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Formula 1

F1’s only rookie can surprise ‘a lot of people with little clue’

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

For all the challenges that Formula 1’s teams and drivers faced across six days of testing with completely new cars, one person was – and still is! – on a steeper learning curve than most.

As the only rookie on the F1 grid in 2022, Zhou Guanyu’s in a unique position. Although that’s probably a familiar feeling for the first Chinese driver to land an F1 seat.

Zhou arrives in F1 without the reputation of being a mega-talent but he is not without his credentials. Now 22, he has won races in Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula 4.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Friday Monte Carlo, Monaco

It is fair to say Zhou is not a rookie of the calibre of other F2 graduates in recent years – like George Russell, Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc – but it would be disingenuous and disrespectful to argue he is unworthy of a chance in F1.

It’s what he does with that chance that matters most. And Alfa Romeo technical director Jan Monchaux is convinced: “He will prove a lot of people with little clue that they shouldn’t judge too quickly about him.”

Judging Zhou in his rookie year will probably be satisfying for those critics. He is already an easy target as a driver who brings funding with him but as the only debutant there is no reference for how well he should be expected to adapt. If there was another rookie – even in a different team with a different benchmark alongside them – that would be a very useful point of comparison.

Instead all we can measure Zhou on is his performance internally at Alfa Romeo. That means how he fares alongside Valtteri Bottas, a team-mate who will offer a very stern test, especially in qualifying.

One thing that’s already clear is that Zhou is unlikely to be overawed by this. He seems a person with strong fortitude – Monchaux points to his back story as proof: “Look at his CV. He left his home and his country for a new world at an age where I don’t know a lot of people ready to make that sacrifice for their career and their dream.”

Beyond that, though, Zhou looks mentally up for the challenge of F1. He’s intelligent, focused and seems to understand the assignment. Plenty of private testing from his Renault/Alpine days will have helped shape that side of him, and don’t forget he made his grand prix weekend debut in Austria last year and slotted in well.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day Two Sakhir, BahrainAlfa Romeo’s compromised first test in Barcelona and slightly disrupted week in Bahrain has left it on the back foot which can only further complicate Zhou’s first few races. But he’s not looking for excuses and he’s struck a decent balance between being excited for his debut, cautious about the magnitude of the challenge, and confident he’s as well prepared as he can be in the circumstances.

An appreciation of the bigger picture is something that stood out to The Race when chatting to Zhou during the Bahrain test. For example, he points to the fact Bottas suffered the worst of the reliability problems in Spain and that his own mileage was decent, and that “in Barcelona I think I learned more than having 10 days in the sim because we were driving the real car”.

At the same time he identifies the lack of long-running within that programme as something that he was missing until last week. And Bahrain was important to instil some confidence, especially after Alfa Romeo was initially hit hard with the headline F1 2022 car problem: porpoising.

“It’s a huge difference [from Barcelona] because when we first came out we don’t realise the issue will be there,” Zhou said during the second test. “I think it is a big surprise for everyone in the paddock and especially for me, I never experienced driving something like that.

“That limited a lot of the mileage because we don’t want to damage certain stuff from the car, we want to be keeping everything safe and to do the upgrade [for Bahrain].

“So now we can really play with the optimal set-up we would like to use originally so that’s already put us in a better window for the coming races.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day One Sakhir, Bahrain

“I think I’m just very happy I did my first-ever run and that problem was straightaway fixed. So I think that’s put us in a much better spot compared to last time out.”

He’s also been conscious of making sure he can handle the communication properly with his race engineer.

“I was able to learn a lot more,” Zhou said. “The procedures as a rookie, it’s not just about getting confident with the car, but all these switches and procedures you have to do. And of course in Formula 1 that’s [important for] the formation lap.

“The biggest difference compared to F2 is that there’s no radio until the lights go green. So you have to really remember everything by the heart and that’s what we’re focusing on, rather than Barcelona where we just got the car together.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day One Sakhir, Bahrain

“It feels quite normal. But I think it’s the communication between you and engineer, to know exactly what he says and to be right in the switch changes.

“So far it’s been quite good. But if you get to a track like Monaco or the other tracks, I think that’s really you have to do it as quick as you can. Let’s see how it goes there! But at the minute I’m OK with that.”

Zhou has a couple of things in his favour within the team that should help his initial progress. Sauber, which operates the team, is familiar with the demands of running a rookie. And in Bottas, Zhou has a team-mate with vast experience, an affable personality and a desire to be a leader and embrace a new mentoring role.

“He does talk to me a lot,” says Zhou. “What’s great about him is that after every session we try to chat.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day Two Sakhir, Bahrain

“When we jump out the car – of course it’s not happening too much in testing – but every time we will be direct to each other, talk about how the car balance feels, and what is the improvement we should do for the next run.

“I think that’s very important and positive for him and also for my side that we both can work together.

“We’ve been reasonably well together working so far. So I really can’t wait for the season.”

Unless Zhou blows Bottas away or gets demolished himself, judging how he performs will be difficult on the outside.

And it’s quite hard to know what to expect from Zhou. He has the capacity to be a decent grand prix driver but does he have the outright ability to be a very good one? Zhou acknowledges that qualifying is key in F1 and for all his impressive traits as a person and a driver there is a question mark over his raw speed.

Alfa Romeo insists he can perform. Of course it would be a surprise if the team said anything else but Monchaux reckons there might be a default, patronising attitude towards non-European drivers that means Zhou’s ability is unfairly dismissed.

“He’s doing an excellent job,” says Monchaux. “I think you guys [the media] aren’t very fair with him. He’s a guy who’s not coming from nowhere, he had quite a good record in F3 and [in the Bahrain test] he’s impressed a couple of people. Even inside the team his capacity to manage the car, to be quick on one lap.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Day Sakhir, Bahrain

“We’ll see when the real pressure is here, but it’s a very fresh and positive start. He learns very quickly, he is willing to learn, he’s quite eager.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he surprises a few people around during the season.

“F1 has seemed to be a touch arrogant every now and then when it’s not like the usual casting. Like a typical European driver or Brazilian driver, that’s OK. But if an American comes or a Chinese driver, we tend to be a bit arrogant here in Europe, no?

“I think he will surprise a lot of people. I’m convinced about that.”

Anyone dismissing Zhou on the basis of his nationality is being extremely unfair. All that matters is whether he can cut it in F1 and like any rookie we must wait to discover the answer.

The point is that performance and results are the only relevant metrics in F1, whether that person is their country’s first F1 driver or the 50th.

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