Zhou admits it was 'impossible' not to hear criticism after he earned his F1 seat
Zhou Guanyu has opened up on the criticism he faced after earning his F1 seat with Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season, becoming China's first F1 driver in the process.
The now 24-year-old will be taking part in his third F1 season in 2024, with the team rebranding as Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber following the departure of Alfa Romeo as title sponsor. His performances in 2023 earned him another year at the helm, alongside team mate Valtteri Bottas, as he also looks forward to taking part in his home race for the first time, with the Chinese Grand Prix returning to the calendar for 2024.
When Zhou originally signed for Alfa Romeo for his rookie season, he was understandably elated with his achievement after spending three seasons in F2.
“To be the first ever Chinese driver in Formula 1 is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history,” he said at the time. “I know a lot of hopes will be resting on me and, as ever, I will take this as motivation to become better and achieve more.”
However, in a recent editorial for The Players’ Tribune, Zhou opened up about how it was “impossible” to ignore criticism on social media when he first earned his shot on the F1 grid.
“That winter, in November of 2021, when Alfa Romeo announced I’d be in the seat, I knew what people thought of me,” he wrote. “It was impossible not to hear it. And it’s hard, right, because I worked my entire life for an opportunity like that. My family sacrificed a lot. We moved from China to Sheffield when I was 12. It took everything. Some luck, too. And then before I ever get a chance to race, it’s, ‘he doesn’t deserve it, it should be so-and-so, he’s only there because of money’.
“I understand. People are allowed to have their opinions. And there’s a lot of politics in F1, of course. I know that just as well as anyone. From the outside it’s hard to see everything that’s going on. And I’m beyond thankful to be where I am — it’s not lost on me what a privilege it is. But I’m still just a person, a guy with a phone who can hear the noise.
“I think it was hard at the beginning for me because I felt such a connection with F1. I was a fan for so long. I still am. I went to every Chinese Grand Prix, and I still would if I weren’t racing. It’s who I am.
“If I could take you back in time with me and show you my room from when I was a boy, you’d laugh your head off. I had Fernando Alonso posters all over the walls. It looked like the room of a teenager idolising their favourite pop star. I sat in front of the TV at all sorts of weird hours, with the volume turned all the way down, as my parents slept a few rooms over. And I would just dream.
“I’d pick my favourite little toy cars off the table and push them around the carpet as I watched Michael and Fernando and Kimi win races. I knew that’s all I wanted to do.”
While Zhou's memories of the moment he first earned his seat may be conflicted, he added that all of that was superseded by the immense pride he felt at being the first driver representing his nation in the sport, while also looking back fondly on his first F1 race – the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix, where he scored a debut point with a 10th place finish.
“To be the first Chinese driver in F1 history… it’s everything to me,” he said. “I’m so proud of where I’m from — the support I’ve received from everyone back home. I race for them. I want to show that, even though we aren’t known for motor sports, we can still be great. That we can be fast. That we are a racing nation.
“That desire, that passion — that’s what made the first lap in Bahrain so tough. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just one lap of more than a thousand over the course of the year, but I wanted to prove to everyone, to myself, that I belonged there. So I just put my head down, and I followed my instincts.
“Our team had a great strategy and we battled all the way back. It was a crazy few last laps and when I came across the line in 10th, scoring a point… it felt like a win.
“I hugged my mum in the paddock that night, and I think we both just felt this incredible sense of relief. Like, we’re here, and we’re doing it. Those countless hours going to and from sessions hoping one day something like this might happen, and we were really there, racing in F1. I thought of a little boy or girl watching back home in China and it made me a bit emotional. It still does.
“That weekend meant so much to me. Every single one does. I hope the fans know that.”