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Guanyu Zhou: Truly talented or did he become China’s first-ever F1 driver for commercial reasons?

Guanyu Zhou: Truly talented or did he become China's first-ever F1 driver for commercial reasons? 2

Guanyu Zhou will make history as China’s first full-time Formula One driver next season when he joins Alfa Ro-meo alongside 10-time race winner Valtteri Bottas. 

Guanyu Zhou hailed his journey to becoming China’s first Formula One driver as “a dream come true,” but added that joining Alfa Romeo for the 2019 season was “a dream come true.”

Zhou, who has made headlines in Formula Two, replaces Antonio Giovinazzi, and will be joined by Valtteri Bottas, who is transferring from Mercedes to replace Kimi Raikkonen, who is retiring.

The 22-year-old described it as a “honor” to begin his Formula One career with such a “iconic squad.”

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“I’ve dreamed of climbing as high as I can in a sport that I love since I was a kid, and now my dream has come true,” Zhou said. “It’s an honor for me to begin my Formula One career with such a legendary team, one that has previously introduced so much young talent to the sport. The dream has become a reality.”

But his road to becoming a driver has not been easy, with several retirements resulting to him placing sixth in F2 last year despite being one of the favorites, and he said that only added to the sweetness of his ascension to the top.

Internally, it became evident at the start of the season that Alfa Romeo’s future driver lineup will be shaken up. The 2007 Formula One World Champion, Kimi Raikkonen, had chosen that the 2021 season would be his final, while the Swiss team had determined that a new experienced face was needed to lead them ahead. It all came together nicely.

Fred Vasseur, the team’s boss, swooped in to sign Valtteri Bottas from Mercedes, the Finn remaining extremely motivated after five seasons with the reigning world champions.

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Vasseur could concentrate on the second seat thanks to Bottas’ vast experience, and, as has long been his preference, he wanted to mix youth and experienced talent. In recent years, that driver has come from the Ferrari junior driver pool as part of a deal with their engine partner, with the Scuderia initially placing Charles Leclerc and later Antonio Giovinazzi in that position. This year, however, things have changed.

The second Alfa Romeo seat is no longer under Ferrari’s control. In July, it became evident that Ferrari would no longer have a choice in who sat in the second seat after Alfa Romeo recommitted as the Sauber-run team’s title sponsor on a multi-year arrangement, albeit with options at the conclusion of each season.

That put an end to rumors that Mick Schumacher might take the seat – though I’m told that was never a realistic possibility, as Ferrari always intended to keep him at Haas for another season – and allowed Vasseur to cast a wider net.

From his time working in junior formulae, the Frenchman has developed an eye for finding and developing fresh talent, and he continues to keep up with who’s hot and who’s not in F4, F3, and F2.

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Oscar Piastri, the current F2 champion, was a contender, although I believe he was always an outsider. Theo Pourchaire was also considered, but it was felt that promoting him to Formula One for 2022 would be a year too soon, and that he would benefit from finishing his apprenticeship on the racing ladder.

Vasseur considered Theo Pourchaire, but he felt he needed more time in the younger categories.

Callum Ilott’s efforts as a reserve and the work he accomplished during his FP1 appearances in Portugal and Austria this year impressed the squad, although he was never at the top of their wishlist.

The contest became a two-horse fight between incumbent Giovinazzi and Zhou in the summer, with the latter emerging as the favorite. Vasseur had to choose between keeping Giovinazzi for consistency through 2022 and going for youth in Zhou.

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Guanyu Zhou: Truly talented or did he become China's first-ever F1 driver for commercial reasons? 3

They gave Giovinazzi time to prove he merited a fourth year, as the Italian was a popular part of the team, but he couldn’t pull together a solid enough set of results. As a result, Vasseur and the team’s owners determined that Zhou was the one. It was only a matter of hammering out the contract specifics.

“Over the previous few years, we’ve had a really good connection with Antonio,” Vasseur added. “He performed an excellent job with us.” Finally, we had to make a choice. We had two excellent choices. It’s never easy to make a decision like this, but we decided to sign Zhou.

In the end, Giovinazzi was unable to build a convincing case for his claim to the Alfa Romeo seat.

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Andretti’s involvement has caused a pause in discussions.

When American IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti expressed interest in purchasing the company, the owners took a break from their discussions with Zhou to listen. They were open to offers and knew that if a transaction went through, Andretti wanted to put IndyCar driver Colton Herta in the second seat.

After a few weeks, it became evident that a settlement would not be reached, and the Zhou talks could resume. It was all done and dusted before of the Brazilian Grand Prix. Zhou would be the country’s first full-time Formula One driver.

As Andretti Autosport considered a Formula 1 campaign, Colton Herta was rumored to be interested.

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Zhou, who has excelled in Formula 2, also has Alpine expertise.Guanyu Zhou: Truly talented or did he become China's first-ever F1 driver for commercial reasons? 4

Zhou has been on F1’s radar for a long time, first with the Ferrari Driver Academy and then with Renault/Alpine, where he joined the program in 2019. It also required a significant amount of time on old-spec F1 machinery, which allowed him to accumulate an impressive amount of miles for a rookie.

He’s also grown as a driver in F2, demonstrating increased maturity and racecraft, which has resulted in his first serious title challenge this year. With two races remaining (in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi), he is still in contention for the championship, trailing championship leader Piastri by 36 points.

When he had the chance to drive his hero Fernando Alonso’s car in FP1 in Austria earlier this year, he did an excellent job with Alpine. His work ethic, feedback, and calm demeanor were all praised by the crew. He also fit in well with the group. In an ideal scenario, they would have kept him, but with Ocon’s long-term contract set to expire at the end of 2024, Alonso’s contract set to expire at the end of 2022, and no partner teams, Alpine was stuck.

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It’s a compliment to Alpine that they’re anticipated to release Zhou from his contract early – it’s set to expire at the end of the year – so he may race for Alfa Romeo at the end-of-season test in Abu Dhabi after the season finale at Yas Island.

Zhou’s coming does, after all, have a commercial benefit. Guanyu Zhou: Truly talented or did he become China's first-ever F1 driver for commercial reasons? 5

Zhou, like many other Formula One drivers, joins the team with financial backing. Insiders claim Chinese companies have become more interested in helping Zhou in the last 18 months as he’s developed in F2 and established himself in F1 with his strengthened ties to the Alpine program.

As a result, it is expected that Zhou’s entry in F1 would provide Alfa Romeo – and the sport as a whole – with a commercial benefit by attracting more Chinese sponsors to the championship in the coming years, with insiders claiming that multiple enquires have already been received.

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Additional revenue would be welcome as Alfa Romeo strives to reach the budget cap limit but Vasseur claims Zhou would not be joining the team if he didn’t have the skills to succeed in Formula One.

“It’s fantastic on both a sports and commercial level,” he remarked. “For the squad and the sport, it’s a big opportunity.”

“It will be a difficult task for him. It’s never simple to get started in Formula One. There are a limited amount of test days available. But he’s gifted, he’s performing well in Formula 2, and he’s still vying for the title with Oscar. He has everything he needs to be successful in Formula One, in my opinion. Having a Chinese driver onboard is a major potential for the team and even F1. It’s an opportunity for everyone, in my opinion.”

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