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As Zhou Guanyu readies to become China’s first Formula 1 driver, the young racer is poised to kickstart the country’s motorsports culture

By Ni Wei Updated Mar.1

Zhou Guanyu races in the Formula 2 feature race at Silverstone, UK, July 18, 2021

On July 12, 2012, 24-year-old Ma Qinghua drove the Hispania Racing Team’s (HRT) F112 car during the young driver test at Silverstone, home of the Formula 1 British Grand Prix.  
In the stands, 13-year-old Zhou Guanyu watched from the edge of his seat.  

Ma joined HRT’s Formula 1 driver development program in April that year. The young Shanghainese was once China’s greatest hope to compete in F1, motor racing’s highest level. However, his dreams were shattered when HRT suddenly closed due to financial woes.  
Nine years later, Zhou Guanyu is taking up the mantle.  

At the highest level of competitive motorsports, Formula 1, with its 10 teams and 20 drivers, is often grouped along with the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup as the three leading global sporting events. However, F1 had no racer from the world’s most populous country.  

But on November 16, 2021, Italian F1 team Alfa Romeo officially announced that Zhou Guanyu would partner with Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas for the F1 2022 season.  

“I’m very proud to be China’s first F1 driver,” the 22-year-old told NewsChina on December 1, eve of the penultimate race of the 2021 Formula 2 championship.  

“What you have to sacrifice is much more than it seems. You’re supposed to fully dedicate yourself to this sport, no matter what,” he said.  

“For the Chinese motor racing world, Zhou Guanyu going into F1 is what Liu Xiang was to track and field and Yao Ming was to basketball,” Chinese author-turnedrally driver Han Han told Shanghai Media Group’s TV channel Great Sports.  

Compared with other sports that rely more heavily on physicality, motorsports also require the consummate coordination of human and technology. Some skills can be acquired through years of practice. However, some factors are out of the drivers’ control – like market forces.  

‘The Distant Last Step’ 
Formula Racing is based on a pyramid ranking system. The most well-known categories are Formula 1, 2, 3 and 4.  

On May 21, Zhou won the first sprint race of the F2 Monaco Grand Prix. In July, he won the F2 feature race at Silverstone, triumphing over Williams junior driver Dan Ticktum and fellow Alpine Academy driver Oscar Piastri. At the time, he ranked first in the F2 standings.  

Zhou was overwhelmed with expectation and anxiety. He was eager to enter the F1 2022 season, but only two F1 teams still had vacancies, and 10 drivers were gunning for them.  
Alfa Romeo had shown interest, but wanted see how Zhou performed during the season. 
“I’ve never felt so much pressure from within or without,” Zhou said about his mindset at the time. “Even though the pressure was almost unbearable, fortunately I didn’t drop the ball.”  
Zhou had his F2 debut during the 2019 season as a member of the Alpine Academy, the talent development program for the Alpine F1 team. Having taken five podiums, he finished seventh that year and was awarded the Anthoine Hubert Award for the highest-ranking rookie. 
Zhou’s 2020 season was full of twists and turns. He had a clear goal to rank in the year’s top three and was confident he could win the F2 championship, but a series of mechanical failures slowed his ambitions. In the first race in Bahrain, Zhou, who led for most of the race, missed the podium after a mechanical breakdown. In the remaining races, Zhou had multiple mechanical problems and accidents. His season highlight came in the Sochi Sprint Race in Russia in September 2020, when he made history as the first Chinese driver to win an F2 race. With one win and six podiums, Zhou finished sixth for the season. 
“Failing to rank in the top three last year stressed me out a lot,” Zhou said. “In the past, even though people always said I was the Chinese driver who was closest to joining F1, inside I knew that last step seemed near but was actually still quite far, until this year,” he added. 

Zhou had a glorious F2 season in 2021. On March 28, he won the Feature Race of the Sakhir F2 round in Bahrain. Later he won in Monaco and at Silverstone. With a win and a second place in the final round in Abu Dhabi, Zhou cemented third place overall, behind top driver Oscar Piastri of Australia and Robert Shwartzman of Russia.  

In September, Zhou had his first-ever F1 practice session at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix. It was significant for him – he would drive the legendary racer Fernando Alonso’s A521 for one hour.  
Alonso, Zhou’s idol since childhood, has helped Zhou the most over the past three years. 
“That weekend, we walked to the track together. He patiently answered all of my questions and gave me lots of advice based on his own experience,” Zhou told NewsChina.  

“When you get to this level, mostly it’s engineers that will help you. Professional drivers rarely volunteer to help. I was full of deep gratitude and reverence for him. A double world champion was still sincerely willing to teach and help me. Fortunately, I didn’t let him down,” he added.  

Zhou Guanyu drives for Alfa Romeo in a post-season test, Abu Dhabi, UAE, December 14, 2021

Taking the Long Track 
Born in 1999 in Shanghai, Zhou had a passion for motor racing since he was a boy. His earliest encounter with F1 was in 2005 during the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. A photo captured the moment: 6-year-old Zhou watching from the stands, his chubby hand waving a flag with excitement.  

