When growing up in China, there was no obvious candidate from Guanyu Zhou’s homeland whose pathway he could follow as a young wannabe Formula 1 driver. He hopes to be that guiding voice, one day, for a new generation of Chinese talent, but first, he plans to make his “own dream come true.”
Describing his route up the motorsport ladder as “blind,” Zhou readily admits he hasn’t always taken the right steps. He has tripped up on a rung or two along the way – the 2020 F2 campaign was a particularly challenging climb – but he’s never been closer to realising his goal of reaching Formula 1.
In doing so, he would become China’s first-ever full-time F1 driver, an accomplishment he says would “mean everything.”
A SIGNIFICANT MILESTONE
Dressed in Alpine’s Le Coq Sportif training gear along with a self-designed blue and pink baseball cap, there was a spring in the step of Zhou’s limited edition Need for Speed Puma trainers as he arrived for the interview, the Chinese driver still riding high from his FP1 outing with Alpine in Austria. The session made Zhou just the second driver from mainland China – there was another who came from Hong Kong, he reminds – to compete in an official F1 session.
It was a significant milestone in the career of a driver who has much loftier ambitions. Finishing 14th in Fernando Alonso’s car, the 22-year-old impressed Alpine with not just his speed, but his input as well. He also made a fan of the two-time world champion, who hailed that the junior “executed FP1 perfectly.”
“It was one of those days that I will remember for my entire racing career,” says Zhou. “It was always going to be so much different from going out and doing a few days of testing in an F1 car. You’re on the circuit with the rest of the drivers, with your idols and World Champions. Seeing them drive past you on a cool-down lap is special.
“You don’t have a driver coach in that period because everyone already knows what they are doing in FP1, but Fernando (Alonso) helped me a lot. In the last three, four years, that is the most that I have ever been helped by another driver. We did the track walk together and he was giving me details during that, telling me about the surface and the bumps, and we went through the on-boards in the engineer briefing and he was explaining everything to me.
“I was happy with my performance - there was a lot of pressure, but I think that in terms of speed, it went really well. One of the most important parts was to complete all of the programmes. You cannot just focus on laptimes. I was spending more time on giving them feedback. The team believed in me a lot and I think that paid off.”
That Alonso was his childhood hero made the outing that bit more special. Ahead of the session, Zhou shared a poignant image on social media of himself waving an Alonso flag at the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix. In the future, he will hope that young drivers from his homeland are brandishing Guanyu Zhou flags at the Shanghai International Circuit.
Has his FP1 outing brought that day any closer?
“FP1 was broadcast in China, and I think the views were very high,” says Zhou. “A lot of people were keeping an eye on me. A lot of people were literally just watching my onboard during the entire session. Some people even recorded all of my laps.
“It was important to not just be attending FP1 as a Chinese driver but to be up there in terms of speed. There hasn’t been anyone who’s finished as high as I did, and I think that’s given the country more hope for the future.
“It has also motivated me to keep doing what I am doing. I think I’ve proven that I have the speed to be there one day.”
It was important to not just be attending FP1 as a Chinese driver but to be up there in terms of speed. There hasn’t been anyone who’s finished as high as I did.
REPRESENTING A NATION
Zhou is undoubtedly a shining light for Chinese motorsport, but the fact that he, at just 22-years-old, is already seen as the primary role model for burgeoning talent shows you how deprived the country has been of an F1 star.
The Alpine test driver is regularly inundated with questions from fans and fellow F1 hopefuls asking how to reach the pinnacle of motorsport, but it’s a journey that Zhou is still working towards himself.
However, the fact that the questions keep on coming is seen as a positive by Zhou as it shows the interest is growing.
“I've said to you before, it has always been tough not having anyone to follow from China who can tell me the right direction to go to make it as an F1 driver,” he continues. “If I could go back in time, I would take a few different decisions and choose different categories or teams, but that is how it is when you're going through doors blind.
“To have reached F2, I must have done something right and hopefully one day I can give some tips to people. I wouldn't just give advice out to anyone, though. I would pick the right young talent, drivers who I believe in. But that will be many, many years later when I have finished my career. People ask me a lot for tips for young drivers, but I am still only 22 myself. I am one of the youngest here.
