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Zhou Guanyu Is About to Make Formula 1 History

After 72 years, over hundreds of races and 776 drivers later, Formula 1 will for the first time have a Chinese racer in a Grand Prix. Zhou Guanyu …

Zhou Guanyu Is About to Make Formula 1 History
18.03.2022 12:42
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After 72 years, over hundreds of races and 776 drivers later, Formula 1 will for the first time have a Chinese racer in a Grand Prix.

Zhou Guanyu, 22, will join the Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas on the Alfa Romeo F1 Team this season.

“We welcome Zhou, who will provide an exciting opportunity to engage and grow our fan base in China,” said Stefano Domenicali, the chief executive of Formula 1.

Zhou, of Shanghai, was 5 when Formula 1 introduced the Chinese Grand Prix in his home city in 2004. Zhou attended, was hooked and returned one year later waving a flag in support of Fernando Alonso, whom he will now race against.

Zhou began karting when he was 8, but in a country where motorsport was relatively immature.

“The biggest thing is [China] had no leader in motorsport,” Zhou said. “There’s no one who has been in Formula 1, who can take that experience and share with [others] how to develop.”

Zhou, behind the wheel for Alfa Romeo, led George Russell of Mercedes and Alexander Albon of Williams during Formula 1 testing on Feb. 25 in Barcelona, Spain. Credit…Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

Zhou moved to England at 12 and eventually to London, where he still lives.

“I went from winning everything back home to becoming a midfield runner,” Zhou said, upon joining the competitive path toward Formula 1. “I had to train harder. I won titles in karting, then got into formula racing and got involved with junior programs of Formula 1 teams.”

Zhou rose through Formula 4 and Formula 3, guided by Ferrari, and eventually graduated to Formula 2, switching to Renault’s young driver program. He was the program’s lead rookie in 2019, but some poor results in 2020 slowed his progress.

“I was so close, but also so far,” he said. “After F2, the next step is F1, or you’re finished, the door is closed.”

Zhou stayed in F2 in 2021, won four races and finished third in the championship, with Alfa Romeo recruiting him for 2022.

He has selected 24 as his race number, a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the N.B.A. star who died in 2020. “I watched it since I was very young,” he said, adding that “all my shoes in junior school” were inspired by Bryant.

While Zhou will bring China to Formula 1 this year, Formula 1 will remain absent from China. The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai has been canceled for the third straight year because of the nation’s strict Covid policy.

“I’m gutted I’m not going home,” said Zhou, who has not returned to Shanghai since mid-2020. He has seen the frenzied reception received by the world champion Max Verstappen in the Netherlands, and by Sergio Pérez in Mexico.

“In the past, we didn’t have a countryman,” he said. “For the future it would be amazing to see more [Chinese] people racing.”

Zhou is Formula 1’s only rookie this year.

“When you join F1, the challenge is mega, and even though F2 is getting closer and closer to the top level, F1 is still another world,” said Frédéric Vasseur, the team principal of Alfa Romeo. “You have a lot of things to discover; you need a completely new approach with the car, you have new tracks to learn; you have a team with 600 people, up from 16; every single topic is different.”

Zhou began working with Alfa Romeo, which finished ninth last year, only in December, but Vasseur said initial signs had been encouraging.

“He has a very nice attitude, but can also be pushy, and it’s a very good combination,” Vasseur said. “He knows perfectly well that it will be a challenge, and this is important, but I think that Valtteri and everyone in the team is ready to help him. He has a very open mind, and I’m sure that he will succeed.”

Even just lining up on the grid will be a dream for Zhou. Last July, he drove for the Alpine F1 Team during practice at the Austrian Grand Prix.

“When I did a practice session, it felt special, like it wasn’t real,” he said. “When you do a cool-down lap, see others approaching, and it’s [Lewis] Hamilton, [Sebastian] Vettel, these are names you hear on TV. To be on the same weekend is quite crazy. To compete, racing with them, is going to be amazing.

“From the feedback I got, there’s positive vibes back home,” he said. “It gives me that energy to carry the country on my shoulders. I’m here in F1, and I want to do well here and make people proud.”

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