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Chinese driver Zhou throws down the gauntlet

China Daily | Updated: 2021-03-30 09:08
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Zhou Guanyu savors victory in the 2021 Formula 2 Championship's season-opener in Bahrain on Sunday. The Shanghai native is hopeful of challenging for this year's overall F2 title as he bids to eventually move up to the Formula 1 ranks. CHINA DAILY

Zhou Guanyu enjoyed a close-to-perfect start to the new season on Sunday-but, true to form, the young man tipped to become China's first Formula 1 driver refused to give himself top marks.

Starting from pole position, the 21-year-old UNI-Virtuosi driver won his first Formula 2 feature race on Sunday following an engrossing battle with Briton Dan Ticktum and New Zealand's Liam Lawson at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Zhou also stood on the podium on Saturday, finishing third in the second round of F2's sprint race-quite a haul, but still shy of the Shanghai native's lofty standards.

"I would only give myself nine points out of 10. I will never give myself full marks," Zhou told China Daily in an exclusive interview on Sunday.

"I showed my speed and strength this weekend. But still there were a lot of uncertainties on the track. Luckily, the team and I managed to handle it properly, so we could show our full potential.

"I'm truly happy to take my first feature race victory, and now I lead the driver standings. In addition, the pole position really boosted my confidence and enabled us to have more choice on our tactics."

Zhou Guanyu is congratulated by UNI-Virtuosi team owner Andy Roche after winning Sunday's Formula 2 feature race at Bahrain International Circuit. CHINA DAILY

Runner-up Ticktum, of Carlin Racing, reckoned one longer-than-expected pit-stop had cost him in a "very tough" battle with Zhou.

"I got a relatively OK start, but it was very clear that their options were much quicker, so I got overtaken by a couple of people on those...then in the pit-stop I had a very slow front-left (tire change); I don't know how much time I lost but it was a good few seconds," said Ticktum.

"I was right behind Zhou going into the pits, but I came out about five seconds behind and lost about three places as well."

F2 is using a new three-race format this season, with the two sprint races taking place on the Saturday and the feature race moved to the Sunday ahead of the F1 grand prix.

The starting grid for Sunday's F2 race is determined by the Friday qualifying session, while Saturday's sprint race grid is the reverse of the top 10 finishers in qualifying. The second sprint race grid is determined by reversing the top 10 finishers of the first sprint race.

While the new competition format adds more excitement for fans, it brings extra pressure and uncertainties for drivers.

That's why Zhou reckons maintaining a steady level of performance will be extra important this year.

"The biggest challenge for me is how to avoid losing unnecessary points," he said. "Stability means a lot this season. So we need to deliver the best performance at each race and each weekend.

"We didn't do well in Friday morning's practice. But we made quick adjustments in a very short period of time, and that's why we shined in qualifying.

"Another unexpected difficulty was how much of a struggle it was for us to start the race with hard tires."

Third-placed Lawson, of Hitech Grand Prix, is a fan of the new format, saying:"For me, it's more races and more time in the car on a race weekend so I like it.

"One of the things about racing on a Formula 1 weekend is that the there's limited track time, so it's awesome to get more time racing. This weekend it served us well, but I think it will be quite interesting to see over the year as people try to get really smart with it."

Trending topic

Zhou's victory helped the hashtag "F1" become a trending topic on Weibo on Sunday night, which was pretty unusual given F1's limited influence in China compared with other sports.

Zhou Guanyu is doused in champagne by rivals after the 21-year-old Chinese driver won his first F2 feature race in Bahrain on Sunday. CHINA DAILY

News related to Zhou's triumph had been viewed about 50 million times on Weibo by Monday morning, with fans clearly thrilled by his latest milestone.

"Zhou Guanyu is amazing. Anyone who knows motor racing knows how difficult it is (to win an F2 race)," Chinese rally driver, best-selling author and movie director Han Han wrote on social media. "He is the top Chinese driver, and I believe he will have many more moments like this in the future.

"Such a result deserves to be a trending topic on Weibo. Hope next season we will see a Chinese driver in F1."

Making it to F1 is now a very real prospect for Zhou, who only requires two more points to be granted a super license-a prerequisite for joining the sport. Drivers must accumulate at least 40 points over a three-year period to get the super license, with Zhou taking his tally to 38 by winning the Asian Formula 3 Championship in February.

"My goal remains unchanged to become an F1 driver. So this year, I hope to become a true contender for this year's F2 title, and at least guarantee a top-three finish in the overall standings," said Zhou.

"I believe if I shine in F2, I'll have a big chance of entering F1, as acquiring the super license is no longer a major problem for me. I'm very positive about the future. I will certainly push as hard as I can for my dream."

Zhou is a test driver for F1's Alpine team (rebranded from Renault), allowing him to immerse himself in the F1 environment and gain more experience by participating in testing, communicating with the team and joining in its research and development process.

But he's not taking anything for granted, and stressed: "Right now, I'm still an F2 driver and I need to focus on delivering my best performance each race weekend."

Zhou Guanyu celebrates winning the Sunday's F2 feature race with UNI-Virtuosi teammates in Bahrain on Sunday. Zhou is tipped to become China's first Formula 1 driver. CHINA DAILY

Zhou has raced in F2 since 2019, when an encouraging seventh-place finish in his rookie season suggested he was a talent to watch.

His reputation continued to grow in 2020 with six podium finishes and a breakthrough pole-to-flag sprint race victory in Russia, en route to a sixth-place finish in the overall standings.

Saturday's flying start to the season was reward for keeping his foot on the gas during the winter break, with training and his exploits in the Asian F3 Championship.

"Each year, every driver hopes to improve himself. I certainly want the same thing," Zhou said. "I've been learning from my previous experience and I have a more and more stable mentality. My driving skills are now much more mature than before.

"My decision-making on the track has also improved, and I can keep a cool head to solve problems. But there's still many aspects to work on and I will keep pushing myself forward."

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