“But this shows me that more people from China are interested in motorsport. Not just the younger generation either, celebrities as well, and that helps. If I can get to F1 then hopefully there will be even more people trying to chase the dream that I have been chasing since I was young.”
THE IMPACT OF HIS FIRST WIN
It’s a dream that feels a lot closer than it did 12 months ago when he was down in sixth place and 45 points off his then-teammate Callum Ilott at the top of the standings.
The turning point for Zhou came in Sochi when a win in the Sprint Race finally relieved him of the burden of clinching a first win. A nasty collision between Luca Ghiotto and Jack Aitken ended the race early and meant the Chinese driver only came away with half points, but that didn’t change its significance. He was determined to use it as a springboard.
“Mentally it was important, it was like a huge release,” says Zhou on his maiden victory. “I had been chasing that victory for a long, long time. I said at the beginning of 2020 that I wanted at least one victory and it almost came in Round 1, but it didn’t happen, and I had to wait until Round 10 to get it.
“I learned a lot. Recovering from a tough weekend and resetting your mind is not easy, but last year I had to learn how to do that. You have to forget the worst moments and come back stronger.
“Last season was one of the toughest seasons of my racing career so far because I had the speed, but the results just didn’t come. Even my first victory was half points and I was thinking 'nothing is going right.' I am hoping that all of the bad luck last year turns into good luck this year.”
He closed the season with three top-five finishes – including a podium – before starting 2021 with a podium and a first Feature Race win in the opening round at Sakhir. Zhou said at the time that the new campaign felt more like a continuation of his improvements post-Sochi than a fresh start.
Last season was one of the toughest seasons of my racing career so far because I had the speed, but the results just didn’t come.
“Winning in Bahrain was a completely different feeling. For a start, one was a Feature Race and the other was a Sprint Race,” he says. “It was a tough race, and I was a lot, lot happier to come away with the full 25 points.”
The Chinese ace is currently second in the Championship standings, after dropping behind Oscar Piastri in the last round at Silverstone, but he has spent more time at the top of the table than anyone else this year. After so long chasing a maiden victory, Zhou now has three in 2021 alone - more than anyone else this year.
“People will always be around me in the Championship and they might jump ahead, but I am doing my own thing,” he asserted. “I am focused on getting the best out of myself each weekend.
“I want to maximise the points at tracks where my car is good, and it has been playing out quite well for me so far. I am not a big fan of street circuits, so I was quite happy to have been in first after Monaco and Baku.”
REALISING THE DREAM
While some drivers focus solely on racing, rarely - if ever - shutting off, Zhou is of the breed who have outside interests that serve to help him rest and recharge.
Aspects from many of those can be applied to his day job. Basketball, and in particular, the career of Kobe Bryant, is one.
The late American icon is one of Zhou’s greatest sporting influences and his colours feature on his helmet as a tribute. The Chinese driver also owns a custom pair of trainers – fashion design is another of his passions away from racing – that feature an image of Bryant.
“Basketball is similar to racing as you have a lot of pressure, and it comes down to the last few seconds,” explains Zhou. “All of the competitors know that the ball is going to end up in Kobe’s hands in the final moments, but he is still able to shoot even though they are all putting pressure on him.
“For that, you have to be mentally strong, and you have to put the work in. At training, he was the first one there and the last one to finish. That mentality is crazy, and it applies to every sport, to motorsport and to everything in the world. If you want something, it will not just arrive in your hands, you have to work for it.”
It’s a mentality that has gotten Zhou this far, and it’s one he hopes will take him all the way to F1.
People will always be around me in the Championship and they might jump ahead, but I am doing my own thing. I am focused on getting the best out of myself each weekend.
Just one point away from securing his Super Licence (he’s currently on 39 points), Zhou’s best chance of gaining a seat is to finish as high in the Championship as possible, especially with both Alpine seats currently tied up until at least the end of 2022.
That means that every point - and every second - will count.
“Only a few teams have a door open, and there are a lot of drivers looking to go for those seats,” he said. “It will be up to my management. They are working as hard as they can to get me the opportunity.
“Mia Sharizman (Alpine’s Academy Director) is working hard, but looking at the Alpine seats, it is quite limited for next year at least, so he is working to see what other options might be available. I don’t think that I will know anything until the very end of the year.
“For sure, if I can do well in this championship, then the opportunities will be higher.”