit in the suburbs of Jakarta, Rio Haryanto wrapped up a five-hour session in his racing kart. Finding time to do 70 laps wasn't easy with his tight year-end schedule, but Haryanto had a goal: "I want to keep my physical condition and become strong again for next season."

Just 24 years old, Haryanto became Indonesia's first Formula One driver last year, racing as a member of U.K. team Manor Racing. He was sponsored by state-owned oil company PT Pertamina, a fact that some European media reported with scorn, saying it proved that Haryanto was a "weak" racer who had bought his place on the team. He disproved those rumors -- and showed his high potential -- by completing nine of the 12 races he participated in.

Back home, his fellow Indonesians are excited about the advent of a new hero. A good-looking F1 driver with a promising future, Haryanto has also impressed the public with his generosity, such as by donating stationery to children affected by earthquakes. His Twitter followers are approaching the 1 million mark.

Haryanto was born into a well-to-do family in Solo, Central Java, in 1993. His father, an ethnic Chinese businessman, ran a stationery company. Haryanto started driving a racing kart when he was 6. "When I was young, [I watched] F1 races. ... Michael Schumacher was the best. He was dominating all the races, and he is one of my inspirations," he said.

Haryanto built up his presence on the track step by step, participating in races across Asia and Europe before eventually breaking into F1, racing's highest level.

But while his privileged background and current success make Haryanto the envy of many, he also lived through one of Indonesia's darkest moments.

In May 1998, when he was 5 years old, he saw a blazing fire consume the area around his home. Frustrations that had been building up among the country's Javanese majority during the long reign of the Suharto government had spilled over into riots directed at rich ethnic Chinese.

"My parents told me to go out somewhere to find a safer place," Haryanto said, recalling how his knees were weak with fear.

Under President Suharto, who was staunchly anti-Communist, many Javanese came to resent the success of ethnic Chinese businessmen like Haryanto's father. All told, the May 1998 riots claimed more than a thousand lives.

Long road

It has been 19 years since the Suharto government collapsed. Laws discriminating against ethnic Chinese were abolished, and over the years, progress in democratization and economic growth have seen outright prejudice fade. In 2014, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama became the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta.

Last year, however, Purnama was accused of insulting the Koran, which triggered looting and stone-throwing at ethnic Chinese stores again. President Joko Widodo called for "unity in diversity," a national policy, but as the incident shows, deep-rooted hatred can readily manifest itself when given the chance.

Still, the average age of Indonesia's population is just 28, and two out of every five people were born after the Suharto era. "I don't agree ... that people have to look at the color of your skin or where you come from," Haryanto said.

For Indonesia's youth, Haryanto is not only a hero who has broken onto the global stage. He is someone who gives voice to their feelings and opinions.

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