Montmelo, Spain – Zhou Guanyu had his first official outing Thursday, as he continues on the final laps of his long journey to become the first Chinese Formula One driver.
At 22, Zhou will take that step on March 20 in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
After sitting out the opening day of preseason testing in Barcelona, Zhou completed 71 laps in his Alfa Romeo on the second day.
He spoke about the difficulties facing Chinese drivers who want to reach Formula One.
“It was always a dream more than target, because it was too far away,” Zhou said.
“In China, you can be a good Chinese driver, but if you can’t compete or beat European drivers, then you aren’t going to make your way to Formula 1.”
The HRT team planned to make Ma Qing Hua one its drivers in 2013, but folded before the season.
“It’s super difficult for us to firstly move outside, to Europe…as a very little kid,” Zhou said.
“At eight years old, I started racing, in go-karts,” he said. “I spent, three or four years of home racing. Then when you’ve won basically all the categories back home, the only way forward is to move to Europe.”
At 12 he moved to Sheffield in northern England to join a karting team and still speaks English with a hint of a Yorkshire accent.
“Europe or the UK is more like the home of motorsports,” he said.
In 2019, Zhou joined in the young drivers’ pipeline of the French manufacturer Renault (now Alpine).
China is a major growth market for F1 but any sport trying to crack the world’s second-biggest economy needs a local star.
The man he is replacing, Antonio Giovinazzi, implied on social media that the decision to promote Zhou was financially motivated.
“F1 is emotion, talent, cars, risk, speed. But when money rules it can be ruthless,” the Italian tweeted in November.
Zhou said he had shown the talent.
“It doesn’t really make a lot of difference between which country you come from,” said Zhou, who was third in the Formula 2 championship last year. “What I had to do is finish in the top three.”
“To be a Formula One driver, you have to do well, show your potential at every category.”
He added that luck played a role.
“The seats are so limited. So you really have to have the right timing to be in Formula 1, is not that easy,” he said.
Zhou said Formula One had been doing very well without him.
He acknowledged his promotion had played well back home, where he has devoted fans.
“Some fans, I know pretty much their names, their social names. They’ve been following me in F3 or F4 days, so that’s like six, seven years ago,” he said.
“Of course, there’s a massive amount of new fans involved since I signed a F1 contract. I think there will be a lot of people viewing the races back home this season.”
While the Grand Prix in his native Shanghai has again been canceled this year, Formula One has extended the contract to 2025.
Zhou, who as a little boy attended the first Chinese Grand Prix in 2004, looks forward to driving in his home race.
“The atmosphere will be amazing,” he said. “I’ve never really been racing at home, I’ve been racing Europe all the time.”
Last season, Alfa Romeo picked up only three points but has added Valtteri Bottas, who scored 226 as he finished third for Mercedes, as well as Zhou.
“My target for the season will be get some points,” said Zhou. “That’ll be great. Also to do well in qualifying. But that’s all dependent on how we do as a team.”
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