Do the gains Zhou has made in Formula 2 show he’s ready for Formula 1?

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Alfa Romeo has confirmed the long-expected news Guanyu Zhou will make his Formula 1 race debut for the team next year.

The immediate question arising from Zhou’s impending exit from the Alpine Academy is what future that programme has. That’s not because the only way one of their juniors could make it into F1 was via a rival – although that is a continuing concern – but more the fact that Zhou’s financial contribution to the private test programme Alpine conducts for he and his fellow juniors will now disappear.

In the short-term that’s not a big loss, given the limited relevance a three-year-old Renault F1 car is going to have to the new generation of machinery F1 will introduce next year. But it was an element that enticed drivers to Alpine and now is likely to be heavily reduced in scale. That’s going to hurt in the long-term, particularly in preparing their next wave of juniors.

There will be a trickle-down effect of Zhou’s switch to Alfa that’s positive in other ways though, primarily from the fact he’s actually broken through into F1 racing.

Guanyu Zhou
Zhou was originally part of the Ferrari Driver Academy
He is no doubt going to attract more Chinese competitors to motorsport, whether it be in the grandstands, on the racetrack or as sponsors. As a high-fashion individual he promises to have the same cross-market appeal of soft masculinity that Lewis Hamilton has mastered. And the fact that he’s a young driver with wins at every level he’s competed in who has been able to break into F1 is still a positive, even if it is money that’s helped him displace Antonio Giovinazzi, who lamented the “ruthless” turn of events on social media this morning.

The bargaining power of experience is arguably increased when a new rule set is introduced to F1, although at the same time it can put everyone back on a more level starting point, so Alfa has taken a big risk by being the only team to sign a rookie going into 2022.

What are the attributes and previous results that suggest Zhou’s up to the task of developing a brand new car next season, which he can’t even sample in the simulator until the new year as he’s contracted to Alpine until the end of the season?

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Having shone in F4, Zhou’s F3 campaign was disappointing
The first is his ability to improve, and to do so when it matters. After two seasons of middling results in the FIA European Formula 3 championship, he began 2018 under a fair bit of pressure with the best team on the grid.

He delivered, however, starting the season with a maiden victory, and on the demanding, narrow streets of Pau no less. All four of his team mates finished considerably ahead of him in the standings, but out of them only champion Mick Schumacher claimed more pole positions (after a late-season upswing in pace which prompted suspicions).

At the halfway point of the season Zhou was 24 points off the championship lead, after a Spa-Francorchamps weekend which had started with brilliant pace and a pole but ended with a puncture and two collisions with Schumacher. That cost him enough points that he otherwise would have been championship leader, in a talent-packed grid that included 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou and Super Formula star Sacha Fenestraz.

But Zhou went from being 29 points clear of Schumacher to 162 behind in the season’s second half. Having those title prospects fade in F3 showed he needed to raise his standard to match those same rivals in Formula 2.

Zhou remains in F2 title hunt after third win at Silverstone
That’s exactly what he did. Zhou was a rookie sensation alongside the experienced Luca Ghiotto at Virtuosi, taking fastest lap on his debut, pole at Silverstone – among the most high-bravery tracks of them all – and netting five podiums to finish higher in the standings than he had in F3.

He’s stuck with Virtuosi since, claiming a first win in 2020 and currently lies second in the 2021 standings with three wins. Zhou took such a dominant pole for last year’s opening round that there was genuine anticipation of a walkover by him, but that wasn’t to be.

Expectations were therefore lowered this year, following a season where on average he had been third fastest in qualifying but only 12th on race pace. He’s risen above them and lies second in the standings, 36 points behind Oscar Piastri, with 130 available.

It’s been a smaller improvement, but this time it was responding to the critics as openly as possible, rather than what he’s done at the wheel, that helped his F1 hopes.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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30 comments on “Do the gains Zhou has made in Formula 2 show he’s ready for Formula 1?”

