Making it happen
Zhou Guanyu becomes the first Chinese driver to compete in F1
Published: Nov 16, 2021 05:28 PM
Zhou Guanyu Photo: VCG

Zhou Guanyu Photo: VCG

Promising racing driver Zhou Guanyu has become China's first driver in Formula One, and is set to take the seat behind an Alfa Romeo F1 racing car next year.

"I have always dreamed of chasing the sport that I love so much. It is a dream come true for me," Zhou told the Global Times a day before his deal was unveiled. 

The 22-year-old said he is ready for the "massive challenges" of F1, the pantheon of motorsports elites, before noting his goal for his maiden F1 season is to improve himself as much, and as soon, as possible. 

"I know there are a lot of people have high hopes on me, I don't want to let them down," Zhou said. 

Since participating in F2 in 2018, Zhou has been pinned as China's big hope in F1. With two remaining F2 races to go in December, Zhou is currently sitting second in the F2 drivers' championship standings after securing three first-place finishes. 

"The biggest challenge for me is that there are 23 races in a F1 season, which takes consistency and stamina," Zhou said, before noting plenty of preparations would be needed as there were several circuits in the race calendar he hasn't raced on.

"However, I am looking forward to the new season though there are challenges."

Channeling pressure into motivation

Zhou had to leave his hometown Shanghai for the UK at the age of 12 to pursue his racing dream.

"I think I needed further study after winning all the carting championships in China, that's why I left for the UK, to have more professional study and training in motorsport," Zhou said. 

Zhou had stint with the Ferrari Driver Academy from 2014 to 2018 before switching to the Renault academy in 2019, and also as a development driver for the Renault F1 team which was later rebranded as the Alpine F1 Team.

The ups and downs in professional driving has not stopped the young man from progressing. It is in recent years that Zhou has moved closer to his dream, especially earlier this year he participated in the practice session for Team Alpine. 

At the Austrian Grand Prix in July, Zhou made his F1 practice session debut by driving the Alpine race car of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso of Spain, whom Zhou looks up to as an idol.

"Being able to drive a F1 race car in the practice session assured myself that I am capable of driving it competitively," he said. 

Zhou is the third Chinese driver to ­participate in an official practice ­session in F1 after compatriots Ma ­Qinghua, who made five practice ­appearances for Caterham and HRT in 2012 and 13, and Adderly Fong Cheun-yue of Hong Kong who represented Sauber F1 team in 2014.

Now Zhou will partner with Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas at Alfa Romeo in the new season.

Bottas, who has been racing in F1 since 2013, is currently sitting in the third place in the F1 drivers' championship, trailing Max Verstappen of Red Bull and his incumbent Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton of in a dual-themed season. 

"I'm honored to partner with Bottas in the new season as he is a rather experienced and solid driver who has won multiple titles," Zhou said. 

"I hope I can learn from his experience and techniques and hopefully we could help the team achieve some results."

In F2, every driver sits behind the wheel of the vehicle which has a similar configuration. But in F1, each team has their own unique variety of models and technology, meaning Zhou needs to establish a car fit with his caliber before March 20 when the new season kicks off in Bahrain. 

Currently the Alfa Romeo team, featuring veteran driver Kimi Raikkonen and Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, sits ninth in the 10-team constructors' championship. But as F1 will introduce new regulations from 2022, a rejig of the team might bring something surprising.

Growth area

China, which hosted its first F1 race in 2004 in Shanghai, is often seen as an important growth area for F1. The world's most populous country has seen F1 audience figures rise 43 percent year-on-year.

"The past few years have seen a sharp rise of motorsports fans in China," Zhou told the Global Times. 

"I am very delighted that I can race under a Chinese flag."

Zhou Guanyu drives on track during practice for the Formula 2 Championship on July 3, 2020 in Spielberg, Austria. Photo: VCG

Zhou Guanyu drives on track during practice for the Formula 2 Championship on July 3, 2020 in Spielberg, Austria. Photo: VCG

Zhou's partnership with Alfa Romeo came just 10 days after the Chinese F1 Grand Prix, which has been absent from F1 racing calendar for three consecutive years due to COVID-19 pandemic, extended its contract with F1 until 2025.

The last time the Shanghai International Circuit ­hosting a F1 race was in 2019, markingF1 celebrating its 1,000th Grand Prix. 

"I want to have a satisfying result from the beginning of the season, so there will be a lot of preparation to do with the team before the new season," Zhou said.   

However, Zhou has to deal with voices questioning his capability behind the wheel of a F1 car.

"You have to face the skepticism when you are among those at the top of the echelon, there are people like you and those who don't," Zhou said. 

"The only way to respond to such skepticism is to deliver what could be done on the circuits, to let those who do not like you have a second thought and prove to those who like you that you are not failing them."

'Today is the day'

This afternoon's breaking news has also brought in a swirl of hoorays by Chinese Formula 1 fans sending congratulations on Sina Weibo, pushing the "Zhou Guanyu has become China's first driver in Formula One" hashtag onto trending list within hours.

"I'm happy that the Formula 1 is now embracing its first Chinese racing driver ever since it started its way in [UK] Northamptonshire's Silverstone Circuit 70 years ago," congratulated a Chinese fan on social media.

"And now we can expect more from the races, and today is the day where we can start our expectation."