Around fifteen years ago, I had a bet with a middle school friend: “which event will happen first, China‘s first goal in the World Cup, or a Chinese racing driver’s first points-paying position in Formula One.” The mystery was resolved on March 20. Guanyu Zhou, China’s first ever full-time F1 racing driver, finished his debut in 10th place, thereby winning one point.
Zhou showed strong confidence and eagerness to finish with points. He has impressed audiences and kicked out doubts by reaching the second qualifying to start 15th on the grid. Although he lost some time at one stage as he had to adjust the settings of his vehicle, he soon proved Alfa Romeo made the right decision to sign him through a string of overtaking moves, especially his pass of Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time world champion. “I cannot believe I just witnessed a Chinese racer pass on Hamilton,” one hot Weibo post said.
Last November, Alfa Romeo announced its controversial signing of Zhou. After Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 F1 world champion, retired last year, Alfa Romeo has shaken up its line-up. The team recruited Valtteri Bottas, a two-time championship runner-up, first as its number one choice and then shifted its focus to the second seat candidate – mostly a binary option between Antonio Giovinazzi and Guanyu Zhou. Giovinazzi worked with the team for the last three seasons. For the purpose of consistency, the Swiss team initially preferred Giovinazzi and gave him some extra time to prove he deserved a new contract. Unfortunately, his performance was not strong enough to persuade the team, and Alfa Romeo ultimately selected Zhou.
Zhou’s doubters claimed the decision was made due to potential commercial benefits, rather than competitive considerations. F1 started its exploration of Chinese market back in 2004, when the Chinese Grand Prix was first held at the Shanghai International Circuit, currently the most expensive Formula One circuit facility. Over the past 18 years, Shanghai has witnessed many historic moments. Michael Schumacher won his last Grand Prix here in 2006 and Formula One World Championship celebrated its 1,000th round in 2019. Although the Chinese Grand Prix has either been cancelled or not scheduled since 2020 due to the pandemic, the contract between Formula One and China was still extended by three years to 2025. F1 has never hidden its ambitions of widening its influence in China, and no one could deny that Zhou’s arrival in F1 would definitely help promote the sport in his home market, naturally benefiting both Alfa Romeo and F1 financially from domestic sponsors. Insiders mentioned that Chinese companies have shown an increasing interest in Zhou throughout the past 18 months.
The whole sport had been expecting a native Chinese racer for a long time. Even if the sport has attracted a strong fan base through generations of legends and years of races, it needs a local super star to help it reach a higher level of popularity. The closest attempt before Zhou was Qinghua Ma. He was added to the HRT F1 driver development program in 2012. One year later, he received a full-time contract from HRT and was supposed to compete in F1 in the following season. However, HRT collapsed only one week after the announcement. Ma moved to Caterham soon and participated in Free Practice 1 (FP1) in 2013 Chinese Grand Prix, but his performance ended up outside the 107% reference time to the quickest driver, therefore extinguishing his F1 dreams.
In Ma’s case, there was rumor that the team signed Ma just to attract higher quotes to sell the team, because Ma represented a large, wide and undeveloped market, but his performance proved he was not ready for competing in F1 at that time. Zhou’s case is different. Compared to Ma, Zhou has matured through a streamlined and structured training system to get prepared. He joined the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2014 and moved to Renault/Alpine five years later. Zhou has gradually improved his race craft and calm head throughout the journey and provided a very promising and impressing performance in his F2 seasons, which brought him further opportunities to drive his role model Fernando Alonso’s car in FP1 in 2021 Australian Grand Prix and broader interests from multiple F1 teams.
Certainly, it is not guaranteed Zhou could transfer his success in F2 to F1. It was still a risky decision for a team to change both of its line-ups for the season and pick up someone who had zero official F1 race experience. Even two weeks earlier, some online analysts speculated that Zhou should lose his spot. Zhou himself was aware of such comments. In his post-race interview, he said, ” Everyone knows what happened when I signed – there were people making different noises.” He also admitted his point-winning debut relieved huge pressure from his shoulders. However, Zhou needs to keep in mind this is only the first step in his long journey. F1 is a highly competitive sport, and spots are not reserved for anybody. From now on, he has to be questioned all the time: up or out.