Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu sat down with PlanetF1.com for a wide-ranging interview during the Belgian Grand Prix.
The first-ever Chinese Formula 1 driver has proven himself a solid pair of hands in the midfield as Alfa Romeo have struggled to compete as a regular points-scoring outfit during his 18 months in the sport.
Approaching the end of his contract, where does Zhou feel his future lies, and just how difficult has it been adjusting to the pressures of F1?
Zhou Guanyu: F1 hasn’t been easy so far
PF1: 18 months in Formula 1, and you’re well settled in with Alfa Romeo at this stage. How do you look back over the last season and a half? Do you feel like you’re now underlining your place in the sport?
GZ: “I feel like, in general, there are obviously up and downs. But, overall, I’m quite happy with the way I was able to put myself in this F1 world and show worldwide what I’m capable of doing as a driver.
“But, in terms of results, obviously, there are more downs than highs. But, on the other hand, a lot of downs weren’t my problem. So it was obviously very unlucky.
“Going back to Bahrain , I had the best debut you could dream about, scoring points, and then the car was really good. Then we had like three or four races with DNFs due to technical issues, at which two of them I was running inside the points. So it wasn’t a nice way to do that.
“But then, on the other side, it makes me a lot stronger on the mental side.
“Scoring good points in Canada, also Q3 in my first year, was something I never expected. All the targets I set, I achieved in year one, but then, in terms of results, there were obviously more downs, considering I was actually fighting a lot of times in the top 10, and all these failures were causing me a step downwards.
“Then this year, clearly, in terms of performance, the car is not as good as last year. So we struggle a little bit more. Scoring a few points and then scoring that amazing P5 in Budapest, it just shows how much I was able to improve over the year, but then we’re just waiting for that Sunday reward in terms of the final race results – it hasn’t been that easy so far, because we had another issue before the start of the race.
“So yeah, it’s up and downs. But people saw what I can do in this paddock, that’s the most important thing.”
PF1: You stepped up to F1 after quite a long run in Formula 2. Has F1 been an even bigger challenge than perhaps you were expecting at the time?
GZ: “Of course, I was expecting it to be very difficult. I was actually thinking maybe the results will come later than the first race or at the beginning.
“But, on the other hand, there’s a lot of pressure in Formula 1 more off-track. Of course, on-track we have pressures but then, off-track, you have a lot of people talking about you, a lot of pressure like the way how people thought before I joined Formula 1 and announced my race seat for 2022.
“This pressure was hard, but then I was able to get through it in the right way.”
PF1: Do you thrive under this kind of pressure?
GZ: “I’m actually quite happy with this pressure. I’m the first, or the only Chinese driver, in Formula 1. I’ve been dealing with the pressure a lot, like people would say I was the last hope, or the only hope that can achieve F1.
“So F1 was my dream and I was trying to achieve, or give everything I could, but this gives you pressure, of course, and motivation at the same time. When I got to F1, it was just another way to deal with the pressure. It wasn’t anything extreme, so I don’t feel like I’m going to collapse under the pressure.”
PF1: How helpful has it been having a teammate like Valtteri Bottas? You know, a no-nonsense, straightforward guy who doesn’t play mind games? Has that been beneficial for you?
GZ: “Yes, it’s been very good. I think it’s a way for me to improve quicker, is a way for me to be more straightforward. There are no games, it’s very open and transparent inside the team between the two drivers.
“He helped me a lot the first year, especially while I was a rookie, and I learned a lot from him on-track, off-track, he really committed his potential to improve, to growing as a driver, [and become] more complete.
“If I’m against somebody my age, we’re both in the first year, second year, it can be different, you know, we will try to destroy each other, for sure. But, in this case, it wasn’t in this team, which is great.”
PF1: How important is it for a young driver to have the kind of environment that you have here, where you’ve got the support, you’ve got a friendly teammate… because you look at what happened to Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri where it was very different circumstances. So do you feel lucky to be in that position that you’re in?
GZ: “I don’t feel, let’s say, lucky. I just feel like you arrive at a team and the team looks at what’s the best outlook for them. Alfa Romeo team made a really right decision at the beginning by having a rookie and an experienced driver – I think that’s the best for everything that’s possible, especially for us when we are fighting that midfield.
“You don’t want two midfield drivers, who try to destroy each other or play games. Unless you are a top team, of course, you choose the first driver and second driver. Having two drivers in different stages of their careers, just gives us confidence, and also the team play, which is what we need.
PF1: Compared to where you are in Bahrain 2022, where do you feel like you’ve improved the most? Where’s been the biggest gain in your own performance and mentality?
GZ: “Driving-wise, I feel more comfortable. One-lap pace, racecraft is just all improved a lot. On the mental side, I trust myself a lot more.
“I don’t have this uncertainty with that one-lap pace, was it difficult to put a lap together? Now I can really give everything and try to reach my maximum potential a lot earlier on, than what happened last year.
PF1: So you definitely didn’t feel at your best after just 10 races?
