Zhou Guanyu, China’s first full-time Formula One driver, does things that many people can only dream of doing: venturing to the far corners of the planet and dashing in a quick vehicle.
When describing the thrill of driving at speeds greater than 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) and accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in less than three seconds, Zhou stated, “It’s the acceleration, the downforce, the G-force.”
He stated to CNN, “I think the only difference between Formula One and a roller coaster is that you have to control where you are going and be at 100% of yourself.”
Since he was a young boy growing up in Shanghai, Zhou has given his all to driving. He is currently being tipped by some to become Formula One’s answer to Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA star who is frequently credited with popularizing basketball in his home country.
Zhou, then just five years old, witnessed Rubens Barrichello defeat Fernando Alonso to win the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai in 2004. He stated that the experience sparked his interest in racing and has stayed with him ever since.
Zhou recalled, “I’d ask my parents to get me a little car that I could play with around the sofa at my house whenever it was my birthday or something like that.”
He stated, “We actually changed the sofa after a few years because the leather was scratching… I was pushing it hard doing my own imagination of racing.”
The imagination of Zhou won out. He chose his own path because there were not enough Chinese racing heroes.
He started go-karting – where many top drivers cut their teeth as youthful F1 hopefuls – not long after that lady Chinese Stupendous Prix. He was competing in racing by the age of eight.
At the age of 12, he left Shanghai for Sheffield, UK, to continue his development with Strawberry Racing Karting. This was a turning point in his racing career.
He had to adjust a lot when he moved from China’s most populous city to a quiet area of northern England, not the least of which was that he didn’t speak English very well at the time. However, the move helped him realize his goals.
He had early success, winning both the Super 1 National Rotax Max Junior Championship and the Rotax Max Euro Challenge before being offered a stint at the Ferrari Driver Academy, a training ground for future racing stars. The karting scene in the UK was more competitive than in China.
As he progressed through the ranks of F4, F3, and F2, Zhou soon got behind the wheel of ever-faster vehicles. That could be nerve-wracking to watch for the family that had moved with him to Sheffield, despite the fact that it would be great for his career.
Zhou recalled, “My mom was definitely the one who worried a lot in the beginning.” But now she’s like, it’s easier for her now that I’m getting older and everything.”
Although Zhou’s rise had been in the works for some time, it wasn’t until he joined Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season that he made history as the first Chinese full-time F1 driver.
Valtteri Bottas, his teammate and outstanding driver from Finland, stated, “It is about time we had drivers from all of the continents and countries.”
After a terrible high-speed crash at the British Grand Prix in July, Zhou claimed that the halo protection device in his car saved his life.
Zhou, a basketball fan, chose the number 24 to represent his favorite player, the late Kobe Bryant, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers for a portion of his career.
However, the comparisons to another of Zhou’s sporting heroes, the former NBA great Yao, have enthralled many sponsors and fans the most.
“Who knows, maybe I could have the same effect in ten years, you know. And that’s definitely my goal,” he said, referring to Yao’s legacy of making his sport more popular at home.
The backers of Formula One have high hopes that Zhou’s presence will contribute to the sport’s global appeal.
Christine Brennan, a CNN sports analyst, stated, “It’s a great opportunity for Formula One to make inroads in China.”
She stated, “There is no doubt that it only takes one driver, just one NBA player with Yao Ming, just one Olympian with Eileen Gu, just one, and people can just go head over heels for that athlete.”
With unconfirmed reports this week claiming that plans to hold the Chinese Grand Prix for the first time since 2019 may be put on hold due to the country’s restrictive Covid policies, plans to grow the sport in China may have hit a slight kink in the road. However, Zhou’s continued presence on the grid for the remainder of the season should provide Chinese fans with plenty to cheer about even if the race in 2023 is canceled.
Even now, Zhou’s following has grown to the point where he is frequently observed on London’s streets, where he now resides.
Zhou stated, “I have to hide myself because there are a lot of Chinese people there.”
For a driver who is known for his colorful race helmets and eclectic wardrobe choices, keeping a low profile might be harder than it sounds. Indeed, due to his passion for fashion, he is already considering fashion design as a backup career option.
I’ve already given it some thought. He stated, “That’s something I really want to do in the future when I’m not racing.” I enjoy making cool things, coming up with my own suggestions and designs, and putting some creative things together.
However, for the time being, he remains focused on the track and the possibility that his career will one day take him back to the Grand Prix in Shanghai, where it all began, if and when Covid restrictions permit.
Zhou stated, “There are a lot of people who look up to me.” And I’m very proud of everyone at home.”