In 2007, at a go-kart club in Shanghai, the 8-year-old sat in a race car for the first time. The club was run by Ma Qinghua’s father. Ma, then 20, was in Europe racing F3. When he returned to Shanghai, he met Zhou at the club.  

Training with several other kids, Zhou stood out. The boy not only learned quickly, but exhibited a calmness and focus beyond his age. After two years of training, Zhou won all eight stages of the Chinese national go-karting championship (under 16).  

But he was in for a rude awakening. At 11, Zhou spent the summer in Britain, training with a local karting team. The Chinese champion was disappointed when he ranked 15th after several races. Zhou realized that he had to leave China for a more competitive racing environment.  
In 2011, he moved to Sheffield in northern England to compete with Strawberry Racing. In July 2012, Zhou and his parents watched Ma test at Silverstone. “At that time, F1 was still a distant goal for me,” Zhou told NewsChina. “But of course, I chose to leave home and train abroad for my ultimate goal – to officially become an F1 driver.”  

“In the world of motorsports, you won’t go far if you don’t have a clear goal,” Pan Yongyong, deputy director of marketing for Shanghai Juss Sports Development Group, told NewsChina. “I’ve seen many drivers in lower-level Formula racing who gave up too quickly, seeing F1 as too distant to reach,” said Pan, who was also former director of Shanghai FCACA Rally Team.
On the road to F1, Zhou has seen many peers go abroad to compete, only to give up. “Since I’ve experienced the hardships they’ve experienced, I really understand how they feel. You have to embed a strong will in your heart and have faith that racing is a part of your life,” Zhou told NewsChina.  

On the Grid 
Beyond training and personal sacrifice, financial support makes F1 talent much more difficult. “A good racer not only requires extraordinary perseverance, but also has to sacrifice all his youth for the sport, no matter the cost,” Pan told NewsChina.  

“Above all, they have to come from a rich family, especially in China,” he said.  

More than a decade ago, Cheng Congfu, a previous Chinese F1 hopeful, told media that his family spent more than 100 million yuan (US$15.7m) on his career. However, in Europe and Japan, car makers and sponsors play an important role in financing young talent.  

Veteran F1 commentator Ye Fei told NewsChina that in countries where motorsports are well developed, even young gokarters get sponsors early on. But in China, companies are not invested in developing young talent, which Ye attributes to China’s less competitive automotive industry and underdeveloped motorsport culture.  

Take Japan as an example. In 1987, the country held its first F1 Grand Prix in Suzuka. The event, along with the country’s soaring automotive industry, joined forces to promote motorsports culture in Japan. Motorsport-themed manga and animated series such as Bakuso Kyodai Let’s & Go!! and Future GPX Cyber Formula followed, which not only expanded the F1 fanbase, but also turned Chinese teenagers on to the sport. Japan has produced 18 F1 drivers. Automaker Honda builds F1 engines and was a team owner until 2021.  

“Either China’s automotive industry or its motorsports culture is way too underdeveloped. Zhou Guanyu is rare for China’s F1 culture, so rare that there won’t be another one like him for a long time,” Ye said.  

Zhou Guanyu

Fast Culture 
Pan Yongyong told NewsChina that China’s F1 culture developed in four phases. The first boom began with the 5.45-kilometer Shanghai International Circuit in 2004.  

This period focused on celebrity drivers. Most casual Chinese fans were only familiar with the renowned driver Michael Schumacher. However, F1’s popularity waned after the German racer retired in late 2006.  

Save for a few clusters of die-hard fans, F1 continued to decline. A short-lived rebound came in 2010 – along with the comeback of Schumacher, which spawned a new generation of Chinese fans. The rise of social media also drove F1’s growing fandom.  

But F1 in China slowed down again in 2012, as lack of mainstream celebrities and participation of Chinese drivers made it difficult for F1 to attract fans and sponsors.  

In 2012, Ma Qinghua was China’s most promising F1 driver before HRT declared bankruptcy later that year. Ma told NewsChina that the team sought out Chinese car manufacturers and brand sponsors, but none showed interest.  

“If F1 had high visibility in China at the time, I think some Chinese manufacturers and brands would be willing to sponsor HRT, and the team might have kept going,” Ma said.  

Pan said that F1 culture in China is now in its fourth phase: a broader fanbase has formed as more middle-aged fans bring their children to races. The market reflects this trend, Pan said. Ticket sales for the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix increased, suggesting F1’s upswing to its U-shaped recession in China.  

In an interview with The Paper in 2019, Chase Carey, former CEO of Formula One Group, said China and the US are the largest untapped markets.  

In 2019, F1 held its 1,000th race in the Shanghai International Circuit. Carey called the move significant to “the future of F1.”  

Many Chinese insiders argue that the biggest impetus for F1 culture in China would be its first driver. Now that person has emerged.  

Zhou’s debut will be a formidable challenge, considering F1 has a record-breaking 23 Grand Prix races scheduled for 2022. But he is ready to roll into the unknown.  

“The steering wheels and switches in each car give you quite distinct responses. For me, gripping a new steering wheel is like entering a new world,” Zhou said.