Feature F1 Unlocked
ANALYSIS: Why Alfa Romeo opted to re-sign Zhou alongside Bottas – while keeping one eye on future Audi tie-up
On the eve of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend, Alfa Romeo confirmed their line-up for the 2024 season, with Zhou Guanyu re-signing for another year alongside Valtteri Bottas. F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto explains why they’ve stuck rather than twisted…
This has been a difficult campaign for Alfa Romeo, the Sauber-run Swiss team had high hopes for a step up this season after finishing sixth in 2022 (their best finish in a decade) but with Aston Martin and Williams making a leap ahead of them and Haas inching ahead they have tumbled down the order.
A large reason for this has been the outright performance of the car, rather than the drivers, so with that in mind, sources say it was always the team’s priority to keep Zhou – China’s first full-time F1 driver – for a third successive season, partnering Bottas who had a three-year deal that runs till the end of 2024.
I’m told they did talk to other drivers about the seat while Zhou’s management team assessed options elsewhere on the grid – but it was always each side’s primary intention to stay put.
Continued progress important to Zhou renewal
Bottas has outperformed Zhou six points to four this season, but sources say it’s been clear to the team that the Chinese driver has offered stronger opposition to his more experienced team mate this year on a more regular basis.
His performance curve in qualifying has been strong, particularly as Bottas is renowned for his prowess over one lap, and they are very closely matched here. In the races, Bottas has still had the edge, but Zhou has been much closer this year.
So, a key reason for keeping Zhou was his speed – and proving to the team that he could make continuous progress.
Another reason was the team’s desire to have stability and experience after a challenging campaign. James Key, who returns to the team as Technical Director, started in his new role last week and has already got stuck into understanding the 2024 project.
It is believed the team will look to make big changes with car, especially once they have Key’s input, and thus having two drivers with experience, who know the previous iterations of Sauber/Alfa Romeos, will be invaluable as they look to make a big step next year.
Sauber are also aware that retaining Zhou will allow the 24-year-old to drive in his home race in F1 for the first time, with the Chinese Grand Prix returning to the calendar next year – in what will mark 20 years since F1 started racing in the Asian country, and thus hopefully allow for commercial benefits.
On this note, sources have reiterated that the Chinese driver doesn’t bring any financial support. He is not a paid driver – and the team are keen to emphasise he has been retained because of his performance.
They do hope, however, that him racing on home soil will prove attractive to new financial backers for the team next year as they look to push up to the cost cap.
Sauber preparing for the future
Sauber are in transition, ahead of Audi’s arrival in 2026 – where they will make the Swiss team their works outfit.
Zhou’s renewal means both his and Bottas’ current deals expire at the same time – at the end of next year when there’s just a season to go before the German manufacturer comes onboard – and that gives the team complete flexibility on drivers moving forward.
As a start, it allows Zhou and Bottas to fight for their seat and be part of the Audi project, while also showing the rest of the grid that there’s potentially a seat or two available from 2025 onwards.
It also gives the team another year to evaluate their Sauber Academy driver Theo Pourchaire, who currently leads the F2 championship.
Sources say the team evaluated promoting him for next year – but it is believed they opted to give him another season to prepare and enhance his skills through his role as Sauber’s reserve.
The team haven’t worked out his exact programme for 2024 yet, but they do want to bring him closer to the team, both at the factory and trackside, while also looking at securing him a racing programme in another series and/or finding a way to get him more time in F1 machinery.
I’m told he will complete the team’s mandatory young driver FP1 appearances this season and is expected to clock up mileage for the team in the end-of-season young driver test in Abu Dhabi, too.
For now, though, Zhou has a chance to prove he deserves to be on the grid for the foreseeable future. Should he kick on again, that at least puts him in the conversation.
And Bottas will be eyeing more consistency, too, as sources say he has no intention of hanging up his gloves anytime soon.
That’s the perfect situation for Sauber – two drivers fighting to save their seat, one young driver fighting to get in and potentially a lot of interest from outside with Audi incoming, especially if next year is a strong step forward.