  1. petebaldwin (@)
    16th November 2021, 10:20

    It’s very difficult to tell. Not many drivers come into F1 and immediately hit the ground running. Many over the last few years have taken a couple of seasons to get up to speed so whilst I doubt he’s “ready for F1”, the challenge will be to show continuous improvement and try to match Bottas. It’ll be difficult to stand out in a slow car however – someone like Tsunoda has struggled this year but the pace of his car means when things do come together, he’s quite high up the field. For Zhou, a good race will still likely result in him being towards the back.

    1. Unfair to compare him to Tsunoda who is frustrated and unhappy but Honda corporate shoehorned him into F1 before he was ready and AT personal clearly don’t want him and see him as a 2nd class driver only there as a deal to get free engines(Same with Nakajima who brought free engines to Williams).
      Tsunoda situation raises the ‘factory backed’ problem in Japan because they already had a world class driver in Kamui Kobayashi who matched Perez at Sauber but because he was not a ‘factory’ driver he was forced out of F1.

      Regarding Zhou his expectations are rock bottom anyway so finishing a race would be seen as a win which is all his backers want, if anything he will be extra cautious and avoid wheel to wheel action at the orders of his ccp handlers because the longer he is ‘in’ the race that’s more time hes on air and more propaganda material for the party..

  2. No. This is so underwhelming yet also depressingly predictable.

  3. I have read the article and based on that the answer is simple: no way ready and probably never will.
    Not being ready doesn’t always mean that it will not work out, but I have serious doubts. At least he will have equal footing with everyone else: driving a new kind of car.

  4. The headline is a good example of Questions To Which The Answer Is No.

    Anyone who is in their third year of F2 and not running away with the championship is not good enough to be in F1, frankly. Very few drivers who become becalmed in the feeder series go on to great, or even good, things at the top level of the sport.

  5. He impressed and excited me in the first half of last season, but always seemed bridesmaid never the bride. Then he dropped off a bit. This year he has not impressed me at all, and has dropped down the pecking order in my opinion.
    But we all knew it would happen!

  6. I am not sure I get it correctly from the article. Did he spend two seasons in F3 and is now in his third in F2, or is it the other way around?

    1. @Kotrba 3 in F3 (albeit European F3, which is different from the present F1 feeder series F3), & this year is his 3rd in F2.

  7. Money talks, bul.. walks.. has always been the case. I think Max and Lewis are the entry level, in terms of skill set, of what we would get if Motorsport was an inclusive sport. We are mostly watching mediocre drivers who happened to have some money around. Surely there must be more talented drivers out there.

    1. This happens across all niche sports, whether they are like that due to high barriers to entry or just not that popular for societal reasons. Those sports tend to see large gaps between the participants, and are often prone to experience periods of domination. Tennis, alpine skiing for example compare badly to more accessible sports like football, cycling and the like. Motorsport is probably among the worst, as it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to get anywhere above national touring car championships.

    2. Nell (@imabouttogoham)
      17th November 2021, 2:41

      Completely disagree. Verstappen and Hamilton are exceptions to the norm, both recruited by F1 teams very young into their career because of their prodigious talent.

      Fact is motorsport is expensive, and it’s never been an egalitarian sport.

  8. Zhou is currently an Alpine academy driver. He was previously a Ferrari academy driver but was let go in 2018.

    Now Alpine are letting him go and are boosting Piastri to the F1 team as reserve driver instead of Zhou

    When he races for Alpha in 2022 it will be as neither an alpine or ferrari academy driver.

    This tells us what we need to know.

    1. @Mr Squiggle Correct.

    2. Nicely put.

      I think he driver academies saw he flashes of speed and the obvious sponsor potential. But both of them still let him go.

      Nevertheless, for the sake of F1, I hope he becomes a Lance Stroll / Sergio Perez type of pay driver

    3. Absolutely. This is about money and exposure to China. Nothing else.

  9. “As a high-fashion individual he promises to have the same cross-market appeal of soft masculinity that Lewis Hamilton has mastered.”

    Still trying to digest this curious smorgasbord.

    1. I own a nice jacket. Maybe I should be in the running for an F1 seat too!

  10. Who knows?! Giovinazzi nearly won the title in his debut GP2 season on turned out to be nothing special in F1.
    Zhou had a much better debut season in F2 than Mick Schumacher, who seems to be doing a decent job so far in the Haas.
    I doubt Zhou is a future champion, but I think he won’t do terribly in F1 as well. Let’s just wait and see.

