Guanyu Zhou is a highly accomplished Formula 2 driver who is currently leading the championship. This weekend, Zhou will be making his Formula 1 debut during FP1 of the Austrian Grand Prix – temporarily taking the seat of Alpine’s Fernando Alonso.
As a member of the Alpine driver academy since 2019, Zhou has worked his way up from development driver to test driver. Currently in his third season of Formula 2 with UNI-Virtuosi racing, Zhou has won at Monaco (one of the most fabled and historic venues in all of motorsport) and is making great strides towards racing full time in Formula 1. On the verge of creating history, our founder Sage sat down with Guanyu Zhou for an exclusive interview.
Read on as Zhou talks about his inspirations, influences, words of advice, the win at Monaco and his F1 debut at Austria:
Sage: How old were you when you were introduced to the motorsport world and who were your biggest influences?
Zhou: Since I was a young kid, around five to six years old, I loved playing around with my toy cars – watching cartoon movies about cars as well. So all that stuff got me my first opportunity to jump in a go-kart at 7 years old, and I absolutely loved it the first time I tried it. At 8 years old, my family bought me my first-ever go-kart to start doing proper racing in Shanghai. That’s how we started. My father himself loves cars, but as a young kid, they gave me the choice to do what I like, and I just love the noise and love the speed going around corners.
Sage: Are there any specific lessons or words of advice you learned during these times go-karting that you still live by today? Maybe a life’s motto?
Zhou: Yeah definitely. The one I remember most from karting days, first of all, is that my first ever go-kart race, at the age of eight, and basically, one guy behind me misjudged his braking point and flew past me [hitting] my shoulder and my helmet. I had a mechanical failure, so I had to retire from the race. When I took off my suit, my right shoulder was completely bleeding and was hurting a lot. So I had to go to the hospital to get a few stitches, and that’s the day when my family asked me whether I want to continue because it was quite dangerous. And I still replied yes while doing the stitches. So that’s something I remember a lot. And another thing is back to when I was racing in Europe in 2013, I won my championship at the very last round, so I learnt from that never give up and do the best you can.
Sage: In 2012 you moved to the UK, looking for a more competitive racing environment. What, if any, were the greatest challenges you faced during this time?
Zhou: In 2012 when I moved to the UK, the level of the drivers was a lot higher, and the pack was a lot closer. 0.2s you could be from P1 to P15. I was facing a lot of challenges because I tried to learn as much as I could. As a rookie, I always take it as motivation, try to put as much effort as I could into my testing, and in one years time, I went from a top 15 runner to a top 5 runner. So that was quite a good step I made forward, but there’s a lot of effort I have to put in behind the scenes.
Sage: The people who you once beat in go-karts, such as Lando Norris, are now the people doing great things in Formula One. Does this affect you in any way? And how determined are you to beat them once again?
Zhou: Yeah definitely. Having raced with a lot of people, I mean, I raced with Lando when I was in my karting days and most of my formula single-seater career. Seeing him doing well in Formula One, proves that the level of go-karts, of motorsports and formula racing I’m taking, is the best way possible to prepare to be great or the fastest Formula One driver in the future, so actually it gives me a lot of motivation, so I know I have to do well in each series I’m in. I’m trying to come out as an even better driver. And on the other hand, I think it proves that every category I’m driving in is the most competitive category possible, so that can actually help improve your driving skills a lot.
Sage: Thinking back to 2015, you showed great consistency, scoring many podiums in the Italian Formula 4 championship on your way to becoming vice-champion, how did you manage to maintain this consistency? – Especially whilst racing the likes of Shwartzman and Beckmann.
Zhou: Back in 2015, my first year in formula cars, it wasn’t an easy year as a rookie driver, but you know, we showed our speed. We had the potential to win the Italian Championship, but I had one big incident, which forced me to use my spare engine for the rest of the season. So I was behind a little bit. But the whole season was quite consistent, we were scoring podiums every round, to be always possible fighting for pole positions as well. There’s nothing special rather than just to keep my focus, keep my momentum on every track we go, no matter if it’s a new track or an old one. I try to analyse what’s the best way or the best lane to take, and I try to be fast from the beginning.
