Written by Marcus Woodhouse, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
In the 2022 Formula 1 season, Zhou Guanyu has impressed the majority of the fans with his instant ability to bring home points for the Alfa Romeo team, including bringing home one point in his first race at the top of motorsport. But how did he get to F1 in the first place? And why was there so much of an outcry when he was announced?
Born in Shanghai, China in 1999, Zhou first started karting at the age of eight. However, the competition in his home country wasn’t sufficient for his potential, so he relocated to Sheffield four years later. Instantly, his talent won him various karting competitions, even leading him to compete in the Karting World Championship alongside Lando Norris. In 2014, he joined the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy, which accelerated his career progress dramatically.
2015 saw the promising Chinese driver join Prema in the Italian F4 championship, and he took it by storm, consistently achieving podium finishes and wins, which earned him the award of best rookie. His performances elevated him to Formula 3 for the next year, competing with the Motopark team and achieving two podiums. However, as time wore on the young driver seemed to lose his blinding pace and ended up 13th in the standings. He joined Prema again in 2017 and the improvement was evident as he took five podiums and finished in eighth position overall. Not one to rush things, Zhou stayed in F3 for one more season, which gave him six more podiums including two race wins.
Finally, 2019 was the year that saw Zhou compete in the Formula 2 championship with UNI-Virtuosi Racing alongside Luca Ghiotto, as he joined the Renault Sport Academy (now the Alpine Academy). Once again, he proved that he was able to compete, as evidenced by his numerous podiums and his 7th place finish in the drivers’ standings. To top it off, he was awarded the inaugural Anthoine Hubert Award due to finishing the highest of all the rookies that season. 2020 was another step up for the young Chinese talent, as he won his first race in the series at Sochi, ultimately achieving six podiums and sixth position in the standings. In addition, he was made Test Driver for the Renault Formula One Team, a sign of intent from the French constructors. This appointment gave him the opportunities to test the R.S.18 in Sakhir as well as participate in the post-season test for Renault, alongside none other than Fernando Alonso.
However, it wasn’t until 2021 that his skill and ability as a racing driver really shone through and attracted the attention of those involved in Formula One. He stayed with UNI-Virtuosi for the third season running, and instantly seemed up for the challenge of competing for the championship, taking pole position in the opening round and converting it into his maiden F2 feature race win. He followed that up with a sprint race victory in the notoriously treacherous streets of Monaco, before taking another podium in Baku. Four races without points ensued though, handing the title lead to fellow academy driver Oscar Piastri. Bigger things were at play though it seemed, as Zhou made his F1 debut in FP1 of the Austrian Grand Prix for Alpine F1 Team, becoming only the second driver from mainland China to participate in an F1 Grand Prix event.
Success soon returned in Britain, as he took another feature race win, and was followed up with two podiums in Monza. His championship hopes hung in the balance however, as he stalled the car in Sochi, meaning Piastri went into the final two races with a 36 point lead over him in the standings. Zhou’s bad luck continued in Jeddah, as he dropped to P3 in the standings due to a collision with Christian Lundgaard in the first sprint race. Despite not winning the championship, Zhou still signed off his F2 career in style, the winner of the second sprint race and the runner up of the feature race. All in all, it was a highly successful year for him, ending up with four wins and nine podiums to boot.
The move to Formula 1 is what most young drivers dream about for their whole lives. This dream was realised for Zhou in 2022, as he replaced Antonio Giovinazzi at Alfa Romeo. Taking a look back at his results in the junior formulae as we have done, it is easy to see the reasoning behind this decision, and obvious to say that Zhou Guanyu deserved his F1 seat. However, social media being social media, there was somewhat of an outcry, as the popular Giovinazzi was replaced by a Chinese driver with significant financial backing. His accolades and achievements were ignored by the masses, despite being tipped for an F1 seat the season before his F2 title charge.
The outcry was soon squashed by Zhou himself, as he followed in the footsteps of hugely successful drivers Alain Prost, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel by scoring a point on his debut race. His performance in that race silenced the critics and his subsequent ability to keep up with teammate Valtteri Bottas impressed fans to no end. His popularity may also have been boosted somewhat after surviving a horrifying crash in Silverstone, with fans desperate to know that he was alright.
All in all, Zhou Guanyu’s career hasn’t been as electrifying as someone like Max Verstappen’s, but it has easily been at the level required for a promising F1 driver. He has broken new ground for Chinese racing, becoming the first Chinese full-time Formula 1 driver. Ultimately, it looks like there are great things to come in his future in the sport.