Guanyu Zhou thrives within a dynamic and bustling existence. Firmly at home in heavily populated, vibrant cities, where daily life mirrors his chosen career path: full on and fast-paced. Shanghai, his place of birth, offered all of that and more. Located on the southern estuary of Asia’s largest river, the Yangtze, and home to more than 24 million people, China’s largest city (based on urban population) is a thriving hub of financial, social and technological activity.
A move to Sheffield, in the North of England, would have come as quite the culture shock.
With a population of less than 600,000, the steel city, as it is commonly known, is in stark contrast to Shanghai. And yet, that is exactly where his journey led him. Opportunities come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and cities – this one came in Yorkshire, and Zhou grasped it with both hands.
“Shanghai is a huge city, so when you are growing up and you are moving to Sheffield, your first time living in the UK, Sheffield…. It feels small,” Zhou laughs. “It was a big change. All of the hotels and houses, they are mostly old, traditional UK buildings - really old. In the windows, in Sheffield, you could still feel the wind coming through, it is really cold! There’s like no summer and then during the winter it gets so cold.”
The 20-year-old’s tongue-in-cheek summary evades the part Sheffield played in his development, but, he was barely a teenager when he moved from Shanghai, with little to no understanding of the English language. The learning curve was dauntingly steep.
“I moved to Sheffield with my family,” he continued. “My mum and dad were both there, but my mum was the one who spent most time there with me, as my dad was working with his business.
“There are a lot of Chinese people in Sheffield, but mainly in the universities, so it didn't really affect me because I was only in year 7/8 at school. All of my friends in Sheffield were my school friends, British people, rather than Chinese.
“I couldn't really speak English, so it was tricky. Maths was one of my best subjects at the beginning. After a year, I had spent a lot of time alone with the karting team, travelling from the factory to the circuit, and that helped me. In the schools, there were no other Chinese people there, I was the only one and they couldn't speak my language, so I had to force myself to learn it quickly.”
The decision to move to England was fuelled by his desire to forge a motor racing career and his determination to push himself. Moving to Europe opens avenues that would have previously been locked shut for the now 20-year-old. And, for Zhou, the UK in particular presented a demandingly competitive karting scene.
Having begun karting for fun at the age of six, Zhou’s burgeoning career progressed rapidly. By the age of eight, he was competing competitively, and ahead of his move to England, the Chinese racer was on the back of Championship winning campaigns in his home country. He needed a fresh challenge.
Early justification for the fresh venture came in the form of two title wins: the Super 1 National Rotax Max Junior and Rotax Max Euro Challenge. Following this, Ferrari got in touch regarding a place in their prestigious driver academy. Zhou was quickly forging a name for himself, as a young star from a country with a rapidly growing passion for motorsport.
“Previously, I think there were a lot of people doing racing in China, but I think in terms of knowing Formula 1, motorsport, properly, it was not that much. Whereas now, I think pretty much everyone knows about Formula 1, which is good.
“When I was young, I was a fan of Fernando Alonso, and then Daniel Ricciardo when he went to F1 - I used to look out for him. There’s not been a Chinese driver, so if I can be the first one, hopefully I can be an inspiration for other drivers.
“That has always been my target, since I was young. I have been working hard to get where I am. I am trying to give everything.”
Nestled in the back of the deafening UNI-Virtuosi tent-cum-garage in Sochi, Russia, conversation battling against the overruling thunder of engines and clattering of tools, Zhou has since swapped the Prancing Horse for the Renault diamond.
Sitting there in RDA apparel and his own personalised Renault cap, with the Chinese flag embellished across the bottom of it’s peak, Zhou is coming towards the end of a successful rookie season in Formula 2.
Having briefly moved from Sheffield to Maranello, Italy, Zhou is back in the UK. This time, he is living down south, with the Renault base at Enstone in Oxfordshire and the UNI-Virtousi factory located at Attleborough, in East Anglia. He divides his time between the two and now resides in London. A city arguably more befitting of the hustle and bustle way of life Zhou craves.
“It is great to be working with these guys,” he continued. “I was working with a UK team all of the time in karting, having moved there from China. Not all of them in the team are British, but a lot of them are, and I know how to work with them. To improve, you have to improve as a team.
“We didn't expect to already be fighting for podiums or future race wins so early on. The beginning of the season was like a rollercoaster. Starting off well in Bahrain, then Baku was a disaster, and then we came back strongly in Barcelona. Since then, it has been quite good.”
The 20-year-old has spent a large proportion of the season flirting with the top five, and while a maiden race win has so far eluded him, four podiums and a pole position makes for an inspiring introduction to the category
“The one time I didn't expect to be on pole was in Silverstone,” he assessed. “There are so many high-speed corners, and in Free Practice, you probably only got three-push laps before the tyre was gone.
“The first set of tyres in Quali was good for P1, so I was a bit surprised. On the second set, people are normally improving quite a lot - however, we managed to be one of just a few teams to improve. The second set wasn't actually that much quicker. P1 was a good memory from Silverstone.”
Zhou’s mind is then cast back to Shanghai, September 26, 2004. Rubens Barrichello won the first ever Chinese Grand Prix, and, amongst the crowd that day was a five-year-old Guanyu Zhou.
The significance of that day is brought to the fore when Zhou evaluates the full circle that his career has taken up to this point. Having witnessed, live, the first ever race in his home country, the Chinese racer had to wait 15-years to make his debut at the track – during a historical weekend.
An unassuming smile emerges as the experience earlier this year comes flooding back to him. “That was quite mental,” he laughs. “Maybe that day was too good, because then I had a really bad weekend in Baku.
“I was at the first Chinese Grand Prix when I was younger, and then this year, we were back there for the 1000th Formula 1 Grand Prix. That is quite cool.
“To be driving a Formula 1 car, in the city of Shanghai, for an official F1 event, yeah. That was my first time driving there and it was amazing. When they Renault said that there was a possibility to do that demo, I didn't believe it. I was really thankful.
“For it to be the 1000th Grand Prix as well, that was something else. It was my first time on the Shanghai circuit, and in a Formula 1 car, so you can't get any better than that. I was nervous on the Saturday because I knew the track was tiny and I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake. I just wanted to keep it clean.
“Renault have given me a lot of opportunities and a lot of days in a Formula 1 car already. That has given me a bit more preparation to be ready to get used to the differences in the switch from F2 to F1.”
The aim, for Zhou, is to make that transition less of a shock than his move from Shanghai to Sheffield.