GZ: “Definitely, I’d say there’s a lot more to come. But obviously, what happened to him, I think he should have had a little bit more time.
“But I guess they have the right to do whatever decision they make. Nyck was a rookie, but he did have a lot more experience than I did when I joined in F1? So I think people expected more from him, but I do still think he should have had a little bit more time. I think he can do something quite well in other categories.
PF1: Have there been any surprises along the way, like anything where you found this a lot more difficult than you were expecting?
GZ: “I think there are definitely more challenges, but it’s no surprise, I knew how much pressure each driver is handling here, especially for young drivers in F1 – it doesn’t give you a lot of time to be settled. You have like half a year and, if you don’t improve, you’re out for the next year.
“So it is a brutal sport, but very straightforward. I’m really happy dealing with this pressure and trying to always extract more of myself. So it has been challenging but now I’m used to it after a year and a half. But the beginning is not an easy thing to get through it for each rookie, as you see.
PF1:Where do you feel you’re still maybe not quite 100%? What’s the area that you’re still thinking ‘I’m not as good as the others in this area?’
GZ: “I think, in general, probably I would say against more experienced drivers, I think they can, let’s say, possibly stay a little bit calmer during the race than I do.
“In my second year, you’re really eager and want to do well and then you can get emotional.
“But, apart from that, I think everything else is making my way, apart from the experience. They have more knowledge and more experience, but I’m gaining that every weekend.
“I’m learning something new all the time. So that time will come. But, otherwise, I think I’d take Valtteri as my benchmark, to be equally similar in pace and qualifying. I’m extremely happy with my progress and I think we can both still put forward a lot more.”
PF1: Looking ahead to the future, obviously at the next contract negotiations, I presume your intention is to try staying on with this team and try to make it into the Audi years?
GZ: “I’m happy for the next few years before Audi take over to stay here.
“And now, obviously knowing the team turns into a manufacturer team, there’s no better place to be.
“We need to see and, obviously, my priority is to stay here and to go all the way to the Audi times because that’s where I think we’ll be making a huge difference in the regulations – 2026 with all the changes though, of the team, of the cars – it’ll be another story and a mixed up grid.”
PF1: Will you be looking for a long-term deal, two to three years?
GZ: “Yeah, I’d prefer to have a long deal.
“I’m definitely trying to have more than a one-year deal and then to be having an open mind for 2026.
“So we need to see that, but every driver wants to get along – we want to stay here in Formula 1 for the entire career. On the other hand, we have to see what’s the best for us as possible. Scoring points, podiums, race victories -that’s always the long-term goal.”
PF1: Have discussions already begun about your next contract?
GZ: “Yeah, of course, we’ve been already talking about it.
“I leave it to my manager to do that. But the team is happy with my job on track so far. So we’re just going to continue working to finish off before the summer break on a high and then the rest of the season will come.”
PF1: When you joined the team, it was Fred Vasseur in charge. Since then, he’s left, and Alessandro Alunni Bravi has come in as team representative and Andreas Seidl as CEO as Sauber. Have you noticed any differences in how the team is operating under the new personnel?
GZ: “A little bit, yes, of course. The difference between each individual is the way people are working for it. Obviously, Fred was the guy who gave me the opportunity to arrive and chase my dream.
“Alessandro is somebody who has already worked so he already knows the team, he’s there taking control while Andreas is setting up and making sure everything is OK and organising preparation and everything for Audi. I think they both have different targets.
“Andreas is going to be ready for Audi and, similar to us as a driver, we want to be going for a long-term deal with the team and try to race for a manufacturer team.”
PF1: There’s a lot of talk about you being a very underrated driver – it’s difficult for you to make an impression due to the competitiveness of the cars. Is this something you agree with? Do you feel you’re underrated? Are you getting the visibility you deserve?
GZ: “After Budapest [where I qualified fifth], I feel like people got decent attention back on Saturday, so it’s good but, on the other hand, obviously is a little bit more frustrating…
“Formula 1 is dependent on the car so, if you have a car fighting for victories, you’re there every weekend.
“If you have a car fighting just outside the points, you have to fight for it. So a lot of times you can be behind the scenes, you know, people don’t see you that often.
“But I think, what’s clear is in the paddock, people know every driver what they’re doing, they monitor everyone and, for the teams around, they can see what you actually can do and also, inside our team, that’s why they were happy for the job I did so far.
“So yeah, Budapest was a great way to maybe just get the fans or the people just watching races to understand what actually I can do, so I do feel a little bit underrated. But I don’t want to be overrated, it’s better to be underrated than overrated!”
PF1: There was plenty of excitement at home in China when you joined the sport. Has that excitement been tempered at all from when you started, or is the momentum still firmly behind you?
GZ: “I think people are really happy to see my progress and see what I can do. The excitement has been a little bit dipped knowing that, last year, I can fight a lot easier for points when, this year, we need a special race to do that.
“But then yeah, people are really happy, and excited. Of course, there’s the Chinese Grand Prix coming back. So yeah, they are more excited about that – it’s going to be a sensation!”