Zhou Guanyu celebrates on the podium after winning Sunday's Formula 2 Russian Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
Zhou Guanyu made good on his promise to ensure Chinese fans would hear their national anthem at a Formula 1 circuit after the 21-year-old raced to a historic victory over the weekend.
Last season, Zhou Guanyu finished seventh overall to claim F2's best rookie award in a highly encouraging campaign that included five podium finishes and one pole position
Zhou became the first Chinese to win a Formula 2 race by dominating Sunday's F2 Russian Grand Prix, the curtain-raiser to the F1 race, from pole position.
Afterward, an ecstatic Zhou was bursting with pride at the milestone triumph.
"The win means a lot to me, and it probably has been the most significant achievement in my career so far," Zhou told China Daily via telephone on Sunday. "At the very beginning of the season, my goal was to make a breakthrough by bettering my best performance from last season, which was third place.
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"Also I had promised my Chinese fans that I would let them hear the national anthem and see the national flag flying on the highest podium inside the circuit. I have achieved that. It was not easy. I'm touched, proud and thankful."
Zhou has been China's brightest motor-racing star in recent years. Last season, he finished seventh overall to claim F2's best rookie award in a highly encouraging campaign that included five podium finishes and one pole position. Those results helped his UNI-Virtuosi outfit to finish second in the team standings.
Having started in pole on Sunday, Zhou was determined not to let victory slip through his grasp after numerous close calls recently.
"All I could think of before the race was to do my best, and the final result would also need some luck. After all, I had chances of standing on the podium this season before I encountered mechanical failure several times," said Zhou, who went as far to describe his car's technical issues this term as a "major rival".
"The past year has been really tough for me. Only I know how hard it has been. Mechanical failures have denied me chances of podium finishes many times, which were all big setbacks. But my team and I did not give up. We believed the win would come sooner or later."
Second-place Nikita Mazepin praised Zhou's resilience as the Russian pushed hard for an overtake.
Zhou Guanyu takes a corner during the 10th round of the FIA F2 Championship in Sochi, Russia, on Sept 27, 2020. (PHOTO / OSPORTS / CHINA DAILY)
"You know this is a very high-speed circuit, so if you brake a little bit earlier the opportunity comes, and you need to be ready to take it at any time. It is possible. I made a nice, unexpected, move on Jack (Aitken), and I was planning to make another one on Zhou," said Mazepin in the post-race media conference.
"It wasn't that straightforward. He obviously had clean air and was able to get better traction than me. It wasn't easy."
Inevitably, expectations that Zhou can become China's first Formula 1 driver are soaring. The Shanghai native has already gained some F1 experience after signing with the Renault Sport Academy in January 2019. Following his impressive debut F2 campaign last year, Renault announced Zhou as its test driver for the 2020 F1 season in February.
Currently sitting eighth in the F2 driver standings, Zhou reckons there's a lot more hard work ahead of him to realize his dream.
"To become an F1 driver, I certainly have many things to learn and improve. The short-term goal for me now is to deliver great performances in the remaining races of the season," he said.
"Despite the results I've had so far, this year still hasn't been totally satisfactory for me, but I believe people can see how quickly I've developed. There is a still a gap to bridge to make the step up to F1.
"I believe as long as I don't give up easily and keep trying, one day I will fulfill my dream."
The level-headed youngster rates Renault F1 star Daniel Ricciardo as the best example of how to conduct oneself in the sport.
"Among all the current F1 drivers, Ricciardo is my idol. He has great personality and is very nice to people off the track. He's a happy guy and I can feel that he enjoys his racing," Zhou said. "But once he sits behind the steering wheel, he's completely focused on delivering a great performance. I hope I can race with him in F1 races in the future."
With the 2020 F1 and F2 seasons postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhou admits the disruption has been an intense experience for all concerned.
"This season has been very special, and for every driver it can be really exhausting as you need to be extra focused inside the circuit considering there is less time to rest in between races," said Zhou.
"You also need to fly to all the different cities in such a short time and face the difficulties and uncertainties brought by the pandemic.
"So before the season, I had extra physical training to make sure I had the right condition for the intense campaign. I hope the pandemic can be controlled worldwide as soon as possible, so everyone can return to their normal way of life and work."
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