High hopes

By Lu Wen'ao Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/28 5:03:40 Last Updated: 2017/7/29 7:15:52

Promising Chinese racer Zhou Guanyu eyes F1 debut

Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu celebrates on the podium after a third-place finish in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship race at Norisring in Germany on July 1. Photo: CFP

For many years, China has been hoping to cultivate its own star in motor sports' showpiece event - Formula One. But the dream of having a Chinese driver make the circuit in an F1 race has yet to become a reality.

Ma Qinghua once came close, participating in a practice session at the China Grand Prix in 2013, but didn't move forward beyond the final step.

Now, Chinese racing fans have pinned their hopes on Zhou Guanyu, who is currently competing in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.

With Prema Racing, the 18-year-old has made podium finishes at Hungary's Hungaroring circuit and Norisring of Germany in 2017. His two finishes at the twisting and bumpy Hungaroring in two years have won him a great deal of acclaim.

"Hungaroring is one of my favorite circuits," Zhou told the Global Times. "Though it's hard for everyone, after I learnt every detail of the circuit, I feel everything at Hungaroring is fascinating."

His Prema teammates include 18-year-old Mick Schumacher, son of seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher.

Zhou now sits in seventh place in the drivers' championship rankings, but has vowed to finish the season in the top three while hoping to claim a title in the upcoming events. Beyond that, he has already set his sights on the top tier, hoping to become an F1 driver "in two or three years."

A dream is born

Born in 1999 in Shanghai, Zhou was also part of the scene when F1 made its debut in China in 2004.

"I have liked model cars since a very early age and loved the noise of the engine, which attracted me to karting," Zhou said, explaining how he got to know about motor sport.

Through karting, Zhou rose to fame domestically before heading abroad to Britain for the "toughest" period of his career in 2012.

"When I first arrived in Britain, it was hard to communicate," Zhou said, referring to the language gap he faced. But worse was to come on the circuit.

Due to the huge gap in the level of racing between China and Britain, Zhou's debut season in the UK was disappointing.

"The first year I just kept practicing when I had free time … I believe practice makes perfect, and it really worked," Zhou said, noting the hard times he encountered also forced him to progress.

The following year, Zhou finished top at the Rotax Max Euro Challenge Junior karting race and ranked third in the Grand Finals of the Rotax 125 Junior Max.

Ferrari Driver Academy

In June 2014, Zhou joined the famed Ferrari Driver Academy at the age of 15 and is still at the highly competitive institution today.

The academy, which has cultivated several F1 drivers since its establishment in 2009, has broadened the horizons for Zhou in the world of motor racing.

"Previously, I thought the faster you drive in the race, the better it will be, but now I think a good racer needs to be good in many aspects beyond driving fast," Zhou said. "You can't find resources at the same level as you can here."

Zhou's teammates at the academy include Antonio Fuoco and Charles Leclerc, who are now competing in the senior race, F2.

"Everyone becomes very busy when the season starts. But when I ask them for help, they always tell me how to improve, which also benefits my progress," Zhou said. 

Boosting the culture

Though the F1 event has been held in Shanghai since 2004, recent years have seen a drop in its popularity for a variety of reasons. Now, Zhou aims to boost China's motor sport culture through his work.

"If I become the first-ever Chinese F1 driver, I think it will give a big boost to Chinese racing culture," he said.

"In Europe, a child can start to know about cars at a very early age," Zhou said, comparing the difference with China. "They can get better social attention when racing."

He noted that finding sponsors is important but not crucial, saying "there will always be sponsors when you achieve good results."

In 2015, when Zhou finished top at Monza, the famed circuit where drivers can go on full throttle for most of the lap, in the Italian F4 championship, he found that he could not have been happier.

"When I heard the Chinese national anthem on the podium for the first time, I knew I had made it! Three wins out of three rounds in Monza plus a pole, I don't even know how to describe my feelings at that time," said Zhou.

He has dreamt of hearing the national anthem more and more, but remains realistic about the efforts he still has to make.

"I think there's room for improvement in all aspects," he said. "Gaining more racing experience is my top priority for now."


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