Is Guanyu Zhou of China set to make Formula One history?
According to press reports, the 22-year-old from Shanghai is expected to be confirmed at Alfa Romeo next season where he will partner Valtteri Bottas — that would make him the first Chinese driver to race in F1.
Zhou currently sits second in the Formula 2 championship behind Oscar Piastri and is part of the Alpine young driver program, The Sun reported this week.
He is only the second driver from mainland China to get behind the wheel of an F1 car after Ma Quinghua drove in several practice sessions with HRT and Caterham in 2012-13.
Zhou, who was previously part of Ferrari’s Driver Academy, has been told he is free to leave Alpine in pursuit of his Grand Prix dream as they are unwilling to replace either Fernando Alonso or Esteban Ocon.
Alpine’s executive director Marcin Budkowski said: “On Guanyu Zhou, there are rumours flying around, and again I am not going to comment on rumours, or on driver contracts.
“We are evaluating options for our academy drivers but the success of an academy is also measured through its output.
“We are running this academy because we want to generate Formula One drivers.
“But we can’t stand in the way of our drivers who are mature for F1 and ready to take that challenge, because that would be negative for their careers, for them as individuals, and also it would reflect badly on our academy.”
Spanish sports publication Marca claim that Zhou’s backers would pay handsomely to see him make his Formula 1 debut alongside Bottas at Alfa — to the tune of €30million.
Sources have suggested that a deal is all but agreed, and now just needs to be signed off, Motorsport.com reported.
However, Alfa team principal Vasseur has laughed that off that number.
He told GPFans Global: “The numbers you give, it is pure speculation and bulls**t.”
The Italian team have already confirmed Mercedes’ star Bottas their No 1 driver for next year, replacing Kimi Raikkonen.
Their No 2 slot, currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi, is the only seat on the grid not to be cemented and Zhou is reportedly expected to replace the Italian.
Like many drivers outside of Europe, Zhou realized he had to leave his homeland and head West to give himself the best shot of making his dream a reality.
According to a report in Formula1.com, he left the bustling metropolis that is Shanghai and swapped it for the quieter historic South Yorkshire city of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.
“We knew the UK has the strongest level of drivers,” he says. “So we knew we had to move there.”
Gowing up in a city that couldn’t be more different to Shanghai, and where he didn’t speak the language, was something of a baptism of fire. But he embraced the challenge.
He and his parents, who have always been supportive of his dream, were learning as they went along, so it was slow-going.
“I had no choice but to adapt,” he says. “School was very different. For example, I never studied science in China so I had no baseline. You also have to learn the language. In my first year, I couldn’t really understand much but spending time with only English people helped me a lot.”
Second in his first Italian F4 championship, having joined the Ferrari Driver Academy, was followed by three campaigns in Euro F3.
He then switched allegiance to Renault’s junior program, with valuable time in Formula 1 machinery, while dovetailing his duties with a first campaign in F2.
Since then, Zhou has clocked up thousands of miles in two-year-old machinery, courtesy of Renault’s (now Alpine’s strong testing program.)
“To be doing two-year-old car testing was big. That’s the way I wanted it be, to get myself as prepared as possible while I’m doing the F2 season so I can be ready for whenever I get a chance [in F1].”
It proved a clever move, with Zhou getting the chance to test alongside his idol Fernando Alonso in current machinery at the end of year Abu Dhabi test in 2020, before taking the double world champion’s seat for FP1 in Austria earlier this year.
“Fernando was my F1 idol,” he says. “2005 was the first time I got into F1 after attending the first ever Chinese Grand Prix the year before. I never expected to be driving in his seat. He’s helping me a lot and is very open with information. Before I had my FP1 chance, we were already speaking with each other about the car, how it feels.”
They say you should never meet your heroes, but in coming face-to-face with Alonso, Zhou’s vision of the Spaniard 32-time Grand Prix winner has only been enhanced.
“He’s even kinder and more generous with his time than I expected,” he says. “To be a world champion helping a young driver hasn’t happened often in my experience. What he has done for me is quite surprising.
“My all-time goal is to be a Formula 1 driver,” he says. “Right now, I’m trying to win the F2 championship, to do well, and hopefully that opportunity in F1 will come.”
If he makes it into F1, as mainland China’s first Grand Prix driver, he’ll delight a nation that is already starting to get more behind him and motorsport in general.
“It is quite crazy back home,” he says. “In these past few years, the number of people who know about motorsport in China has been growing massively. I’m happy to carry the Chinese flag and to make people back home proud. I haven’t reached yet the top level, but that’s the goal.”
Sources: The Sun, Formula1.com, PlanetF1, Motorsport Week, Motorsport.com, The Daily Mail, GPFans Global