    1. nice spin there, zhou is a below average journeyman who is groomed for F1 by the ccp because the “first chinese” on a world stage in international competition is priceless state nation branding propaganda to the party.
      3 seasons in top f3 – no championship in top teams
      3 seasons in top f2 – looks like no championship in top teams
      no amount of spin will cover up that he is a below average lower formula driver who only has a seat in F1 due to the ccps trillions war chest.

      When Lewis retires we will be left with billionaire/state backed drivers, kinda spits in the face of F1 wanting to be all ‘inclusive’..

      Stroll – Daddy is a Billionaire, guaranteed seat for life as daddy owns team
      Latifi – Daddy is a Billionaire
      Sainz jr – Daddy ex world rally championship driver
      Verstappen – Daddy ex F1
      Schumacher – Daddy ex F1, 7x WDC
      Tsunoda – Honda factory driver, brings free engines
      Mazepin – Daddy is a Billionaire
      Zhou – CCP ‘nation branding’ state backed
      Albon – Thai ‘nation branding’ state sponsorship throughout his whole career(changed nationality from UK to get Thai state $$$, yes I know mom is Thai but he doesn’t speak the language and born+raised in UK, not sure he even has a Thai passport..)

      1. Nell (@imabouttogoham)
        17th November 2021, 2:43

        F1 is inclusive in that it accepts money from all parts of the world. The only colour that matters is green, primarily because that’s Saudi Arabia’s colour and they deal in US dollars :)

      2. +1. Sobering post, but well put. Kinda makes you wonder how long we’ll have to wait for a Saudi driver to be the next big talent.

  11. I’m fairly sure I couldn’t scroll to the top of this page and see a picture of a future world champion, or even a race winner, but they could have picked worse.

    Mostly it’s just nice to see a Chinese driver getting into F1. Can’t be a bad thing for growing interest and potentially widening the future talent pool.

  12. Unless he’s better or worse than the other pay drivers.

  13. NO. I’ve said this 1000 times before on this site zhou was 1000% guaranteed an F1 seat for 2022 regardless.
    He is literally backed by ccp and their near infinite money and wanting to sports wash its nations image a “first chinese xyx” on a would stage is golden propaganda value to the nation.

    You look at this way, could you image where Lewis Hamilton would be if he couldn’t get a F1 race seat after winning the 2006 GP2 title?!

    I have nothing against zhou, he presents himself professionally but hes just a generic branding exercise journeyman driver with huge backers and below average results driving ‘overpowered’ highly funded lower formula teams (this isn’t new, stroll snr paid top F1 and F2 engineers to assist his son in F3 for example..)

    You gotta feel for Oscar Piastri who looks like he is going to win the F2 title but because he does not have communist dictatorship backers with trillions war chest he cant get a seat in F1.

    why isn’t there a rule that F2 champs are guaranteed a race seat?
    Looks like as Zhou,Mazepin, stroll and latifi proved as long as you have billionaire or state backers who can game the super licence system(rich daddy/backers spending 100’s millions to create OP lower formula teams to guarantee points) you can have zero talent and make it into F1.

    Long term the FIA need to address sports washing/financial doping and superlicence gaming abuse because soon F1 grid will consist only of billionaire or state backed untalented drivers used as a tool for state propaganda or stoke the egos of the backers themselves.

  14. Lewisham Milton
    16th November 2021, 17:57

    He’s done better in F2 than Verstappen.

    Why doesn’t F2 finish in August or September when the F1 driver market still has some life in it?

    1. He’s also done better in F2 than Bottas and Sainz. Great logic there.

  15. I have an opinion
    16th November 2021, 22:53

    He’s as ready now as he’ll ever be. I suspect he’ll be in the mix with the Haas duo.

  16. but only 12th on race pace

    Zhou-Virtuosi was among the fastest race driver-car combinations in 2020. I’m not sure where this statistic even comes from.

  17. Mpney talks

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