If Guanyu Zhou is a student of sport he will know the power that comes with being a trailblazer.
When the lights go out in Bahrain in March, the 22-year-old will write his name into the history books as the first Chinese driver ever in a Formula One race.
He may well be near the back of the grid, or even propping up the field, but the historical significance will stand the test of time for a driver paving the way.
Zhou would be wise to look at retired tennis star Li Na, who became the first player from China and Asia to win a Grand Slam title back in 2011 at the French Open. Na, who was named in 2013 among the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine, stands as one of China’s most successful ever sportswomen.
Guanyu Zhou will make history as the first Chinese driver to compete in a Formula One race
Zhou will be a trailblazer like Li Na (left), who was China’s first ever Grand Slam winner in 2011, and Sun Jihai (right), who was the first Chinese player to ever score a Premier League goal
If football is more of Zhou’s bag he should look to former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai, the first Chinese player to score in the Premier League.
Zhou, who will partner former Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas at Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season, is just starting out in F1 but having broken through to the big time, he has an opportunity to establish a legacy for those that follow him.
‘I dreamt from a young age of climbing as high as I can in a sport that I am passionate about and now the dream has come true,’ he said.
‘The dream is reality and I feel well prepared for the immense challenge of Formula One.’
Alfa Romeo seem to have a habit of Formula One firsts, too.
Back in 1950 at the British Grand Prix, Giuseppe Farina, known in the paddock as ‘Nino’, won F1’s first official race in Alfa’s Tipo 158 car. Farina went on to become the sport’s first ever world champion.
Chinese race fans have had one false dawn with Ma Qinghua a decade ago and it will be important to Zhou and to his legion of followers that he gains more traction.
While Zhou will make history as the first Chinese driver in an F1 race in Bahrain, Ma was the first Chinese driver to participate in an F1 session, having taken part in Friday practice at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix.
Zhou has been a keen motorsport fan since going to the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix (pictured)
That was the extent of his F1 experience and it will prove a mere footnote as scrutiny and interest intensify around Zhou, a driver that in some quarters has drawn criticism for taking a seat many believe was owed to 2021 Formula 2 winner Oscar Piastri.
Zhou, who is Shanghai born, arrives at the perfect time with F1 interest rocketing among the 1.4 billion people in China.
Audience figures in China soared by 40 per cent from the 2019 season to 2020 and that will only escalate further due to both Zhou’s presence but also the fact that state-owned broadcast China Central Television (CCT) makes races free-to-air.
For Alfa Romeo, Zhou is akin to a lottery win, with the Chinese driver expected to deliver £20m in sponsorships.
‘I think it’s a huge opportunity for the company! Because in the past few weeks, more sponsors have called than in the past 25 years,’ team boss Frederic Vasseur told Motorsport Magazine.
‘For the company, for all sponsors – including the current sponsors – it is also a great opportunity and we will go in that direction.’
Zhou’s story is an interesting one. He was born in Shanghai but in a bid to give him the best chance of cracking F1, the decision was made in 2012 to raise him in Sheffield.
China once had Ma Qinghua (right) compete in an F1 practice at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix but he has never taken part in an F1 race, something Zhou will do for the first time next March
2022 DRIVER LINE-UPS
Alfa Romeo: Valtteri Bottas / Guanyu Zhou
AlphaTauri: Pierre Gasly / Yuki Tsunoda
Alpine: Fernando Alonso / Esteban Ocon
Aston Martin: Sebastian Vettel / Lance Stroll
Ferrari: Charles Leclerc / Carlos Sainz
Haas: Mick Schumacher / Nikita Mazepin
McLaren: Lando Norris / Daniel Ricciardo
Mercedes: Sir Lewis Hamilton / George Russell
Red Bull: Max Verstappen / Sergio Perez
Williams: Nicholas Latifi / Alex Albon
Having been a karting enthusiast from when he was eight years old there was a natural aptitude for speed racing but his parents knew there was a ceiling to his potential were he to stay in China.
Enrolled in school and signed up to Strawberry Racing team, Zhou, after adapting to the vagaries of the English weather, soon found his feet in England and with his new race team.
Some early successes, notably winning the Super 1 National Rotax Max Junior Championship, gained traction and by 2014 he was posing in Ferrari red as a member of their drivers’ academy.
His early experience in single-seater driving came in 2015 with Prema Racing in Formula 4, before three seasons in Formula 3, one with Motopark and two back with Prema.
Entering 2018 as an F2 driver who had swapped Ferrari’s youth programme for Alpine, he knew a title, or at least title contention, was needed to really stake his claim to make it to the bright lights of an F1 grid.
