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Has Zhou shown the qualities to be a success in F1?

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

While Guanyu Zhou brings obvious commercial benefits to F1 and Alfa Romeo Racing, he’s also been a leading junior series prospect for several years. Craig Woollard believes he can be a fine addition to the grid.  

After months of speculation, Formula 1 will indeed have a rookie on its grid next year in the form of Guanyu Zhou, who will replace Antonio Giovinazzi at Alfa Romeo Racing and become China’s first racer to reach the pinnacle of motorsport.

The 22 year-old’s appointment by the Sauber-run team will draw criticism, not least because the current Formula 2 points leader Oscar Piastri has been snubbed over his fellow Alpine junior who comes in with more experience and, crucially, more backing.

Such criticism does come with justification, made all the more potent by the fact that drivers who performed very well in F2 in 2020 – including Callum Ilott, who beat Zhou as his Virtuosi Racing team-mate – have continued to be overlooked for seats in F1.

The lack of additional teams in F1, plus a grid rammed with a mix of seriously talented young drivers who will define the next decade and more, those whose fathers have invested massively in teams to slot their kids into, and some older drivers arguably staying around for a bit too long, has made landing a seat all the trickier.

This year’s stop-start calendar certainly hasn’t helped. We won’t know who the F2 champion will be until the middle of December, and by the time we get to Jeddah next month it will have been 10 weeks since the title fight only really started to shape up at Sochi – with a likely showdown forming between Piastri and Zhou with three other drivers very much in the mix too.

It is crazy that the likes of Ilott, Piastri and Robert Shwartzman have been overlooked for graduation to the top level despite their F1 team backing and their excellent results in recent years. But that’s the nature of contemporary F1. Hopefully they will get an opportunity again in the future, but it seems unlikely with so many drivers set to remain in the championship for a very long time to come, impressive drivers coming through F2 and how quickly F1 tends to forget about those drivers sat on the sidelines.

But Zhou is more than a mere PR stunt, and he’s showcased some fine ability, specifically in his time in F2. His graduation does certainly have merit. After all, he’s set to have finished in the top seven in each of his three seasons in the category, even if the progress shown hasn’t always translated into the results on the track.

Sure, there are drivers who arguably deserve the nod over Zhou. But Zhou is hardly the worst or least-prepared driver to ever step foot into a F1 car. What he brings to the table is the correct skillset, mindset and approach that will make him a very solid driver going forward.

Zhou started this season outstandingly, utilising unconventional strategies throughout the Bahrain weekend to brilliantly win the feature race there. It was but one fine example of Zhou at his best, and what he is capable of bringing to a team, including one that has struggled as much as Alfa Romeo has done in recent years.

Mechanical misfortune at Baku and a crucial self-inflicted error at Silverstone aside, Zhou has been superb with continuing to pick up the points and big results, even if Piastri is starting to get a grapple on the F2 title by addressing his own areas of weakness exposed somewhat during his FIA Formula 3 title-winning campaign.

His approach this year has been one of ensuring that all bases are covered, the ‘no stone left unturned’ approach as deployed by 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg in his title-winning year. He and Virtuosi have gone about things differently to last year, upping their own game where Prema was so strong in their double title campaign in 2020 with Mick Schumacher, even if overall the package has slipped down the pecking order.

Zhou’s approach is proven to be the sort that puts a driver in good stead at the highest level, and those who are perhaps lacking in that level of commitment have a tendency to have that exposed a bit more than someone who may be lacking that extra little bit of outright speed.

It’s also easy to forget just how strong Zhou was as a rookie in F2 back in 2019. He showed that he could beat veteran Luca Ghiotto (a driver who also showcased F1 potential for several years) on merit in the same team at Virtuosi, and finished on top of what turned out to be a pretty strong rookie crop that year, coming on strong at the end of the year even if that maiden victory proved to be elusive.

That progress failed to translate into 2020, even if Zhou did become a winner, and it was clear that Ilott was the stronger overall package even if Zhou entered as the title favourite for several (including this writer). He just made a few too many errors and was unable to be a threat for victory regularly in what was, on paper, the quickest package over the year.

In 2021, Virtuosi seems to have slipped a little bit back down the order, but Zhou’s ability to really grasp the 18-inch Pirelli tyres has helped him handsomely. His current team-mate, the highly-rated Felipe Drugovich, is struggling against Zhou at the team, showing a very strong amount of progress from year two to year three, even if the progress from year one to two was disappointing.

Zhou comes into F1 with a better resume than a couple of drivers on the grid, especially with his narrow title success (against a field of mixed experience and talent) in Asian Formula 3 at the start of the year. He also comes in with a better resume and preparation – he’s been doing a lot of runs in the Alpine-branded Renault RS.18, racking up more mileage than some of the drivers who have joined F1 from the start of the GP2 era who have gone on to become totally competent grand prix drivers, and some even into really handy ones.

Zhou has the potential to join such drivers – some of which have gone on to become outstanding racing drivers in other disciplines. By no stretch will he be a likely world championship contender in the future, but not everybody will be. His qualities as a driver (plus his extensive 18-inch rim experience) alongside new team-mate Valtteri Bottas are more likely to pull Alfa forward rather than backwards, preparing the team wonderfully should Sauber teenage junior starlet Theo Pourchaire get a graduation in 2023.

Photo: Alpine F1 Team

That is the curious situation, though. Zhou’s F1 career could well be relatively short-lived. The Alfa seat has been the only seat up for grabs, but it also does come with the Pourchaire caveat and risk. It will be down to Zhou to deliver on the track and to his backers to try and force a longer stay at Alfa or squeeze him into another outfit to ensure he is more than a one-season wonder.

Either way, Zhou has delivered what he has needed to do to become a grand prix driver, and he should be entering better prepared than a few drivers in recent years have done. Renault/Alpine has also finally got a driver from its academy on the grid full-time after what feels like an eternity, even if those ties will now be cut.

Zhou’s progress as F1’s sole rookie will be a curious subplot in the 2022 season. That we have just one rookie with such a drastic regulation overhaul is a surprise, especially given the F2 runners over the last two years bring a small advantage with their 18-inch knowledge. He’ll have a very tough benchmark in one-lap ace Bottas, but Zhou will be capable of painting himself an Alfa Romeo in a positive light in 2022.