For the first time in the 71-year history of Formula 1, a Chinese driver will be on the Formula 1 (F1) grid next year. Shanghai-born Zhou Guanyu will drive for Alfa Romeo alongside Finnland’s Valtteri Bottas and will be among the group of 20 competitors in what’s considered to be the world’s most elite motor racing competition.
The 22-year old’s historic, if controversial, appointment comes during a time when the audience for motor racing is growing in China. F1 reports that its Chinese viewership grew by more than 40% from 2019 to 2020, largely due to free coverage on the state-owned China Central Television and social media. Globally, F1’s recent popularity is credited to the Netflix documentary series, Formula 1: Drive to Survive.
“We’re also looking forward to welcoming all the new Chinese fans who will join the team,” said Alfa Romeo’s team principal, Frédéric Vasseur, in a press statement. “We will do our utmost to make the experience of our sport a great one in China.”
Zhou beamed with national pride when his spot on the Alfa Romeo was confirmed.
Though the viewership in China is growing, Matthew Marsh, a Hong Kong-based F1 analyst and former race car driver describes the audience as still “niche,” with only a small fraction of the country’s 1.4 billion population are tuning in to watch races. He believes that Zhou could be the local hero who could draw more fans and sponsors to the sport.
Skill vs. sponsorships: “pay drivers” in F1
Not everyone however is thrilled about Zhou’s entry to F1. Critics lament that Alfa Romeo picked him over other drivers like the impressive Australian Oscar Piastri because Zhou’s Chinese backers committed $30 million worth of sponsorships to the fledging Swiss-owned team. Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who is bitterly losing his job to Zhou, said that “when money rules, it [F1] is also ruthless.”
Zhou is far from the only driver to enter the sport with significant financial backing. Nikita Mazepin, the Russian driver for Haas, entered the sport on the back of his father’s company’s $22 million investment in the American team; Nicholas Latifi, the Canadian-Iranian driver for Williams, is the son of another billionaire and brings in about $50 million annually. And Lance Stroll, the Canadian-Belgian driver for Aston Martin, drives for a team partly owned by his father.
Beyond the drivers, motor racing requires an army of mechanics, strategists, trainers, and support staff. Mercedes Benz, F1’s dominant team, for instance, had an operating budget of $460 million last year.
“It’s always been a sport where money is absolutely vital importance because it’s so expensive to support,” says Marsh, who used to compete in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans competition. “But anybody who gets to race in a Formula 1 car these days is properly mega [talented].”
Marsh underscores that money aside, it was Zhou’s talent that got him a coveted spot on Alpha Romeo. He’s already proven his mettle by winning several races in F2 and F3, the sport’s minor leagues. Marsh describes Zhou as a “confident and competent driver who doesn’t get into stupid accidents.”
Zhou’s chances of winning a world championship
But as skilled a driver Zhou is, analysts like Marsh doubt that he’ll ever win the world championship. For one, the car he’ll be driving will be inferior to those on top of the standings. But will the Chinese accept anything less than a stellar performance from an athlete that carries its national banner?
Even if he never wins a trophy, Marsh says he hopes that the Chinese fans will have more appreciation for the nuances of the sport instead of putting the blame on Zhou. A similar thing happened to Malaysian driver Alex Yoong who faced backlash after losing his place on F1 after just a year and a half. Yoong, Marsh explains, was saddled with an inferior car which was hard to discern for the casual viewer. Each F1 team has two identical cars driven by two drivers, and their performance is used as a benchmark for performance. “He was bloody good…but Malaysians went with what the national media was saying,” says Marsh. “It went from ‘wow, we’re going to be in Formula 1’ to ‘this is embarrassing for our nation’.
“I hope that there’s enough sophistication in the audience in China to understand that this is the Olympic final—this Wimbledon center court,” Marsh says. “Just to get into Formula 1 is an incredible achievement.”