Fernando Alonso’s comeback means Renault has no place for academy drivers Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard in its F1 line-up next year. But just how good are they?
When the 2020 Formula 2 season finally got underway in Austria the weekend before last, two members of the Renault Sport Academy were looking to stake a claim for the vacant seat in the manufacturer’s Formula 1 line-up for 2021. By Wednesday of the following week, any such aims were dashed by the announcement that Renault was bringing 38-year-old double champion Fernando Alonso out of semi-retirement to fill the seat.
While the Alonso comeback was naturally well-received online by a strong legion of fans – as well as those who make a living out of writing F1 headlines – it was also greeted by plenty of dissatisfaction. While Alonso’s Marmite character can explain a lot of that, there was also an impressive show of sympathy for young drivers in general and Renault’s own junior drivers in particular.
The arguments against bringing back an aging champion are not limited to the specific cases of Renault-backed F2 racers Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard and their future prospects. The Alonso comeback flies in the face of the growing enthusiasm for the new generation already taking F1 by storm. In marketing material, for example, his face might force a Lando Norris or a George Russell out from alongside Lewis Hamilton – despite the fact that many potential teenage fans were not even born when Alonso last won a world championship.
Beyond that, Renault’s re-signing of Alonso raises general questions about the purpose of its young driver programme. These are questions that were already being asked earlier this year, given that the scheme in its current iteration (since 2016) has yet to produce a single F1 driver. The latest development doesn’t make a massive change to that argument, although Renault’s stated aim of getting a driver into F1 in 2021 does now rest solely on an opening being created outside of the factory squad, which will be difficult when it doesn’t have a single engine customer lined up for next year.
Much of the reaction though has focused specifically on the aforementioned F2 drivers, Zhou and Lundgaard. There are those excited by their potential and confident that one of them would deserve a place in the F1 team next year. There are also those who don’t believe either has proven themselves to be good enough yet. But how good are they really?
In terms of ability, it is very hard to argue that either Zhou or Lundgaard – or any current F2 driver – would be a match right now for Alonso, who was undeniably still very fast in his final year with McLaren and is unlikely to have lost much of that since, especially as he has continued to be an active driver. That’s not to say that driving ability is the only consideration one should have when signing Alonso, given the negative aspects to his F1 history.
But, disregarding Alonso and concentrating purely on Zhou and Lundgaard, how well do they stack up as young drivers looking to break through into F1 somewhere in the near future?
Of the pair, it is Zhou who has seemed to attract the majority of the public support in the Renault debate. To some degree, that’s only natural – it is Zhou who is the championship favourite in F2 this year having finished as top rookie in 2019. But it also represents an impressively rapid turnaround in reputation for a driver who was soundly beaten as a Ferrari junior while in his third season of Formula 3 just two years ago.
Zhou became the first serious F1 prospect from China to be signed to a team when he was added to the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2014. At the time, he was still in karting, where he had made waves by winning British and European titles in the Rotax Max Junior class following a move from Shanghai to Sheffield.
In 2015 he moved into Italian Formula 4 with Prema and quickly transferred his potential to cars, claiming a hat-trick of wins in only his second event at Monza. But those would be his only victories that season and he finished a fairly distant second in the championship to team-mate Ralf Aron, who had a year’s car experience in Formula Renault 1.6 machinery under his belt.
The move to F3 that followed for 2016 was arguably premature, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Despite that, he again adapted quickly to the step up – a recurring theme in Zhou’s career – to score two podiums in his first two events. But no more would follow and he ended the year 13th in the standings.
A switch back to Prema (from Motopark) for 2017 didn’t yield a massive step forward with third place still his best result – albeit he managed five of them this time, and eighth overall in the points. Even allowing for a year’s less experience in F3, he seemed some way off his team-mates Maximilian Gunther and Callum Ilott, while also being clear of rookie Mick Schumacher.
That could have been it in F3 for Zhou, who together with Ferrari toyed with a move up to F2 for 2018. But he still had a lot to prove and returned for another shot in F3. There was an immediate step forward, with victory in the Pau season opener, and with improved qualifying speed he was a frontrunner in the title race well into the summer.
But two tangles with Schumacher at Spa-Francorchamps proved to be major turning point. Schumacher survived the second clash to take the first of eight wins in 12 races on his way to the title, while Zhou lost form (along with two of his team-mates, Ralf Aron and Marcus Armstrong) and got involved in yet more incidents. A lights-to-flag win at the Hockenheim finale salvaged some pride, but the championship result was still the same as the year before.
It’s in that context that Zhou’s first F2 campaign in 2019 was surprisingly impressive, as he took top rookie honours with a pole position and five podiums, comfortably shading Schumacher as well as GP3 graduate Ilott.
It’s important to note that Zhou had a bone-fide front-running car underneath him courtesy of Virtuosi Racing, a luxury that no other rookie had last year. But the way he made use of that package still made a considerable impression. He had the speed to worry his experienced-but-fast team-mate Luca Ghiotto (beating him to pole at Silverstone) and didn’t seem particularly fazed by the tyres, even though his lack of experience with them maybe did cost him slightly in some races.
