Column | Money allows Zhou's ascent to F1 at the expense of better drivers

20-09-2021 07:00 | Updated: 20-09-2021 08:44
Column | Money allows Zhou's ascent to F1 at the expense of better drivers

With a flurry of driver transfers in the past few weeks (from Russell’s anticipated promotion to Mercedes to Albon’s chance at redemption at Williams), only one seat of the 2022 grid remains unfilled. Alfa Romeo have confirmed Valterri Bottas for 2022, with the Finn departing Mercedes after a five year stint alongside Lewis Hamilton. However, Kimi Raikkonen’s retirement means that the second Alfa Romeo seat is still up for grabs, and there is a shortlist of drivers under consideration.

Antonio Giovinazzi

The most obvious contender for the second Alfa Romeo seat is Antonio Giovinazzi. The Italian driver is in his third season in F1, and is the current holder of that prized seat. Most pundits would agree that he has been one of the more anonymous drivers on the grid, slipping under the radar and not delivering noteworthy performances. However, any pressure surrounding his seat for 2022 has certainly motivated the Italian. With standout qualifying performances in Monaco, Zandvoort, and Monza (placing tenth, seventh, and eighth respectively), the 27-year-old seems to be in the best form of his life. 

This recent uptake in performance is reflected by the data, which shows how Giovinazzi has improved his qualifying performances relative to teammate Kimi Raikkonen. In 2019, Giovinazzi was outqualified 11-8 by his Finnish teammate, a marginal 0.002% slower than the Finn. In 2020, the qualifying head-to-head was 9-8 in favor of Giovinazzi, who was on average 0.068% faster than his teammate. 

The Italian’s biggest improvements come from this season, where has convincingly beaten his experienced teammate 9-2 across the first eleven races this season, a staggering 0.518% faster than the former world champion. For reference, that is roughly three times the gap between Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz (which sits around 0.174% in favor of the Monegasque driver). 

Race pace is more difficult to assess, due to differing variables such as strategy and traffic. However, Giovinazzi has grown leaps and bounds in this aspect as well; he went from being 0.268% slower in race pace per lap in 2019 to being only 0.004% off his teammate’s race pace per lap in 2020. 

Where Giovinazzi lacks relative to his teammate is in racecraft and consistency. The Finnish driver seems to be more adept in sneaking the odd point or two when disaster strikes the frontrunners, a fact that is supported by the driver’s standings. Giovinazzi on the other hand is more crash-prone - one only has to consider his last lap crash in the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix while running in the points, his qualifying crash in this year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix which cost him any chance of Q3, or his unsafe reentry and subsequent tangle with Carlos Sainz in the recent Italian Grand Prix.

The most interesting piece of the puzzle is his position as a Ferrari Junior Driver. The Maranello outfit is a power unit supplier for Alfa Romeo. Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto stated to that he was in favor of keeping Giovinazzi, although he acknowledged, “I think that's really a choice of the team. The team are really independent on the choice of their driver, which is important for us as well. . . we cannot influence the team decision”. 

While Giovinazzi is a member of their driver academy, the odds are slim that he drives for Ferrari anytime soon. Carlos Sainz has acclimated better than most expected this year, as he sits only 6.5 points behind teammate Charles Leclerc in the driver’s standings. Ferrari have arguably the best driver lineup this year, and have no reason to change it heading into the new regulations. With talents such as Mick Schumacher at Haas and Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman waiting for the step up to F1, Giovinazzi’s recent performances may be too little too late.

Guanyu Zhou

By most reports, Guanyu Zhou is the frontrunner for the remaining Alfa Romeo seat. The Italian branch of reports that Zhou has already signed the deal with Alfa Romeo. However, such a deal would be contingent on if Zhou secures his superlicense.

Zhou currently has 29 out of the required 40 points necessary to obtain the superlicense. The Chinese driver currently sits second in the F2 driver’s standings, which would earn a sufficient amount of superlicense points as it stands. However, this year’s F2 championship is tightly contested; if Zhou slips to sixth or below in the standings then he won’t have enough points for the superlicense. 