Three seasons in F3 had allowed for doubts to creep in as to whether he would really be able to crack one of the 20 F1 seats on offer.
It is one of the most select sporting positions in the world and yet he listened – and still does – to the voice of one athlete who never gave up: the late Kobe Bryant.
‘Basketball is similar to racing as you have a lot of pressure, and it comes down to the last few seconds,’ Zhou said in an interview earlier this year.
Zhou’s steady ascent through the ranks saw some bumps as he spent three years in Formula 3
In difficult moments he channels the ‘Mamba Mentality’ Kobe Bryant used in his NBA career
Bryant is such a big icon to Zhou that the Alfa Romeo driver chose No 24 for the 2022 season
‘All of the competitors know that the ball is going to end up in Kobe’s hands in the final moments, but he is still able to shoot even though they are all putting pressure on him.
‘For that, you have to be mentally strong, and you have to put the work in.
‘At training, he was the first one there and the last one to finish. That mentality is crazy, and it applies to every sport, to motorsport and to everything in the world. If you want something, it will not just arrive in your hands, you have to work for it.’
Mamba Mentality. That’s how Bryant, who sadly died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, described it.
A complete belief in one’s sporting ability and prowess. An unconscious belief that you are the best. A work ethic that will have you No 1 on any metric. Winning – at all costs.
Slowly but surely, as Zhou climbed the motorsport pyramid, Bryant’s famed Mamba Mentality kicked in.
Derided in some circles as a ‘pay driver’ for the financial backing he brings for a country starved of motorsport success, Zhou did his talking on track, finishing 2019 as F2’s leading rookie (7th) ahead of both Mick Schumacher (12th) and Nikita Mazepin (18th) who are now both in F1.
Zhou (left) has described his journey as ‘blind’ with no former Chinese drivers to lean on
In 2019 Zhou thrived as a rookie in Formula 2 and success has followed him ever since
Such success as a rookie saw him become the first recipient of the Anthoine Hubert Award for best rookie. It represented one of the most emotional moments in Zhou’s career, receiving a trophy named in honour of his close friend, who died on track at the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix.
For all the success 2019 brought Zhou, 2020 provided a wicked bump in the road and for the first time in years Zhou was facing the prospect of perhaps not being good enough to break through the ceiling.
The young kid many saw on Instagram, waving a flag at the Chinese Grand Prix in 2005, knew it was boom or bust in 2021 if he was going to make it.
‘It has always been tough not having anyone to follow from China who can tell me the right direction to go to make it as an F1 driver,’ he told FIAFormula2.com in September.
‘If I could go back in time, I would take a few different decisions and choose different categories or teams, but that is how it is when you’re going through doors blind.’
With two rounds to go in this most recent F2 championship Zhou was sat in second. He finished third and while Australian phenom Piastri – who became only the third rookie to ever win the title after George Russell and Charles Leclerc – was viewed as a nailed-on contender for any vacant seat in F1, Zhou’s job was done: he’d shown he can cut it at the top of the sport.
Zhou (front) knows his move to F1 has been seen as controversial but he is blocking haters out
Having finished third in the 2021 F2 championship, Zhou is now looking to make his mark in F1
Much was made of his first practice session in an F1 car back in Austria when, in Fernando Alonso’s Alpine, he came 14th and was far from disgraced.
‘It was important to not just be attending FP1 as a Chinese driver but to be up there in terms of speed,’ Zhou said later. ‘There hasn’t been anyone who’s finished as high as I did, and I think that’s given the country more hope for the future.’
Alonso was intrigued and has followed his progress ever since. When news of the Alfa Romeo deal came through Zhou could count Alonso among the cheerleaders.
‘Yes, yes I’m happy for him, he’s a nice kid and we obviously had him in the [Alpine] Academy this year so I had a few days with him in testing,’ Alonso said.
‘Also last year when I was testing the old Renault on my comeback to the sport, I shared with Zhou a couple of days in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. We have a good relationship, as I said, happy for him with this opportunity.
‘It’s good for Formula 1 in general, for China, and for Zhou.’
The key now will be Zhou expressing himself and not appearing burdened by the national responsibility that will naturally fall on his shoulders.
A karaoke fan who likes video games and fashion design, Zhou has the world at his feet – and he’ll break new ground with Bryant’s famous No 24 on his Alfa.
A keen designer, he incorporated Bryant’s purple and gold Lakers colours on his 2021 helmet as well as having an image of the Shanghai cityscape as a permanent reminder of his home