Alpha makes Zhou China’s first F1 driver

Zhou has three wins in F2 this season and is second in the championship with one round to go.

Guanyu Zhou has become the first Chinese Formula 1 driver after signing to race Alfa Romeo in 2022.

Alfa Romeo described the Formula 2 leader as a “pioneer who will write a pivotal page in his country’s motorsport history.”

Zhou, 22, will be a partner at Valtteri Bottas, signed from Mercedes after veteran Kimi Raikkonen decided to retire this year.

He replaces Antonio Giovinazzi, who has raced for Alfa since 2019 but now has no place on the F1 grid next year.

Zhou, who is second in the F2 championship with three wins this season and two rounds yet to be contested in Saudi Arabia next month, said: “From a very young age I dreamed of climbing as high as possible in a sport that I am passionate about. And now. The dream has come true.

“I feel well prepared for the immense challenge of Formula 1, the pinnacle of my sport, coupled with proven world-class talent in Valtteri Bottas.”

The move means that all F1 teams have confirmed driver lineups for 2022.

Why did Alpha hire Zhou?

Zhou was part of the Ferrari driver academy between 2014 and 2018, and moved to join the Renault young driver group in 2019. He has been a test driver for the French company’s F1 team for the past two years.

It will take with it to Alfa Romeo a considerable financial package that is said to be worth many millions of pounds.

Team principal Frederic Vasseur admitted in an exclusive interview with BBC Sport that this was a factor in Zhou’s hiring, saying: “The financial aspect cannot be hidden.”

But he said that Zhou’s talent had also been a key consideration.

Vasseur pointed to his F2 victories in Bahrain and Silverstone this year as proof that he “has the ability” to compete at the highest level.

“I don’t know if in the end he will be champion in F2 or not,” Vasseur said. “But this will not change the possibility of him being a trailblazer against other guys with a lot of experience.

“He also has the advantage that he was able to do a few days of testing this season in F1, so he doesn’t have zero mileage.”

Vasseur, who previously led the successful ART team in the youth categories, said he had been watching Zhou’s progress for a few years.

“For China, there is no point in bringing someone if the guy is nowhere [on performance]. They want to be successful, “Vasseur said.

“When I was at the beginning of the story in F3, we said: ‘Maybe this is a potential [F1 driver]. And then he won a few races in F3 Euroseries before moving on to F2, and he did well.

“The most important thing to me is that he is a smart guy because he is always improving from year to year, always doing a better job and putting everything together.”

Zhou brings significant financial boost

Vasseur said the additional revenue Zhou brings to Alfa Romeo would mean the team could operate at F1’s cost limit next season; its budget is “vastly” below the $ 145 million (£ 114 million) figure this year, he said.

“In the end, our sponsors also want to be happy and develop their commitment to the future, and the financial aspect cannot be hidden,” said Vasseur.

“The first Chinese driver in F1: this is great news for us, for the company, for our sponsors and also for F1 in general.

“A team has to become sustainable at one stage. It is not just about the Chinese sponsors, it is about the exposure that we will give to our current partners.

“F1 today is a bit difficult. If you are not in the top two plus Ferrari, the exposure is very low and this is probably the best way we will have to move up the exhibition rankings.”

Why did Alfa Romeo choose Bottas as the team leader?

Bottas was hired in early September, after Mercedes decided to hire George Russell as Lewis Hamilton’s teammate for the upcoming season.

Vasseur said talks with the Finn, who led for the Frenchman in the junior categories before making his F1 debut with Williams in 2013, began at the beginning of this season.

“We always had a very good relationship, and very early in the season we were in the same hotel and discussed it together one night,” Vasseur said. “I said, ‘Okay, if you’re ever looking for a team, Valtteri, I’ll be there.’

“We started the discussion like this and we progressed step by step. We have a strong personal relationship and I knew he was in a difficult situation.

“Okay, Mercedes is probably the best team on the grid and being part of the team is the dream of 18 drivers on the grid today.

“But it was not an easy situation and I was trying to move on to the next stage [of his career] being central to a project and that was what we discussed from the beginning.

“We said, ‘Okay, if we want to improve as a team, we have to develop the project around a pilot.’ It was always the case with success stories, with [Sebastian] Vettel at Red Bull o [Fernando] Alonso at Renault or [Michael] Schumacher at Ferrari or Lewis [Hamilton] – trying to build something around someone and that was the project with Valtteri. “

Vasseur said Bottas’ status as a lead driver would give the team a benchmark as F1 heads for a major regulation change this winter, with new cars aimed at closing the grid and making racing more competitive. .

Alpha’s difficult season

Alfa Romeo is ninth out of 10 teams in the constructors’ championship with three races to go, but its performance has varied greatly from race to race: Giovinazzi qualified seventh and tenth in the Netherlands and Italy in early September, by For example, but he was 18th on the grid in the next two races in Russia and Turkey.

Vasseur said he “won’t blame the drivers more than anything” for the team’s inconsistent performance.

He stressed that the midfield group is close in terms of performance, so small details – be it driver errors, team errors or other factors – can make a big difference.

He also noted that Alfa Romeo had not put new parts on the car since the third or fourth race of the season, that its Ferrari engine has reduced performance compared to rival power units from Mercedes, Honda and Renault, and that unlike Of all its rivals, Alfa has not incurred any penalties for using more than the allowed number of engines.

Alfa has not benefited from the more powerful hybrid system that Ferrari introduced for the final third of the season because they continue to use the engine in the specification with which they started the year.

“We made a decision a year ago,” Vasseur said. “I think it’s a good decision for the future. It was difficult for 2021 because we knew that if you don’t develop during the season you are almost dead. But this put pressure on the team, on track operations, and I think they did well.”

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