Guanyu Zhou can put China in the fast lane
He will boost the country’s soft power when he moves up to Formula 1 and takes on the big beasts of auto racing
He’s a sponsor’s dream – humble, photogenic, talented. Other race car drivers have nothing but respect for him. And he’s good, damn good.
I’ll tell you right here and right now – he’s going to turn Chinese motorsport, on its head.
As far as sports in China go, forget Yao Ming. Forget the Houston Rockets and the NBA.
Guanyu Zhou is set to be named the first Chinese driver to race in Formula One with Alfa Romeo, and, looking to partner with Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes-Benz fame.
In auto racing, it doesn’t get bigger.
According to The Daily Mail, if the reports are true Zhou will become only the second driver from mainland China to get behind the wheel of a Formula One car, after Ma Quinghua drove in five practice sessions across 2012 and 2013 with HRT and Caterham.
Team principal Fred Vasseur admitted that the team will financially benefit from the move – not least because of the marketing opportunities opened up by having a Chinese driver – but that his driving record earned him that seat too, PlanetF1.com reported.
Zhou has indeed been impressive, currently leading the F2 standings with two rounds remaining in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso has spoken highly of Zhou and said recently that he’s “looking forward to racing with him” in F1 next year.
Speaking to Formula1.com, Alonso said: “Yes, yes I’m happy for him, he’s a nice kid and we obviously had him in the [Alpine] Academy this year so I had a few days with him in testing.
“Also last year when I was testing the old Renault on my comeback to the sport, I shared with Zhou a couple of days in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
“We have a good relationship, as I said, happy for him with this opportunity.”
Zhou’s appointment means that current Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi will step out after three full seasons in F1, the Italian having finished every race this year but scored only once – in Monaco — Formula1.com reported.
“In the same way,” continued Alonso, “Antonio is stepping out, which is always how it works in this sport … but it’s good for Formula 1 in general, I think For China, for Zhou.
“We are all looking forward to racing with him and welcoming him as best as possible,” he concluded.
It will definitely be good for China, that much is obvious. And should a Chinese firm such as Huawei, Tencent or Alibaba jump into a sponsorship role, the element of “soft power” could have an incredible impact internationally.
Meanwhile, according to a report in Motorsportweek.com, Formula One has extended its contract with organizers of the Chinese Grand Prix, securing the event’s future until 2025.
China first featured on the calendar at the Shanghai International Circuit in 2004 and from 2009 the event has been held early in the season.
It has not been present on the calendar since the outbreak of the pandemic while its 2022 event has already been called off due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding China’s restrictions.
Nevertheless, said F1 boss Stefano Domenicali, “this is great news for all of our fans in China and we are delighted to announce this agreement that will see us racing in Shanghai until 2025.”
The sport will obviously get a major boost with Zhou in the Alfa Romeo driver’s seat – a massive step for motorsport in the home of the Red Dragon.
Zhou, who remains humble despite the ongoing success, also told PlanetF1.com, that Alonso has mentored him more than any other racing driver.
“It was one of those days that I will remember for my entire racing career,” Zhou said of his competition in an official F1 session, driving Alonso’s Alpine during FP1 in Austria, PlanetF1.com reported.
The Chinese driver was impressive, finishing just three places behind his teammate for the morning, Esteban Ocon.
“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,” he told PlanetF1.com.
“You don’t have a driver coach in that period because everyone already knows what they are doing in FP1, but Fernando 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,” he added.
“One of the most important parts was to complete all of the programs. You cannot just focus on lap times. I was spending more time on giving them feedback. The team believed in me a lot and I think that paid off.”
Make no mistake, a new era dawns for auto racing in China … and its name is Guanyu Zhou.
A young man, who could put Chinese motorsport into the limelight, overnight.
Sources: The Daily Mail, PlanetF1.com, Motorsport.com, Motorsportweek.com, Formula1.com