For the first time in 71 years of Formula 1 history, a Chinese driver will be on the Formula 1 (F1) grid next year. Shanghai-born Zhou Guanyu will drive for Alfa Romeo alongside Finnish Valtteri Bottas and be part of the group of 20 competitors in what is considered the most elite motor racing competition in the world.
The historic, though controversial, appointment of the 22-year-old comes at a time when the audience for motor racing is increasing in China. F1 reports that its Chinese audience increased by more than 40% from 2019 to 2020, in large part thanks to free coverage of Chinese Central TV and social media. Globally, the recent popularity of F1 is attributed to the documentary series Netflix, Formula 1: Drive to survive.
“We are also looking forward to welcoming all new Chinese fans who will join the team,” Alfa Romeo team principal Frédéric Vasseur said in a press release. “We will do everything possible to make the experience of our sport great in China.”
Zhou was beaming with national pride when his place on the Alfa Romeo was confirmed.
Although the number of viewers is increasing in China, Matthieu Marais, a Hong Kong-based F1 analyst and former racing car driver describes the public as still “niche”, with only a small fraction of the country’s 1.4 billion people tapping in to watch the races. He thinks Zhou could be the local hero who could attract more fans and sponsors to the sport.
Competence vs sponsorship: “paying drivers” in F1
Not everyone is thrilled with Zhou’s entry into F1, however. Critics lament that Alfa Romeo chose him over other drivers like the impressive Aussie Oscar Piastri because Zhou’s Chinese backers pledged $ 30 million in sponsorship for the brand new Swiss-owned team. . Italian pilot Antonio Giovinazzi, who is bitterly losing his job to Zhou, said that “when money reigns, it [F1] is also ruthless.
Zhou is far from the only driver to enter the sport with significant financial support. Russian Haas pilot Nikita Mazepin entered the sport at the expense of his father’s business $ 22 million investment in the American team; Nicholas Latifi, the Canadian-Iranian driver of Williams, is the son of another billionaire and brings about $ 50 million per year. And Lance Stroll, the Canadian-Belgian driver of Aston Martin, rides for a team partly owned by his father.
Beyond the drivers, auto racing requires an army of mechanics, strategists, coaches and support staff. Mercedes Benz, the dominant F1 team, for example, had a $ 460 million operating budgetn last year.
“It has always been a sport where money is vitally important because it is so dear to support,” said Marsh, who took part in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans competition. “But anyone who can race in a Formula 1 car these days is really mega [talented]. “
Marsh points out that that money aside, it was Zhou’s talent that earned him a coveted spot on Alpha Romeo. He is already proved his courage by winning several races in F2 and F3, the sport’s minor leagues. Marsh describes Zhou as a “confident and knowledgeable driver who doesn’t have stupid accidents.”
Zhou’s chances of winning a world championship
But as talented as a Zhou rider is, analysts like Marsh doubt he will ever win the world championship. On the one hand, the car he will drive will be lower than those at the top of the standings. But will the Chinese accept less than a stellar performance from an athlete who carries his national banner?
Even though he never wins a trophy, Marsh says he hopes Chinese fans enjoy the nuances of the sport more instead of blaming Zhou. A similar thing happened to Malaysian driver Alex Yoong who suffered a backlash after losing his place in F1 after just a year and a half. Yoong, Marsh explains, was in the driver’s seat of an inferior car, difficult to discern for the casual onlooker. Each F1 team has two identical cars driven by two drivers, and their performance is used as a benchmark for performance. “He was damn good… but the Malaysians followed what the national media were saying,” Marsh says. “It went from “wow, we’re going to be in Formula 1” to “it’s embarrassing for our nation”.
“I hope there is enough sophistication in the Chinese public to understand that this is the Olympic final, that center court at Wimbledon,” said Marsh. “Just getting into Formula 1 is an incredible achievement.”