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Is Alfa Romeo wise to extend Zhou's contract?

Is Alfa Romeo wise to extend Zhou's contract?

27 September - 08:53


Guanyu Zhou is likely to sign a new 2023 contract with Alfa Romeo soon. The Chinese has had a reasonable debut in Formula 1, but next year needs a shovel if he wants to stay longer in the king class of motorsport.

Debut in Formula 1

At 23, Zhou is certainly not the youngest rookie in F1 and that experience helps the Chinese in his first F1 season. He went through many junior categories including Italian F4, Formula 3 and Formula 2. In all those classes he managed to win races, although in F3 and F2 he needed three years to compete for wins more often.

After finishing third in the 2021 F2 championship, Zhou made the surprising move to Alfa Romeo. Until then, Zhou had been a junior at Alpine/Renault and there was no place for the Chinese driver there. However, Frederic Vasseur saw that Zhou had the speed and as the first Chinese F1 driver, could also make an interesting market accessible to the team.

That market was reached with Zhou's arrival and, meanwhile, several logos of Chinese sponsors can be seen on Alfa Romeo's C42. There was criticism of the team though, which, with Zhou, seemed to opt for the money after all, where Oscar Piastri and Robert Shwartzman showed much more speed as the respective numbers one and two of that F2 championship.

The criticism quieted somewhat after Zhou's first race for Alfa Romeo. In Bahrain, although Zhou was 1.826s slower than Valtteri Bottas in the second part of qualifying, in the race Zhou moved up to tenth place. As a result, he picked up a point on his debut and the first Chinese F1 point.

Bottas a class apart

With Bottas, Zhou also got an immediate benchmark with his new team. Bottas already has 195 Grands Prix to his name and 10 victories. In addition, he drove for Mercedes, so he knows what it takes for a team to become world champion. Alfa Romeo can learn a lot from this, but so can Zhou.

Despite Bottas' CV, he too is new within Alfa Romeo. He has his experience, but the Finn will also have to get to know the team, work with new engineers and make the car his own. This also takes time for Bottas, so he too will improve as time goes by.

In that respect, the gap between the two drivers is worrisome. The qualifying duel is 11-4 in Bottas' favour with an average difference of 0.587s per qualifying session. Only the difference between Alexander Albon and Nicholas Latifi at Williams is bigger (0.641s), and there the loser has to leave the team.

On Sunday, we see the same picture. Of the seven races that both crossed the finish line, Zhou finished ahead of Bottas only once. As a result, the difference in points is also huge: 46 to 6 points. In the exciting battle in the constructors' championship, Alfa Romeo cannot afford a big gap between two drivers. Losing a place in the rankings also costs a lot of money, and then you may wonder if the Chinese money outweighs that?

Schumacher and Audi

It speaks in Zhou's favour that he cannot often be caught making big mistakes. Whereas younger rookies like Mick Schumacher, Nikita Mazepin and Yuki Tsunoda often ended up in the wall in their first year, you can see with Zhou that with all his experience he makes far fewer mistakes. In fact, the crash in Imola is the only outlier in this respect, which is not much for a rookie.

Still, Zhou needs to drive faster in 2023 if he is to have a long future in F1. His money is nice, but not the only reason Alfa Romeo appointed him. He will also have to show speed. In principle, you would expect that with more experience he should be able to close the gap to Bottas, but the Finn is also still learning within his new team and so will also grow. It is up to Zhou to show that there is even more potential in him.

There will also be more pressure on Zhou in 2023, as in all likelihood Audi will soon announce that it will partner Sauber from 2024. Audi reportedly wants a German driver in the team and Mick Schumacher is an ideal candidate for that. Zhou will therefore have to improve to convince the new management by then that he represents more value than Schumacher.

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