MONTMELÓ (AFP) – Zhou Guanyu had his first official outing on Thursday, on the final laps of his long journey to become the first Chinese Formula One (F1) driver.
After sitting out the opening day of pre-season testing in Barcelona, Zhou completed 71 laps in his Alfa Romeo on the second day.
At 22, Zhou will take that step on March 20 in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Zhou spoke to AFP about the difficulties facing Chinese drivers who want to reach Formula One.
“It was always a dream more than target, because it was too far away,” said Zhou.
“In China, you can be a good Chinese driver, but if you can’t compete or beat European drivers, then you aren’t going to make your way to Formula 1.”
The HRT team planned to make Ma Qing Hua one their drivers in 2013, but folded before
“It’s super difficult for us to firstly move outside, to Europe… as a very little kid,” said Zhou.
“At eight years old, I started racing, in go-karts,” he said. “I spent, three or four years of home racing. Then when you’ve won basically all the categories back home, the only way forward is to move to Europe.”
At 12 he moved to Sheffield in the north of England to join a karting team and still speaks English with a hint of a Yorkshire accent.
“Europe or the UK is more like the home of motorsports,” he said.
In 2019 Zhou joined in the young drivers’ pipeline of the French manufacturer Renault
China is a major growth market for F1 but any sport trying to crack the world’s second-biggest economy needs a home star.
The man he is replacing, Antonio Giovinazzi, implied on social media that the decision to promote Zhou was financially motivated.
“F1 is emotion, talent, cars, risk, speed. But when money rules it can be ruthless,” the Italian tweeted in November.
Zhou said he had shown the talent. “It doesn’t really make a lot of difference between which country you come from,” said Zhou who was third in the Formula 2 championship last year. “What I had to do is finish in the top three.”
“To be a Formula One driver, you have to do well, show your potential at every category.”
He added that luck played a role. “The seats are so limited. So you really have to have the right timing to be in Formula 1, is not that easy,” he said.
Zhou said Formula 1 had been doing very well without him.
“F1 is already growing in recent years without me,” he said. “But by entering, of course, that was a huge amount step up for it.”
He acknowledged his promotion had played well back home, where he has devoted fans.
“Some fans, I know pretty much their names, their social names. They’ve been following me in F3 or F4 days, so that’s like six, seven years ago,” he said.
“Of course, there’s a massive amount of new fans involved since I signed a F1 contract. I think there will be a lot of people viewing the races back home this season.”