China hails country’s first Formula One driver, Zhou Guanyu

Society & Culture

China’s first driver in the world’s most famous car race series has been signed by Alfa Romeo, and Chinese F1 fans are delighted.

James Moy / Reuters

Zhōu Guànyǔ 周冠宇 became a trending topic today on the Chinese internet as news outlets widely covered his historic achievement of becoming the country’s first-ever full-time driver to compete in Formula One, the world’s most prestigious motorsport series.

Born and raised in Shanghai, the 22-year-old has been signed by Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season, where he is poised to take the seat of Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who announced his departure from the team earlier on Tuesday, and partner Finnish veteran Valtteri Bottas, a 10-time race winner, in an all-new lineup. 

In a statement confirming the signing, Alfa Romeo described Zhou, who is currently with Formula Two team UNI Virtuosi, as “a trailblazer who will write a pivotal page of his country’s motorsport history.” Prior to Zhou, the only other Chinese racer with F1 experience is Mǎ Qīnghuá 马青骅, who took part in five practice sessions in 2012 and 2013 for HRT and Caterham. But neither team managed to give him a full-time race seat. 

Zhou has driven in the F2 series for the last three seasons, finishing seventh in 2019 and sixth in 2020. This year has been a breakthrough for the young driver: Zhou currently sits in second in the league standings and is still in contention for the title with competitions in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to be completed. Impressed by his F2 performance, F1 Team Alpine signed Zhou as a development driver in 2019 and promoted him to the role of test driver for its 2020 campaign.

“To be the first-ever Chinese driver in Formula One is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history,” said Zhou in a team statement. “I know a lot of hopes will be resting on me and, as ever, I will take this as motivation to become better and achieve more.”

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Like many drivers on the F1 grid, Zhou joined the elite sport scene with financial support. While Zhou has kept a rather low profile about his family, some online sources suggested (in Chinese) that his father, Zhōu Wénfāng 周文方, owns at least 23 companies in China, four of which are named after the F1 rookie. According to Formula1.com, the official news website of the championship, interest in backing Zhou from Chinese companies increased in the last 18 months as he “improved in F2 and put himself on the F1 map” with his enhanced links with Alpine. 

For Alfa Romeo, which is ranked ninth out of 10 in the constructors’ standings for this season, Zhou’s Chinese connections appeared to be a major factor in his signing. “The decision is crucial for the future of the company,” Alfa team principal Frederic Vasseur told Reuters. “It was not only based on the fact that he is Chinese but it will be a mega-push for the company, for sponsors and I think also for F1 in general.”

Speaking to Reuters, Formula One chief executive Stefano Domenicali said that Zhou’s arrival was “fantastic for the sport and millions of passionate Chinese fans that now have a home hero to cheer for all year long.”

Despite its European origins, F1 is far from a novel concept to Chinese sports fans. In 2004, the world’s fastest sport made its debut in China at the Shanghai International Circuit, which was the most expensive F1 circuit facility when completed. In the following years, despite the annual race in Shanghai and promotional efforts by the organization, F1 never managed to make a big splash in the country — where other foreign competitions like NBA and European football already dominated the sports-watching scene.

When analyzing “China’s antipathy to Grand Prix racing,” Mark Dreyer, who co-hosts the China Sports Insider Podcast, wrote in 2014 that for F1 to really take hold in China, it needed a Chinese ­driver or a Chinese team to “revolutionize” the Chinese motor-racing landscape and create a “connection” for many Chinese people. “Racing supercars at high speeds is too closely linked with images of corruption or spoiled rich kids, meaning that the sport is simply out of touch with the vast majority of ­Chinese,” he wrote

But now Zhou — a homegrown car racer making a mark internationally — has attracted major news coverage and inspired an outpouring of support in China. In a video message (in Chinese) shared via China Daily, Zhou said that he hoped that people would support him and follow his first F1 season. “The first Chinese F1 driver is here,” Xinhua Sports wrote (in Chinese) on Weibo, where a hashtag (in Chinese) congratulating Zhou for making history has generated nearly 2 million views as of this afternoon.