The F1 Junior With A Nation’s Hopes On His Shoulders
Drawing a comparison between double Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso and rookie Formula 2 driver Guan Yu Zhou might seem bizarre at first, but the power of both to inspire a nation means they have more in common than you might think.
On September 26 2004, Rubens Barrichello won the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix, the Ferrari driver leading home BAR Honda’s Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren and the Renault of Fernando Alonso.
A five-year-old Chinese boy watched on in awe, more desperate than most to become a racing driver. Just under 14 years on, that boy, Guan Yu Zhou, is oh-so-close to joining the list of names to make it as an Formula 1 driver, and is racing as a junior for the Renault team he watched Alonso lead that day.
The Shanghai-born driver has a lot in common with Alonso – as unusual as that might sound on first mention – not only because of the Renault link, but also when it comes to inspiring a nation.
When Alonso won his first F1 world title in 2005, it massively boosted F1’s reputation in Spain. Valencia became the favourite for an extra European round, ultimately giving Spain two grand prix events in what might have been a confusing move five or 10 years before. The country had lacked a blockbuster F1 driver and with a vibrant football scene, there was little interest in motorsport outside MotoGP. But as soon as Alonso proved his worth, fans came flocking to car racing.
Fast forward to 2019 and we’re almost at the same stage with Zhou, who could well become the first Chinese driver to race in F1. After scoring two wins and three pole positions in European Formula 3 as Mick Schumacher’s team-mate last year at Prema Racing, he has now stepped up to Formula 2 – F1’s feeder category.
Like Schumacher, Zhou – known as called Joe or Joey in the paddock – has had a fair amount of pressure in rising towards the top. While it might not be as intense in Europe, he has spent the week leading up to the Chinese Grand Prix being dragged from pillar to post in terms of media appearances: the works. But he’s becoming a star in his own right in China.
He’ll also drive an F1 car for the first time, an older Renault model, in a street demo in Shanghai. That’s only going to up the focus back home, but Zhou says that the pressure is just used as fuel to drive him on to the next step.
“It feels good to be labelled the best in your country, it’s not easy to get to where I am now,” he says with no hint of arrogance, but with a charming self determination.
“But obviously I am working as hard as I can to achieve my ultimate goal to become the first Chinese Formula 1 driver to race on a Sunday. There’s not that much pressure, you have to turn it into motivation.
“I’m doing simulator work for F1 [with Renault] and on F2 weekends I can join the F1 debriefs, to analyse stuff with the F1 drivers. Anything I need to help me, the Renault F1 team is more than happy to help. That’s definitely something really good. With all the tracks I don’t know in F2, I’ll have a lot more information.”
Joey drives for Virtuosi Racing in Formula 2. It recently won the second race of the season-opening Bahrain weekend in the hands of Luca Ghiotto, Zhou’s more experienced team-mate, but Zhou fought back from a brake issue to finish the first race 10th from near the back of the 20-car grid, and then turned that into fourth on the road with excellent strategy in the reverse-grid event. Judging by Bahrain, a two-year goal to finish at the sharp end in F2 is looking very good indeed.
“Basically it was my first time driving in Bahrain, so practice was my first time driving there and to finish P7 [in the standings] was pretty good,” he adds.
“Qualifying wasn’t ideal, but the other stuff was good and I’m confident in the car and how I learned the new track in general. Everything was working out pretty good. The next race is Baku, which I think is going to be double more times difficult, but I think in general it’s good so far.
“The team in general have a really strong strategy and a strong car for the race. The car is always strong in the races and it was good the car was on pole [with Ghiotto] as well. The car is pretty good, we just have to work on the new stuff on my side and try to be as quick and on top of everything as possible.”
Virtuosi, which was the Russian Time squad, has always delivered strong race pace in F2, and working on qualifying will only yield better results, likely allowing Joey to earn a few gold badges as he tries to complete the path to F1.
Zhou has the backing needed to get there, and will almost certainly make F1. But that’s not enough for Joey or those around him. Winning a seat on merit as much as funding is the goal, and his first F2 weekend showed a lot of potential.
