Guanyu Zhou - China's first F1 driver carrying hopes of his country, and the sport

Guanyu Zhou will become China's first-ever Formula 1 driver in 2022, having been signed by the Alfa Romeo team for the upcoming season.

Guanyu Zhou will drive for Alfa Romeo in the 2022 Formula 1 season. (Image: Twitter)

The worst-kept secret in Formula 1’s final piece of the driver market puzzle is now official. Guanyu Zhou, the F2 driver and Alpine academy prospect from China, will be racing in F1 from 2022.

Zhou, who is the first Chinese driver to ever drive in F1, will join the Alfa Romeo team alongside Valtteri Bottas. And even though news of the same came through on Tuesday (November 16), it was well-known for quite some time.

Interestingly, Zhou will be the only rookie on the grid in the upcoming season. Most teams have preferred to sit tight and stick to their incumbent drivers, with many on multi-year deals.

Zhou, however, has only been confirmed for the 2022 season as of now. Not that it matters too much; a few impressive drives will no doubt secure his long-term future in the sport.

But there remains a feeling that, unless he absolutely stinks up the joint, he will be part of the sport for a long time to come. The benefits of his presence on the grid, both to Alfa Romeo and Formula 1 as a whole, are too much to ignore.

There was understandable disappointment over the dropping of Antonio Giovinazzi. However, in Guanyu Zhou, Alfa Romeo have a driver who they hope will play a key part in their rebuild.

2022 brings with it whole new regulations which aim to cut down the on-track gap between the teams. And it’s arrival is eagerly awaited by the Swiss-Italian side, who have been firmly mired in the backend of the grid for the better part of three years now.

The pros of signing Guanyu Zhou

However, most teams have chosen to stick with tried and tested drivers ahead of the new regulations coming into play. It’s why Zhou is the only rookie on the grid, with all other movement happening with drivers with some experience.

Of course, there are two major benefits to signing the Chinese driver. The first, of course, is exposing the team to a whole new set of fans. It was something Alfa Romeo even acknowledged in the press release confirming Zhou’s signing.

“We are also looking forward to welcoming all the new Chinese fans who will join the team: Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN is a historical brand and one that embodies the spirit of Formula One and we will do our utmost to make the experience of our sport a great one in China,” Frederic Vasseur said.

Of course, the move involves more than just having a new set of fans. Zhou brings with him significant sponsorship money from China – which made him a more attractive proposition than Giovinazzi.

Alfa Romeo’s struggles in recent years have been evident, with a car that is at best competing for a lower points finish. Thus, any money they can get to improve their car is a welcome bonus.

There’s also the fact that F1 in general is keen to see Zhou succeed. The sport has long since planned to bring a second Grand Prix race to China, preferably to the streets of Beijing.

The incumbent Chinese GP, which hasn’t been held for the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, takes place in Shanghai.

Having a Chinese driver on the grid will doubtless help in the pursuit of another race. It will also help the sport grow further in China, a market seen as one of strategic importance.

More than a pay driver

Of course, listing out all of this makes it seem like Guanyu Zhou is little more than a pawn in a bigger game. His presence on the grid has already led some to dub him a ‘pay driver’.

Fans will doubtless point to the fact that Oscar Piastri – who currently leads Zhou in the F2 championship – deserved the drive ahead of him. Yet such is the nature of F1’s driver market; financial backing matters a great deal to the smaller teams.

And while Zhou’s financial backing helps, it is also worth noting that he is a driver who deserves to be in the sport on merit alone.

He’s been a race winner since his days in karting, and has also been a consistent performer in all levels of the sport. Yes, he is yet to win a championship at any level; an issue that comes down to a lack of consistency at times.

But he has the race pace and has shown consistent improvement over the years, making him an ideal candidate for any midfield side. It helps, of course, that his approach to the sport is very professional.

Those who have worked with him speak of a driver keen to learn and improve. And, given he will be partnered by an experienced race-winner in Bottas, won’t be under pressure to deliver.

While Bottas will be tasked with doing the heavy lifting, Zhou will be asked to learn his craft in F1. Given it will be his rookie year, tasking him with leading a side would be unwise. The struggles of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin at Haas confirm as much.

It will certainly be interesting to see how he fares in 2022. But, if things go right, F1 will have a consistent and speedy driver on their hands.

Shayne Dias

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