With the 2020 Formula Two finale just weeks away, we caught up with Renault F1 Academy member and UNI-Virtuosi driver, Guanyu Zhou to reflect on his journey and look ahead to the future.
Having blasted onto the F2 scene in 2019 as the highest-placed rookie with one pole and five podiums, Zhou has endured a challenging second season as he candidly discusses his motor racing journey.
From young beginnings in China to rising up the motorsport ladder and being a member of Renault Sport Academy, it has been a remarkable rise for the 21 year-old as he reflects on his early single seater career and look ahead to his ambition of becoming F1’s first full time Chinese driver.
Who was your inspiration for becoming a racing driver?
Zhou: “It was Fernando Alonso. When I watched my first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix, he was racing and winning so it’s extra special for me knowing he’s joining the team for 2021. I look forward to learning a lot from him.”
Having begun your career in your home country of China, what was it like making the move to the UK as a teenager both culturally and into a more competitive racing environment?
Zhou: “Moving across to the UK at such a young age was a risk and a difficult decision because obviously the history of motorsports in China isn’t as big as it’s in Europe. Growing up, I quickly realised that I had to leave China and compete in Europe, as that is where all the best junior drivers make their mark.
“I must admit it was hard in the UK at first as I couldn’t speak the language that well and obviously, I had to adjust to the different culture. But I am familiar with it now and I really like it here too.”
You made your single-seater bow in 2015 Italian F4 season where you finished vice champion. Compared to karting, how different did you find the experience of adapting to single seater racing?
Zhou;: “In my first ever year in single seater I thought I did pretty well. I was competing against very experienced young drivers which was a good learning curve for me.
“In general, I found the step up into single seater racing quite different to karting, but some of the basics are the same!”
2016-18 saw you spend three seasons in F3 Europe where you constantly improved throughout, despite racing some fellow F2 stars in Callum Ilott and Mick Schumacher plus others. From your perspective, what was it like to race against some of your current F2 rivals in lower categories and has those experiences benefitted you in F2 when racing them at this level?
Zhou: “It was a long learning experience, but I did take a lot from the three years there.
“In my last year in Formula 3 we were fighting for the championship, but the second half of the season was challenging and meant we ultimately couldn’t compete for the title. But there is no doubt that the experience I took from those years was useful to take into Formula 2.”
Last season saw you make a successful move to F2 in which you finished as best rookie and took pole at Silverstone, so how would you reflect on your rookie season in term of performance, despite a difficult weekend in Spa Francorchamps?
Zhou: “It was a successful first year with UNI-Virtuosi with us fighting for pole positions and podiums and of course being given the title of Best Rookie was a real privilege.
“We put a lot of effort into the season and I learnt lots from working with the Renault Sport Academy. It’s been extremely beneficial to have fellow younger drivers from a variety of backgrounds in the academy, that you can learn from and ultimately compete with.
“The weekend in Spa-Francorchamps was extremely emotional for obvious reasons, and we miss Anthoine so much. But we make sure everything we do in racing is for him.”
With this season having been delayed by a few months due to the Coronavirus pandemic and having participated in virtual racing during lockdown, how did you cope with this sudden period of no real racing activity?
Zhou: “Virtual racing certainly kept us drivers pretty busy during the lockdown and you do have to be good at it as it’s actually very competitive.
“I enjoyed Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix series representing Renault DP World F1 Team, I ended up with one win and a podium from it. Aside from virtual racing, I kept busy with my fitness and hit the track with go-karts too.
“The fitness aspect was crucial as during a lockdown, it would be easy to do nothing. We had online Microsoft Teams fitness sessions set-up by our Academy trainer and whilst they were tough, it was important to keep active.”
This summer saw F2 return to real-life racing where bad luck derailed a title challenge, although you claimed your first win in Sochi last time out. What was it like adapting to properly racing cars again despite experiencing a tough season on top of finally claiming that elusive win last time out heading into the final two rounds?
Zhou: “Yes, it’s been a tough year for the whole world not just motorsports. The delay meant when the season eventually got going again it was very busy, with back to back racing across Europe. So, in that sense it’s been difficult and a new challenge.
“From the very start of the year the target was to be the fastest driver out there, but as we’ve experienced so many technical issues, we’ve missed a few key points and these DNFs have knocked me down the order a little.
“It hurts a little to see what could have been especially when you see how tight it’s at the front, but we did get the victory in Sochi and that was a real boost. It was special to hear the Chinese national anthem playing.”
Recent weeks saw you conduct testing in Bahrain with Renault’s 2018 F1 car where you will conclude the F2 season in coming weeks. How much did it mean to get the opportunity to drive the R.S.18 and with the test being in Bahrain, do you feel that will give you a boost when F2 head to Sakhir later this month on two different layouts back-to-back?
Zhou: “I was really proud to test the R.S.18 car and it was an honour to have the opportunity again to experience driving a Formula 1 car. I’ve done several days across the R.S.17 and R.S.18 now and each test I learn more about the car, such as how it handles, how to manage the tyres, cornering speed, braking points etc.
“The Bahrain circuit is a track most drivers in Formula 2 know quite well already, as we did our pre-season testing there. But the test has helped me get back into the rhythm of the track, but it’s obviously different driving F2 and F1 cars so there might be a small adjustment at first.”
Finally, how much would it mean to become the first Chinese driver to properly race in F1 beyond FP1 sessions and what are your plans for the future?
Zhou: “To become a Formula 1 driver is my dream and it’s something nobody has achieved from my country. So far, the journey has been intense and there have been a lot of questions marks at each hurdle I’ve faced.
“We are however working hard and I’m in the final steps now, so I’m giving everything I can to make the jump to F1 and achieve my goal one day.”
Special thanks to Renault for their assistance in this interview and to Zhou for kindly taking the time to participate in this interview during his busy schedule.