Zhou driven by 'Mamba mentality'

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Zhou Guanyu sits behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN C38 during testing on Dec 14 at the Yas Marina Circuit in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. CHINA DAILY

Zhou Guanyu is ready to bring the 'Mamba mentality' to the Formula 1 track when he makes his historic debut in the sport next year.

The 22-year-old was named China's first F1 driver when he joined Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN in November, and has chosen 24 as his race number-a nod to late basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

"I picked the number 24 to honor my idol Kobe Bryant who has been my hero even before I started my racing career," Zhou told China Daily in an exclusive online live chat on Weibo on Thursday.

"I've read many books about him. I learned that, even for a successful sports star like him, hard work and diligence are necessary to stay in peak condition. I need to follow his example and I want to show his 'Mamba mentality' on the F1 track.

"Also, the first F1 race I ever participated in was actually an esports race. I won the Bahrain race with the number 24. That number brought me positive energy, and I want this number to continue to inspire me throughout my racing career."

Zhou and new Alfa Romeo teammate Valtteri Bottas will begin their 2022 campaign on March 20 at the Bahrain Grand Prix, but he is already familiarizing himself with his new wheels.

"Actually it's been very busy for me recently. I've been away from home for over a month for the F2 races. And right after the F2 campaign finished, I started working with my F1 team to prepare for next season," said Zhou.

"The team and I need to make a lot of adjustments, such as the setup of the steering wheel. I might be able to have a week or two's rest after Christmas."

Zhou says he is already building good chemistry with Finnish veteran Bottas, 32, who arrives at Alfa Romeo from Mercedes after five years alongside seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

"The Alfa Romeo car feels great. Each car is different, and I'm adjusting to the new car quickly. All the tests have gone smoothly so far, and the pace and times have been better than the team's original expectations. I feel I fit in pretty well," said Zhou, who began testing earlier this month.

"I know next season, the car will feel totally different as there will be big changes next year. But it's not a problem for me to get used to the new car. I'm very positive about next season.

"I've already had a lot of interaction with Valtteri during testing, especially in terms of our feedback on the car and what I can learn from him. He's a really nice person and very open on a professional level. It will be a great learning experience."

Knowing Afla Romeo team principal Frederic Vasseur from his F3 days is also helping Zhou transition to F1, and he described their reunion as "unbelievable".

"I will need to keep cooperating with the team, including participating in the coming winter testing sessions," Zhou added.

"I will need to have more discussions with the engineers and team members. We've established a good process, and the engineers are familiar with my driving habits and style."

Learning curve

Zhou arrives in F1 on the back of his most successful F2 campaign, finishing third overall thanks to victories in Bahrain, Monaco, and Silverstone, before rounding off the season with a sprint race triumph and feature race runner-up finish at the final round in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.

"I would give myself eight points out of 10 for the past F2 season. The final result was beyond my original expectations. Of course, I wanted to win the F2 championship, but my goal had been a top-three finish in the driver standings to show that I could consistently produce solid drives," said Zhou.

"My results in 2020 weren't ideal, but this season I led the F2 driver standings for the first few rounds. There were ups and downs during the middle of the season, but the victory in Abu Dhabi was a great ending to the 2021 season. I'm satisfied with my overall performance, but there is still room for improvement."

Zhou has raced in F2 since 2019, finishing seventh in his rookie season. Last year, he managed six podium finishes, including a breakthrough pole-to-flag sprint race victory in Russia en route to a sixth-place finish in the overall standings.

"Before the start of this F2 season, I was braced for more pressure as I knew this could very possibly be my last F2 season, and therefore my performances could directly impact my future. I told myself I needed to show my full potential at the very beginning of the season," he added.

"I had huge pressure at Monza this year because there was a lot of speculation in the media about my whereabouts next season. So that brought higher expectations and extra attention. I have to admit I felt the pressure, and I wanted to make the necessary adjustments and knew I should not even make a small mistake. I needed to ensure everything was right on the track and produce great performances.

"Then in Sochi things didn't go according to plan, so that just made me even more determined to stand on the highest podium again in the final leg. The entire process was a fight within my inner self. I needed to keep a cool head, and I definitely matured a lot through it all."

Another highlight of Zhou's 2021 was his practice drive at F1's Austrian Grand Prix, where he stepped in for Fernando Alonso, an idol of his since childhood.

Zhou instantly showed he could mix it with F1 heavyweights like Hamilton and Max Verstappen to place 14th on medium tires in Friday's first free practice at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg.

"I remember I heard on the team radio that Hamilton was six seconds behind and (Max) Verstappen was 10 seconds behind. All these names brought back memories from even before my career. They were our idols, but now all of a sudden I was able to race on the same track with them. It was unbelievable for me," he said.

Zhou's promotion to F1 fulfills a childhood dream which first formed when he attended the 2004 Chinese Grand Prix. The roar of the engines and speed of the cars at Shanghai International Circuit that day ignited the young Zhou's racing ambitions, and at 12 years old he moved to the UK to pursue his dream.

"There were no Chinese F1 racing drivers before me, so I had no one to learn from. I moved to the UK for a better racing environment. It was a bold decision, as I thought maybe I didn't have much of a chance of succeeding," said Zhou. "So I want to thank my family and my team who have stuck with me during the entire process."

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