Sage: As a ‘professional athlete’ as well as an inspiration to many, I’m sure the pressure of these expectations can become a strain on your mental health. Do you have any advice as to how you deal with this extra pressure and stress?
Zhou: Obviously as a professional driver, there’s a lot of stress going on, particularly at each race start, safety car restart and in a qualifying lap, especially in Formula Two, you only have one lap to do your qualifying, and it’s so important to qualify in the top ten. There’s a lot going on, like mental stress obviously. Firstly, you have to have the experience, the other thing is that you have to always trust yourself, you can’t think of something that you are a little bit weak too much, you have to always find a way to go through this tough moment. Once you’re through it, you’ll feel confident and quite a lot stronger. And every start you try to give it maximum focus. Before the race, I only focus on the start, and during the race, I only focus on making no mistakes.
Sage: In scoring your first pole position in Formula Two, you also became the first Chinese driver to do so. How does this monumental achievement feel to you and how much more does this mean because you are representing China?
Zhou: To represent China, to be the only Chinese driver in Formula Two in these five years at least, and to be doing well, showing the world that as a Chinese driver, I prove myself to be a title contender, I can be a race winner. That gives me a lot of boosts to show all my potential for reaching my ultimate dream, becoming a Formula One driver. And it shows all the work I’ve done in the past has paid off as well. I just have to keep working hard, to keep achieving more and more, and making my country more proud.
Sage: Is there something you want to say to your fans and supporters? Do you constantly feel the love of the Chinese community following you?
Zhou: To all my fans, I have to say big thanks for all the support. Guys who follow me since I was young in Formula Four, huge thanks to all of you. The other people who just start following me since Formula Two these days, I have to say thank you as well. And all this support means a lot to me, giving me a lot of boost and motivation. To all the people who believe one day that I could be in Formula One as well. In the end, I have to say that I hope everyone can support people that are chasing their dream, especially myself to represent China is not easy in Europe. I’m trying to do my best, so hopefully one day my dream can come true, making you proud of me.
Sage: This season is your third season in Formula 2, and there is most likely a chip on your shoulder that you have to win the championship this year to have an opportunity in F1. You’re doing great right now sitting in first in the driver’s championship, but has this extra pressure affected you in any way?
Zhou: I mean this year it’s actually good so far. Looking at the rounds [in] Monaco and Baku, I didn’t expect to be leading the championship so far. So that’s actually a good start because all the tracks after I am really comfortable with. On the other hand, this pressure on my shoulder, as I had in Asian F3 early season, a car I [had never driven] before, everybody expects me to win, but it wasn’t easy for me, I have to really work hard for it because other drivers know the car better than me. And for this year, I have to do well, have to show my potential, which we already did so far, and I have to continue this momentum. And also I think winning the championship gives me [a good] opportunity to jump in Formula One, but to be in the top three, I think I still have a chance to try to find a seat in Formula One. But what I focus on right now is getting that F2 championship.
Sage: How does it feel to win in Monaco?
Zhou: To win in Monaco is so special. I think it’s one of my most unforgettable or happiest victories ever. It’s such a special place, such a special area that every driver would love to step on the special podium. And on the Monaco track, you cannot make any mistake, you have to be 100% accurate, 100% focused for the whole distance. I just feel so happy that I achieved the win in Monaco.
Sage: How do you feel about getting the opportunity to drive Fernando’s car in Austria? Do you think you’re ready for the big stage?
Zhou: It’s going to be a great stage for me and I’m super excited to jump in the Formula One car as I have [worked very hard] for this opportunity. My plan is to enjoy the moment and to complete all the targets the team has set for me. I will prove myself as much as I can to show my pace and momentum.
We thank Zhou for his time and hope that he has a great weekend and a successful season of racing ahead. Be sure not to miss him drive his first laps in a Formula One car at the Red Bull Ring at 10:30 am BST this Friday!
Also a huge thank you to Bruna Brito, Aiden Hover and Tanishka Vashee for helping to make this interview happen! As well as the whole DIVEBOMB team!