Zhou’s resume is not as stellar as the likes of recent talents such as George Russell and Charles Leclerc, both of whom dominated the junior series en route to Formula 1. The 22-year-old finished eighth in his two seasons in the F3 championship, behind teammates Callum Ilott and Mick Schumacher. In 2019, he finished his rookie F2 campaign in seventh (four places behind teammate Luca Ghiotto), which he only bettered by one position the following year (again being beaten by teammate Callum Ilott). The Chinese driver won the Asian F3 championship earlier this year, albeit against a far less competitive grid. 

What Zhou brings is money - a lot of it. The Spanish Marca reports that Zhou would bring as much as 30 million euros in sponsorship money for Alfa Romeo. It’s not hard to see why - China is a key growth market for F1, and having a Chinese driver (the first in history) would only increase the sport’s popularity there. Those 30 million euros could be crucial to Alfa Romeo, a team currently languishing in ninth in the constructor’s standings. 

Alfa Romeo team principal Frederic Vasseur confirmed his candidacy earlier this month, telling Reuters, ”Zhou is doing a good job in F2; for sure he’s on the list. It's not only due to the fact that he’s Chinese, that he’s a front runner in F2. He’s won some races and I think every single team in F1 is looking at him.”

It is worthwhile to note that Zhou is an Alpine Academy driver. Thus he would likely have to sever ties with the French team if he signs for Alfa Romeo, although that is the price he must pay for an F1 seat.

Théo Pourchaire

Pourchaire currently sits fifth in the F2 standings in his rookie season. At 18 years old, the Frenchman is tipped as one of the most promising talents, alongside the likes of Oscar Piastri. In 2020, he finished second in the F3 season in only his first year at the age of 17. He has already shown glimpses of his immense talent this year, most notably his sublime pole lap half a second clear of his opposition in Monaco (which he followed up with a dominant feature race victory).

His position as a member of the Sauber Junior Team only strengthens his bid for that second Alfa Romeo seat. However, Pourchaire would benefit from another year in Formula 2 to hone his craft. Despite his talents, he still lacks the necessary experience to excel in the highest tier of motorsport. We have already seen instances in the past in which promising drivers were promoted too quickly. 

The ideal solution would be for Alfa Romeo to take Zhou (and his sponsorship money) for 2022, rebuild team infrastructure, and then take Pourchaire for 2023 and establish him as a long-term project (similar to what McLaren have done with Lando Norris).

The Other Contenders

Oscar Piastri currently leads the Formula 2 standings in only his first campaign, ahead of main contender Guanyu Zhou. The Australian already has a stellar junior resume, winning F3 last year against the likes of Pourchaire, Logan Sargeant, Frederik Vesti, and Dennis Hauger. However, he doesn’t bring as much sponsorship money as his Chinese counterpart, and his ties with the Alpine Academy only complicates matters. If he wins the Formula 2 championship this year, then he is obligated to move to another racing series, whether it be Indycar or DTM. 

Piastri has admitted he is targeting a 2023 drive, as he conceded to Nine's Wide World of Sports, “I'm not really in the frame at Alfa Romeo, to be blunt. I don't think it's going to be me. I don't really know much about it, which is a fair indication that I'm not really in contention.”

None of the Ferrari junior drivers are in serious contention with the exception of Giovinazzi. Robert Shwartzman didn’t live up to pre-season expectations, as he currently sits third in the F2 standings, 36 points behind Piastri. Likewise, Marcus Armstrong needs more time to develop his craft, as he is currently fourteenth in the F2 standings. Callum Ilott seems to be off to Indycar, and Mick Schumacher is confirmed for Haas next year. 

It is understood that Nyck de Vries is also under consideration, although his ties with Mercedes may complicate a potential deal with the Ferrari-supplied team. Alfa Romeo reserve driver Robert Kubica is not optimistic with his chances either, understandably so as he was far off the pace in his return to F1 in 2019. The Pole told, “Realistically, I think there are some other drivers who are probably higher on the list.”

Barring any catastrophe, it seems that Bottas-Zhou is the most likely Alfa Romeo lineup for 2022. Money and commercial interests have always been a part of F1, and Zhou’s case is no different. Unfortunately, these interests sometimes come at the expense of more qualified drivers. Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to see how the second Alfa Romeo seat fares alongside the newly resurgent Valterri Bottas.

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