Whether swapping Ferrari’s junior programme for Renault’s and returning to an English team made all the difference, or he just felt more at home in the faster car, it was clear that Zhou was now showing his true potential, even if both he and Virtuosi expressed surprise to Formula Scout this time last year at just how quickly he had got up to speed.
Coming into 2020, there have generally been two schools of thought around Zhou. There were those who believed he can progress from last season into a multiple race-winner and a serious championship threat, and those who had their doubts about his ability to win races and felt he’ll be upstaged by a bigger and better class of rookies.
In round one at the Red Bull Ring, he produced a performance that went just about as far as possible to validate those who had faith in him and to convert the doubters.
The unique circumstances around the start of the 2020 season arguably made it the greatest test imaginable of a driver’s talent and their ability to jump in and get the job done. After all, teams and drivers had just three days of testing with the new 18-inch wheels and tyres – four months earlier. And Zhou rose to the challenge impeccably.
Pole position by 0.464 seconds was a huge margin on such a short track: the same gap covered the next 13 drivers. In the feature race, he battled his friend (and now team-mate once more) Ilott and his old foe Schumacher, and re-passed both of them after getting jumped in the pitstops. That maiden win was all but in the bag when a gearbox glitch slowed him.
One could argue that Zhou’s year of experience still gave him an advantage over the rookies when it came to nailing the lap in qualifying and executing the feature race as well as he did. But in the end, to outclass his peers as he did proved that he’s F1 material.
After a performance like that, it was maybe not surprising that Zhou garnered such support from motorsport fans around the world when the Alonso announcement came just a few days later. There is understandably concern over a lack of openings in F1 for Renault’s juniors but, in the case of Zhou, do we really need to worry?
Zhou has a valuable asset that no other driver contending for an F1 seat has right now: his nationality. A Chinese driver who can unlock his vast home market for F1 is always going to be attractive to the championship and its teams. Furthermore, Zhou already has some strong financial support for his F2 programme and can surely attract more of it in order to secure an F1 seat – the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis notwithstanding.
Because of that, Zhou does not necessarily need to rely on Renault to provide him with his opportunity. Often, and especially in the case of Red Bull, junior drivers are tied in to their backer and unable to leave for a rival. But, while the exact terms of Zhou’s association with Renault are unknown, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have the freedom to break out at some point and take up a race seat elsewhere.
All things considered, it feels as though Zhou’s graduation to F1 is only a matter of time. And, given his mixed career history, it’s probably more likely to come not with a manufacturer team with ambitions of fighting for world championships, but with a smaller outfit that could benefit from the potential investment or sponsorship that Zhou could bring with him. Williams, for example.
It’s also not impossible that a new team could be created around Zhou – after all, he is tied to the same SECA sports agency behind the Techeetah Formula E team. Establishing an F1 team would be a step up from that, but so would the marketability of a Chinese F1 driver. No such project is going to spring up and go racing within a matter of months, though.
The most important hurdle for Zhou to overcome is to secure the necessary superlicence, which will come if he finishes in the top four in F2 this year, and that’s where his focus lies for now.
“We had a good chat [with Renault] before the announcement,” he said last weekend in the aftermath of Alonso’s return being confirmed. “It was nice that they told me everything and that they told me the plans of the team for the future.
“Obviously for myself the key this season is getting the superlicence points. That would be the most important thing. So, if I can achieve that – I’m now working as hard as ever trying to reach that – obviously when I reach that I think there will be quite a lot of opportunities for me.”
For all the public clamour around Zhou, is he even the strongest F2 driver in Renault’s academy? As a newcomer at F2 level, Lundgaard is lesser known among F1 fans, but his record suggests that he’s the greater prospect.
Renault cannot be accused of lacking enthusiasm in Lundgaard’s abilities. There is good motorsport pedigree in the Lundgaard family – father Henrik is a former European Rally Champion and touring car racer – but not a lot of financial resource. After all, his older brother Daniel didn’t have the budget advance his career beyond his native Denmark, where he was a champion in both Formula Ford and F4.
A European junior karting champion in 2015, the younger Lundgaard was picked up by Renault ahead of his maiden season of single-seaters in F4 in 2017, where he went on to win both the Spanish championship and the SMP Racing-sponsored North European Zone series driving for MP Motorsport.
In doing so, he repeated what Richard Verschoor had done as a Red Bull junior a year earlier, albeit with less of a dominant margin over his rivals. But Lundgaard was far more impressive than his predecessor when he stepped up to Formula Renault the following year. MP had struggled on its return to the category the previous season and Lundgaard wasn’t satisfied with his initial testing form, but he got right up among the frontrunners before the Eurocup season began.
What followed was a serious impressive campaign with four victories, and he only missed out on the title to second-year driver and fellow Renault junior Max Fewtrell after a double retirement at the penultimate round at Hockenheim.
