Zhou Guanyu relishing home F1 debut after long road to Chinese GP

<span>Zhou Guanyu poses for a pictures with fans after the world premiere of the The First One in Shanghai this week.</span><span>Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Zhou Guanyu poses for a pictures with fans after the world premiere of the The First One in Shanghai this week.Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

There has been no little wait for the home crowd and their local hero Zhou Guanyu but what a moment it will be when, finally, this weekend he becomes the first Chinese driver to compete at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. Already the star of a documentary, the only Chinese driver to compete in an F1 race is the main draw for a meeting that sold out in minutes.

This race has not been held since 2019 because of the pandemic and while the 24-year-old Zhou made his F1 debut in 2022, with the Alfa Romeo (now Sauber) team, he has had to wait till his third season to race on a track in the city where he was born and where he has never before competed in a single-seater.

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The subject of a feature-length documentary The First One, released on Friday, Zhou is however no stranger to the 3.4-mile circuit. He attended the first race held here in 2004, as a five-year-old Fernando Alonso fan. This week he was sat next to the Spaniard during a press conference in Shanghai.

“My first race I watched back in 2004,” he said. “The man sitting next to me was racing. For me it’s been 20 years waiting for this grand prix and let’s say this journey has been not extremely easy, just because [of] where I’m coming from.”

After he made it to F1, the race was repeatedly tentatively scheduled only to be cancelled due to Covid restrictions, and Zhou’s relief at having stuck it out to make it to race at home was palpable. “Once in F1 every year, when you realise that the home race is not happening, two years in a row, we try to kind of do your best to maintain your seat and then to be here, today …” he said with obvious pleasure.

This has not been plan sailing. Having scored a point in his first race at Bahrain, Zhou then suffered a huge crash at Silverstone the same year. It caused his car to flip over and bounce into the barriers, from where it was thrown upward into the catch-fencing. He was lucky to emerge unhurt.

As the first Chinese driver to compete in F1 the expectations at home are enormous and he is aware he is a role model. There is no motor racing tradition in China, little karting, which is expensive, and fewer still single-seater opportunities, so Zhou had to come to Europe to pursue his career. There are no other Chinese drivers in the F1 feeder series, F2 and F3, so the country may have a long wait for another talent to come through.

Zhou, who brings financial backing to the team (which without doubt plays a part), noted that 20 years of F1 in China had not been long enough and suggested it might be another decade before more youngsters begin to emerge.

The excitement around his participation in the meeting nonetheless can hardly be overestimated. It sold out in what Zhou described as a matter of minutes, having watched the ticket sales himself live on an app. F1 too will be relieved to be back in a market it considers an important place to grow the sport and after a period of time during which it has changed enormously.

Only two team principals are in the same roles they were in 2019, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and Red Bull’s Christian Horner. The years since saw Lewis Hamilton take his seventh title and then the ascendance of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. When the Dutchman last raced in China he had five wins, a tally that now stands at an extraordinary 57. The sport has also undergone a full regulation change, which presents an interesting conundrum for this weekend as to how these ground-effect cars will perform on a circuit where, with it being a sprint meeting, only one practice session has been run.

The learning process has already proved demanding. In a dramatic first competitive session in Shanghai hit by rain in Q3, McLaren’s Lando Norris claimed pole for Saturday morning’s sprint race, the first of six sprint weekends this season. With the track formidably slippery and lap times being deleted as drivers went wide, struggling to hold their cars on line, the expected order was overturned as Norris beat the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton into second with Alonso in third. Verstappen was fourth, with Zhou claiming 10th. Qualifying for the GP will take place on Saturday afternoon.