Ever since Zhou Guanyu officially joined Alfa Romeo F1 Team Orlen on Jan. 1 this year and became China’s first-ever full-time Formula One driver, he has been writing history in real time.
The glitz, glamor, and rich history that surrounds Formula One, as well as the high-visibility exploits of drivers in and out of their 360-kilometer-per-hour cars, make it a sport that carries with it an outsized influence.
The likes of the late, great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, winner of three F1 world championships, Germany’s Michael Schumacher, winner of seven titles, and, more recently, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton, also with seven titles so far, have transcended the sport and become global cultural icons.
So Zhou’s maiden season as an F1 driver has naturally caused quite a stir in China. But the 23-year-old has handled the pressure in his trademark low-key style, allowing his ability for low-risk, results-driven racing to speak for itself.
The first time Zhou spoke with Sixth Tone, he had only just signed with Alfa Romeo. Back then, his excitement about what was to come, mixed with a little trepidation, was palpable. Ten months and 21 races later, and Zhou, at 23, is due to finish his first Formula One season in Abu Dhabi on Nov. 20. He now has the air of an F1 pro, giving measured answers tinged with cool confidence.
“It’s a lot of fun. I love racing, I love motorsport, and it’s been my dream since I was a kid to race in Formula One, so to attain my dream is already a good achievement,” says Zhou.
Zhou’s place racing against the world’s best is the culmination of a lifetime’s singular focus on motorsport, as well as the crowning achievement — so far, at least — of a career that began when Zhou was 8 years old. It was then that he slid into the driver’s seat of a go-kart for the first time at a track on the fringes of his hometown Shanghai, at the urging of his father, an avid motorsport fan.
At the time, China had yet to emerge as the world’s largest auto market, and the country’s relationship with international motorsport was still in its early, tentative stages. A Chinese driver would not take the wheel of an F1 car until 2012, when Ma Qinghua spent two seasons serving as a test and practice driver for the now-defunct HRT and Caterham teams.
So while Zhou’s talent was recognized early on, his family decided to relocate him to the northern English city of Sheffield — a heartland for U.K. motorsport — aged 12 to give his talent room to grow. And while motorsport enthusiasts charted his rise — from karts to the international Formula 3 and Formula 2 circuits — it wasn’t until March 20 of this year at the Bahrain International Circuit that the world got to see what the fuss was all about.
Zhou duly delivered. He started in 15th position on the grid, fell to 19th on the opening lap, but recovered to finish in 10th position, collecting a point in his first-ever F1 race.
“I was nervous,” says Zhou. “I think that’s the only word to describe it. Even though I had been racing for such a long time, there were 20 drivers out there on the grid and so many people watching at home. To take part was amazing. It was a great moment … you dream about it for so many years, and then you are there.
“However, not just being there but scoring my first point on my debut was something nobody, including me, expected. Not many people can do that.”
Over the course of the season, Zhou has gone on to pick up more points in Canada (four for finishing a season-best eighth) and in Italy (one for another 10th). He also managed to emerge unscathed from a sickening crash at the British Grand Prix in July.
Stewards remove the crashed car of Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu from the barriers after a crash at the start of the Formula One British Grand Prix in Silverstone, U.K., July 3, 2022. Ben Stansall/VCG
Then, in September, Zhou’s perseverance was rewarded with a second contract from Alfa Romeo for the 2023 season.
“To get that out of the way early means a lot to me because it means you are doing something right, and everyone is happy with the job you are doing,” says Zhou. “It’s one less thing to worry about. In terms of the goals, the targets, let’s say it doesn’t really change things. It’s about scoring points, qualifying up the grid. That’s achievable, but it takes a lot, and to have a longer commitment makes me happy.”
In re-signing Zhou, Frédéric Vasseur, Alfa Romeo’s team principal, and the man who signs the cheques — and the contracts — threw his support behind the driver and his potential.
“From day one with the team, at the Abu Dhabi test last year, he has impressed me with his approach to work, and this is always a very positive trait,” Vasseur said in a statement announcing the deal.
“We knew he was quick, but the way he adapted to Formula One in such a short time has been one of the best surprises of our season. He is a very nice guy; everyone on the team likes both his personality and attitude. He has had the humility to ask questions and learn ... and the intelligence to apply the information to improve race after race. He will have this experience to draw on next season, and I am sure he will make another step forward as we continue to grow our team.”
Zhou Guanyu poses for a photo during the Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio d’Italia 2022, Sept. 9, 2022. Antonin Vincent/DPPI
Once the flag falls for the end of the current F1 season, Zhou will finally have some time to relax before pre-season testing and practice begins in earnest at Alfa Romeo’s training base outside of Zürich, Switzerland. Then, all eyes will be fixed on the opening race of 2023, back again in Bahrain on March 5.
Zhou’s rise, plus China’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, mean that it’s been three years since he returned home to Shanghai. But he has kept regular contact with family and friends, and with his ever-growing legion of fans — and the occasional detractor.
“The most important thing was that the pressure was on from the end of last year. From social media, with people doubting me, you know, there was only one way to show them what I could do, and that was being out there on the track.”
Now that he’s proved himself, Zhou hopes — as do world motorsports governing body FIA and the Federation of Automobile and Motorcycle Sports of China — that he can do it all again, but this time with a stop in his home country. The Chinese Grand Prix is tentatively set for April 16 next year, which, if it happens, would be its first staging since 2019.
“I really want to provide the background for the history of motorsports in China so that more of the young generation can become interested in it,” says Zhou. “Even if they’re not driving, just interested in watching the race, that is good. In Bahrain, that was the largest viewership ever back home, so it’s good to have that TV coverage and see so many people watching the races.”
While official viewing figures for the 2022 season have yet to be released, Chinese media reported that news about Zhou’s debut in Bahrain in March attracted more than 250 million views on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
Formula One had been gaining traction in the Chinese market even before Zhou’s debut, with the sport’s following on Chinese social media platforms growing 39% to 2.7 million in 2021, according to the FIA. The number of “TV unique viewers” — or people who watched at least one race across the season — in China rose 13% year-over-year to 70.8 million, the highest figure recorded anywhere in the world.
Zhou Guanyu on the drivers parade during the Brazilian Grand Prix, Nov. 13, 2022. PA Images/VCG
“It’s better for the sport when you bring a different audience. Hopefully the Chinese Grand Prix will happen next year, as it will be another highlight of my Formula One career,” Zhou says.
“It’s been a good season. The thing I am happiest about so far is that I have shown I’m capable of being a good Formula One driver and that I deserve to be there for years on the grid.”
Editor: Tom Arnstein.
(Header image: Zhou Guanyu during the Formula 1 Honda Japanese Grand Prix 2022, Oct. 8, 2022. Florent Gooden/DPPI)