Race Weekend Central

F1 Midweek: Zhou Guanyu Confirms China’s Potential for F1

Any driver’s home race is an occasion. A driver’s home race on a stage the size of Formula 1 is significant. A driver’s first home race on that stage is a milestone. And a country’s first driver’s first home race is history, even if only for the driver and their fellow countrymen.

For both himself, and his country, Zhou Guanyu got to make history at the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix.

Judging from the action on track, the significance of the occasion wasn’t immediately evident. The Shanghai International Circuit had been vacant from the F1 calendar for four seasons until Sunday’s (April 21) race, having last appeared on the schedule in 2019 before the event was canceled after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, China is so back, and Zhoumania came with it. For the first time since 2004, the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix, the track drew a sellout crowd, no doubt driven by the hometown hero’s presence on the grid; be honest, it certainly wasn’t because the fans thought somebody other than Max Verstappen would win.

“Just a very emotional weekend,” Zhou said on the Post Race Show. “As much as I try to stay focused on my job, it’s difficult to… you know, seeing how the crowd is cheering. Just fantastic.” 

When asked what it would have meant to his younger self when he finally got to take lights out in his home country, Zhou was frank.

“I would say he made it, you know,” he said. “He made it, there’s no other sentence to describe it. It’s been such a touch journey to have no [manufacturers] involved to help me make my way to Formula 1 … And yeah, first contract, first season, but then no home race, so three years to finally get back here. So, I’m looking forward to many more.”

Both Shanghai’s return to the calendar and China’s chance to see one of its drivers race on home soil were long overdue. Since Zhou came onto the F2 grid in 2019, it was largely understood that he was destined for F1. Sometimes described as a pay driver, the Shanghai native collected five wins across three full-time seasons in F2, scoring a third-place result in the drivers’ standings before moving up to F1 with Alfa Romeo for 2022.

At the time of Zhou’s signing to Alfa Romeo in late 2021, a deal to extend the Chinese Grand Prix through 2025 was already on the way, despite the event being all-but-surely canceled for 2022. I’ve rambled about the relationship between China and F1 plenty already, but it seems, currently, rather difficult to overstate the strategic significance which the suits at Liberty Media have learned to place on China.

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Rumors have floated in and out of circulation regarding a hypothetical second Chinese Grand Prix, but what happened in Shanghai this weekend is more important. After years of forgettable attendance and financial difficulty for the circuit and event, people in China cared about F1 again.

First, and most obvious, people showed up. In motorsport, the carousel of dissatisfied fans never really stops. A series doesn’t go to a track, fans are furious and want it back, but when the track was alive, attendance wasn’t there. The relief was palpable in seeing fans show up and sell out the house to see their country’s flag represented on the grid in person.

Zhou was even the subject of a documentary film chronicling his career to date. The film’s name, 中国车手周冠宇, literally translated as Chinese Driver Zhou Guanyu, or The First One, for English marketing, says more than I could in this entire column; best believe I’ll keep trying though.

Zhou is not Ayrton Senna, or Michael Schumacher, whose names alone carried their respective documentaries. But he is, as far as China needs to be concerned, the first one. Between this and the sold out home crowd, how much clearer can it be what this driver, and consequently the race itself, could come to mean to China?

This is not to say that Zhou’s presence on the F1 grid will directly bring F1’s presence and marketability in China to another level, of course, but it is to say that three decades after the country began its flirtation with the pinnacle of motorsport, two major bases are finally covered.

The Chinese Grand Prix is back, and given China’s COVID policy since late 2022, there’s no reason to assume the race will be so unceremoniously sidelined by domestic actors in the future. There’s a Chinese driver, on the grid, full time. This is a massive step up from Ma Qinghua’s infrequent practice appearances with HRT and Caterham in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Bring ART Motorsports to the grid and the People’s Republic will have hit the trifecta.

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Let 1.4 billion people see their flag, language, history represented at the highest level of motorsport, and the possibilities become nigh on endless.

I know I’m on a soapbox here, but stick with me for one more point.

Some will say that representation is secondary, or insignificant, to use the most politically correct term available. The merit of this point or lack thereof aside, what separates a market like China, like India from a country like Germany, is that F1 was born and evolved without the DNA of these countries and societies.

Nobody in their right mind could argue that F1 can be separated from Great Britain. Imagine trying to separate motorsport as a whole from France. NASCAR from the United States? MotoGP from Spain or Italy? Lacking a major, internationally recognizable domestic series of its own, it only makes sense to pitch F1 to the Chinese market as much as is humanly possible. The same goes for the even more populous market of India.

If this international expansion has to come at the cost of a historic track or two in Europe, honestly, I can live with it. It’s the circle of life, is it not?

With this weekend, Zhou and the Shanghai crowd have placed, intentionally or otherwise, a serious question in front of the powers that be. How high can this be built? Attendance for the British Grand Prix, for example, dwarfs that in China, but it also dwarfs the attendance in Japan. To be sure, China’s 2024 attendance matched Japan’s 2022 attendance, the year where Japan also returned to the calendar from a COVID-induced absence.

Whatever the zeitgeist of international politics may have to say about China, F1 cannot afford to look away.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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