Daniel Ricciardo always draws a crowd at a Grand Prix but during the weekend of the Shanghai Formula 1 Grand Prix, the man in yellow and black receiving just as many cheers was not Nico Hulkenburg - Ricciardo’s teammate – but instead was the Chinese Renault F1 Team Development Driver (and F2 debutant) Guanyu Zhou. At just 19 years old, having the hope of a nation (made up of 1.4 billion people) on his shoulders does not faze the talented youngster. No wonder there has been talk of a second race being held in China seeing how the country is on the cusp of having its first Chinese Formula 1 driver since Ma Qinghua.
In all the 1000 Formula 1 Grand Prix, only one Chinese driver has been present on the track during a Formula 1 race weekend. However, Ma Qinghua never made it to the race itself due to only appearing in four FP1 sessions for HRT (remember them?) and an opening practice session, at Shanghai of all places (what a coincidence) for the cash strapped Caterham team before they went into administration.
It is clear what Zhou’s aspiration is because whether signing autographs at the circuit or buring rubber performing donuts at the Heineken fan event in downtown Shanghai - his answer was always the same:
‘I’d love to be the first Chinese driver to race in F1.’
Zhou is very much a product of his time seeing how when he was 8 years old, China held its first F1 Grand Prix and the impressionable youngster was hooked but not without paying a price for his new passion.
Even though China had a Grand Prix, if Zhou wanted to succeed he would have to head to where so many promising youngsters had headed to before to hone their racing craft – the United Kingdom. He shared his thoughts inside the Official F1 Program:
‘It was so hard, you don’t have a chance to experience a normal childhood because of the path you’ve chosen…the whole country was a bit of an unknown.’
Zhou’s effort and dedication paid off because by 2014 he had made a name for himself in the international junior go kart categories which brought the attention of Ferrari and a place in the Ferrari Driver Academy racing in the senior karting category by the year’s end. Next came runner up in 2015 Italian Formula 4 Championship (3 wins in the season) and last year in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship he claimed his first victory in a championship renowned for being competitive and unforgiving – a feat Zhou is still extremely proud of today:
‘Starting on the front row for Race 1…I took the lead after the first corner…it was a great feeling to manage to defend my position and win through all the difficulties.’
There will be many sponsors keen to help the mild mannered yet determined youngster and on the eve of Lewis Hamilton’s historic 75th Grand Prix victory, Toto Wolff shared his thoughts on a second race in China:
“Why not go to Hong Kong or Beijing?”
Since then, F1’s commercial boss Sean Bratches: “In terms of interest, we would be highly interested in a street race (referring to a second race in China.
The People’s Republic of China is a huge market for Formula 1 and its popularity grows year on year. Formula e has races on the calendar to be held in both Hong Kong and Sanya. So if F1 followed suit, it would be very profitable.
Zhou (now racing in F2) is keen to play down expectation.
‘F2 takes place at the same circuits as F1, so I’ll have opportunities to closely observe how an F1 team operates…I haven’t really thought about if I could become the first driver to race in F1.’There are many people though who would have thought of such things and to finally have a Chinese racer able to make a difference in Formula 1 (sorry Ma Qinghua) would signal a brand new and exciting chapter to the sport which is loved by so many countries…especially China!