Guanyu Zhou is very fast. The Shanghai-born 22-year-old is currently sitting second in the Formula 2 standings, with three wins on the year and six points-paying races left to go. He ended the 2020 and 2019 campaigns in sixth and seventh, respectively. Zhou also happens to be one of Alpine’s test drivers, and he recently made history as the second Chinese driver ever to participate in F1 when he steered Fernando Alonso’s car during free practice for the Austrian Grand Prix.
Zhou has a career of milestones behind and ahead of him; his next will be partnering Valtteri Bottas at Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season.
It seemed inevitable that Zhou would eventually wind up in F1, though the question was where and, precisely, when. Zhou was a member of Ferrari’s Driver Academy from 2014 to 2018. Since 2020 he’s been with Renault, staying on as test driver through the squad’s rebranding to Alpine.
The Enstone team has bounced around with regard to talent over the last several years. Daniel Ricciardo coming on board for 2019 and 2020 was a surprise, and Nico Hülkenberg was unceremoniously dropped in favor of Frenchman Esteban Ocon in 2020. Zhou’s prospects were further complicated by Fernando Alonso deciding he actually felt like driving F1 cars again. Getting passed over with available seats at such a premium in this sport isn’t an unusual problem for a promising young driver to find themselves in — just ask fellow Ferrari product Callum Ilott. But it is frustrating all the same.
That’ll change in 2022, though. The mystery of who’d take the reins of Alfa Romeo’s second car was the last of the loose ends needing to be tied up heading into next season. For a hot minute it seemed like it’d be Colton Herta, until the Andretti Autosport deal spectacularly crumbled.
Zhou will replace Antonio Giovinazzi, who will have spent three years with the team by the end of the current campaign. The 27-year-old Italian is destined for Formula E by way of Dragon / Penske Autosport.
One would hope Zhou’s tenure at Alfa is a more prosperous one than his predecessor’s. The team is currently ninth on the constructor’s table, thanks to four points finishes courtesy of Kimi Räikkönen and one from Giovinazzi.
Zhou brings speed and fresh ambition to Alfa, but he also brings the hopes of a nation that’s never been represented at the pinnacle of global motorsport before. Ma Qinghua became the first Chinese driver to participate in an F1 session in 2012 with HRT, but Qinghua never made the every-weekend cut. Zhou is undoubtedly aware of what his achievement means, as indicated in his statement released by his new team:
“I dreamt from a young age of climbing as high as I can in a sport that I am passionate about and now the dream has come true. It is a privilege for me to start my Formula 1 racing career with an iconic team, a team that has introduced so much young talent into Formula 1 in the past. Now the dream is reality. I feel well prepared for the immense challenge of Formula 1, the pinnacle of my sport, alongside a proven, world-class talent in Valtteri Bottas. I wish to thank the Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN team for this opportunity. Next year the target will be to learn as much as possible and as quickly as possible. To be the first ever Chinese driver in Formula 1 is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history. I know a lot of hopes will be resting on me and, as ever, I will take this as motivation to become better and achieve more.”
Of course, with that inspiring story comes commercial appeal. Zhou’s involvement will undoubtedly attract Chinese sponsors who might not be interested in dipping their toes in F1 otherwise. Given that funding is a touch more challenging for teams toward the back end of the grid relative to the front, it’s fortunate for Alfa Romeo that its up-and-coming talent carries financial upside as well.
Congratulations and best of luck, Guanyu. May you mark many more firsts in the years ahead for yourself and your country. I have a feeling you will.