Zhou has always been quick. Second in Italian Formula 4 in 2015 in his first season in car racing was a brilliant achievement – where he beat highly-rated juniors Robert Shwartzman and David Beckmann, who will both compete in FIA F3 this year, as Zhou has jumped ahead in the progression ladder. A second at Spa in German F4 that year was also a tidy result behind Joel Eriksson, now a DTM driver .
But the real standout result as his career so far came at Pau in European F3 last year. He consolidated a good start and managed the race perfectly to win at a track that gives you instant kudos as a driver. The tricky French street circuit is always a beast that needs to be tamed. Unfortunately it took him until the last weekend of the 2019 season to win again, but there was plenty of bad luck in an odd year of action.
Not only does he have the backing of the required sponsors, but there’s no doubt F1’s owners will want to see him reach the championship. Here is another parrallel that can be drawn with a fellow driver – Zhou’s ex-F3 team-mate Mick Schumacher, who is also competing in F2 with Prema and who Zhou passed on his way to fourth in the Bahrain sprint event.
China has the second biggest economy, behind America, and 1.3 billion inhabitants make up the biggest population on earth. Its economy is constantly growing and there is a willingness to spend money. Having Joey in grand prix racing would help make the championship much more relevant to China – as it did to Spain all those years ago – so the appeal of a Chinese driver is clear to F1 and its owners.
Ma Qing Hua got to drive F1 machinery – he’s the only other Chinese driver to test an F1 car and made practice appearances for HRT in the early 2010s – but Zhou has the talent to eclipse Ma’s achievements and get established a proper race driver.
Zhou – providing he realises his potential – would also help provide the Alonso-factor: inspiring the grassroots into motorsport. Not all kids in China will come from a background like Joey’s, but by reaching F1 he would no doubt encourage more to give racing a try.
“When I was a young kid, I loved playing with toy cars at home,” he explains. “One day my dad took me to an indoor go-kart track to try it. The first time I tried, I was scared and wasn’t sure if I wanted to drive. After a while I loved it and wanted to do it every weekend.
“After that I went to a proper karting track, got my own kart and started to win races. Everything went pretty well. Then we decided to move to the UK where it has the highest level of racing drivers. We wanted to compare with the best.”
The Chinese – like any sporting nation – need figureheads, people that they can all unite behind and be inspired by. In 2002, that was Yao Ming, a 7″6 basketball player who was the first non-American player to be chosen first in the NBA’s draft system. In 2011, Jeremy Lin ended a long barren spell for the nation by having a breakout basketball season – which lofted him even above Ming for some – thanks to the fact he was playing in the cultural epicentre of New York. Zhou can be that figure for motorsport.
He can be part of a cultural phenomenon for China as well. His aspirational lifestyle – travelling abroad to the different races, plus a love of fashion and sneakers – means he has a package to inspire Chinese fans young and old.
As part of that travel, Zhou moved to England in 2012, and he has spent the best part of the last three years in Maranello, Italy as a Ferrari junior.
Moving on to Renault for this year may look odd from the outside, especially taking its current F1 car performance into consideration, but it’s actually a brilliant match. Renault is a manufacturer known to be attempting to exploit the Chinese market, and Daniel Ricciardo is arguably one of F1’s most popular drivers. So the marque’s motorsport line-up represents its road-car ambitions perfectly.
“It’s a good call that I made [to switch to Renault],’ says Zhou. “It’s not just to do with China – Renault care a lot about the Chinese market – but at the same time there’s so much more opportunity with F1 stuff, like doing the demo before the Chinese Grand Prix. I’m really pleased the decision has been made and they’ve given me lots of opportunities already.”
That in turn opened a space for Schumacher at Ferrari and he was instantly given an F1 test with the team. But Renault offers the full package for Zhou, who is playing a longer game with this switch.
Time will tell whether it ultimately pays dividends, but don’t be surprised to see Joey in a current F1 car soon, or in one permanently in 2021.