Then came the move up to the new-look FIA F3 Championship last year with ART Grand Prix. As a direct graduate of Formula Renault, Lundgaard had no business being up front with top drivers moving over from ‘proper’ European F3 like Robert Shwartzman, Marcus Armstrong and Juri Vips. But he won the very first race at Barcelona – until a penalty for a safety car infraction demoted him to second.
The rest of the campaign was tough as ART struggled to keep up with the likes of Prema at the majority of the circuits. But Lundgaard still led team-mate Fewtrell home in one-two finish from pole at the Hungaroring, and claimed a further pole position at Monza. Sixth in the standings still made him the top F3 newcomer, but most importantly he convinced Renault and ART that he was ready to step up to F2 at the first opportunity rather than needing to stay behind for a title tilt.
It means he’s reached F2 in just his fourth year in car racing, just as Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris did – as well as his ART team-mate Marcus Armstrong, who is a whole year (minus six days) older than Lundgaard. But it’s Norris who Lundgaard has the chance to really emulate by spending one year each in F4, Formula Renault, F3 and F2. Of course, he doesn’t have the same number of titles to his name, but nor has he had the same level of opportunities afforded to Norris, even if Renault’s support has been beneficial.
Any hopes of Lundgaard graduating from F2 in a single season had appeared slim until a couple of weeks ago. Before the coronavirus pandemic closed motorsport down entirely for several months, it trapped Lundgaard (along with Formula Renault racers Caio Collet and Hadrien David) in a Tenerife hotel under quarantine for two weeks in March following a Renault Sport Academy training camp. It meant he missed the one and only F2 pre-season test in Bahrain, which was the only chance to drive with the new 18-inch wheels and tyres being introduced for this season.
While ART and Renault drafted in Sergey Sirotkin to gather crucial data, Lundgaard himself was left with no practical experience with such a fundamental change until the 45-minute practice session on the Friday morning of the opening round in Austria. After that, he went straight into qualifying and placed his car a rather remarkable fourth on the grid. He finished in the same place after a full feature race distance on the Saturday, on the tail of Armstrong and Shwartzman.
He was just as impressive a week later at the Styrian Grand Prix. In the worst of the conditions at the start of the rain-delayed feature race, he was the driver most on the move, climbing from eighth to fourth, ahead of the eventual winner Shwartzman. An off through the gravel later on as he tried to pass Ilott left him sixth at the finish, but he converted that into a win from third on the grid in the sprint race. With Lundgaard only set to turn 19 next week, he is the championship’s second-youngest winner since it began as GP2 in 2005, behind Norris.
Lundgaard’s performances over two weekends in Austria, regardless of the circumstances, suggest that he is indeed capable of fighting for the title this year and effectively ‘completing’ the junior single-seater ladder in only four years.
As with Zhou and anyone else on the F2 grid, winning the title would undoubtedly deserve a place on the F1 grid. But in Lundgaard’s case, such a meteoric rise through the ranks would arguably warrant more than any old seat – he would surely deserve a place in a competitive, midfield team. A team like Renault.
Clearly, with Alonso signed and Esteban Ocon also under contract for 2021, that is unlikely to happen however strong Lundgaard performs over the rest of the season. But, unlike with Zhou, it’s also hard to see where else an opening for Lundgaard could come given that he doesn’t have the same personal backing or commercial attractiveness.
It’s also unlikely that Renault would want to let him go given what it has invested into him. It clearly already rates him highly, as demonstrated not only through the annual promotions it has secured for him, but also by testing his skills in older Formula 1 machinery alongside Zhou’s private testing programme.
Lundgaard is surprisingly relaxed about the situation. He can often come across as a very driven individual, but on this topic he denies that he ever expected to be under consideration for the seat that’s gone to Alonso.
“Because of the crisis we’ve got around the world, I wasn’t really expecting to even have a chance for next year, to be honest,” he said following his win in Austria.
“Because I knew that I didn’t have the superlicence, and I knew the team that is not going to wait until say after Monza to decide – because I need to be sure to be in the top four to have a superlicence.
“Considering that, I mean obviously Fernando coming back, I haven’t really got much detail on if it’s a one or two or more year contract, but for me it’s always just to focus on my own job. And then see what the future brings after that.”
Alonso is indeed signed through until the end of 2022, and given his age and his willingness to walk away if he doesn’t see an improvement, Renault would be wise to have a replacement ready to replace him at that point should it still be in F1. But on current evidence it certainly doesn’t look as though Lundgaard is a driver who will take three years to get through F2. Renault will need to either find something productive for him to do or let him go, and neither of those things will be easy.
With Ocon’s deal only running to the end of 2021, there’s also the possibility that Renault will respond to the pressure to promote an academy driver by doing so at the expense of the Frenchman. That would be foolish, as anybody who followed his rise through F3 and GP3 knows that he too is a very talented young driver.
With two members of its academy capable of becoming F2 champion this year and no obvious seats for them at the top table, it’s clear that Renault could soon have a headache. But rather than Zhou, maybe it will be a Lando-like rise from Lundgaard that really needs rewarding.