Practice makes perfect as Zhou enjoys 'amazing' F1 debut

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Zhou Guanyu sits behind the wheel of Fernando Alonso's Alpine A521 car during the first free practice session for last weekend's Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg. XINHUA

Finishing ahead of former world champion Sebastian Vettel, Zhou Guanyu had every reason to describe his official Formula 1 debut as "amazing" at the Austrian Grand Prix over the weekend.

Driving in place of another F1 great, Fernando Alonso, the 22-year-old Zhou clocked an impressive 1 minute 06.414 seconds, mainly run on medium tires, to place 14th in Friday's first free practice at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg.

That was less than half a second behind Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon, who used faster soft tires. Zhou's accomplished drive providing yet more evidence that his dream of becoming China's first F1 driver is increasingly within reach.

"It was amazing," Zhou told of his debut. "I'm really thankful for this opportunity-the team believing in me stepping into Fernando's car. I had to take care of it, but I was also pushing as much as I could to show my full potential.

"I used my first set of tires to get into a rhythm, and from the second set I was able to explore myself as much as I wanted to."

"It was not a perfect lap. I locked up in a few parts, but in the end, I'm happy with the lap time," added Zhou, who is Alpine's reserve driver and was one of nine racers in the first session to have Formula 2 experience.

Red Bull's championship leader Max Verstappen topped the time sheet (1:05.143), with defending world champion Lewis Hamilton seventh (1:05.709) in his Mercedes.

"I went through all the lap times with Esteban and I think we were actually quite similar. Less than two-tenths on the same compound tires.

"I'm happy with how it went and I definitely proved myself here, but there's still a lot of work to be done in the background and to keep improving more in the future.

"At the end, we were actually quite fast with the medium tires and the team was really happy with the job we've done. We actually did a lot rather than just focus on the lap time. We were mainly focused on getting the new setup changed to help the team.

"And the lap time was also there, so that's another thing less to worry about. Now we really just focus on the future and what more I can bring to the team."

Zhou became the second Chinese mainland driver to appear in an official F1 session after Ma Qinghua, who made five practice appearances for Caterham and HRT. Hong Kong racer Adderly Fong Cheun-yue also drove practice sessions at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for Sauber.

Zhou's career could hardly be progressing much better right now. He sits proudly atop the F2 driver standings on 78 points after beginning his third campaign in the championship with a feature race victory in Bahrain in March. In May in Monte Carlo, he continued that fine form with a sprint race triumph at the iconic Monaco street circuit.

Typically, though, he is keeping his feet on the ground, and remains well aware of how difficult it will be to achieve his F1 dream.

"It felt special to drive FP1 (free practice 1) today. I'm really happy with all my runs and I was able to get familiar with the tires early on," Zhou said.

"I didn't expect to be up to speed so quickly and the pace was definitely there on the mediums. I felt good this morning, and I was getting more confident on each lap. I just wanted to build it up steadily and grow into the session.

"I'd like to thank the team for the opportunity, it was certainly very special. Hopefully I made everyone proud and there will be more moments like this later in my career."

It certainly looks that way after Zhou earned a resounding thumbs-up from his team.

"We've had a productive day and it's been a different Friday to usual. Firstly, we had Zhou in the car this morning. He did a very good job, didn't make any mistakes and put in some competitive lap times," said Davide Brivio, Alpine's racing director.

"He can be pleased with his performance and work, and we're very happy for him. We also tested the prototype tire in both sessions in preparation for the next race, which was good."

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