Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 void for 2021?

Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
As soon as the 2020 Formula 2 season begins in Austria, a Formula 1 junior will be facing the most important campaign of his career to secure a place in F1, as FRANKIE MAO explains
It was shortly after midnight on May 11 in Shanghai when Guanyu Zhou celebrated his first victory in the virtual F2 series at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Fittingly, it was exactly a year after the Chinese driver won the first podium of his debut season in F2 at the same location.
In early 2019, when Zhou landed on the renamed Virtuosi Racing team that previously ran the Russian Time team, nobody really knew what he was talking about in a FIA formula from a driver with two wins and three pole positions from his three seasons 3 could expect European Championship.
But when the 21-year-old came back from 10th on the grid after a braking problem in the Bahrain feature race and did not get the recognition he deserved, this was the 21st-year’s first visit to the F2 podium at the Barcelona Feature Race - only The third round of the season caused observers from the Formula 1 paddock to raise their eyebrows.
Zhou, who switched to the Renault Sport Academy before the 2019 season, would later prove that his result in Barcelona wasn't a flash in the pan. Two further podium finishes in Silverstone - where he took pole position - and Abu Dhabi, strengthened by the sprint racing podiums in Monaco and Paul Ricard on the way to seventh place in the overall ranking.
He was named rookie of the year, named in honor of the former Renault junior contemporary Anthoine Hubert. Although he did not win a race, he was significantly ahead of his former F3 teammate and rookie colleague Mick Schumacher, who had won a sprint race at the Hungaroring.
"Although the first win has not yet come, I am pleased with my results last year, especially when I was battling for the podium against other older drivers," said Zhou, looking back at his rookie F2 campaign.
Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
"I was able to compete for podiums against her in the main race and not the sprint race, which was my original goal. In fact, most of my podium finishes were earned from race one, and last year I was the only rookie on the podium. " on Saturday. Apart from a win, it still feels great. "
Renault's Formula 1 team boss, Cyril Abiteboul, who also oversees the French manufacturer's junior program, was equally impressed.
In all respects, the progress made with Renault in 2019 is really promising for Zhou, who is determined to become the first Chinese F1 racing driver in the near future.
"My goal is to finish the season in the top three - the top four will be fine - as long as I get the points I need to get a super license. I don't want to miss any opportunities," said said Guanyu Zhou
At a press conference that Renault China arranged ahead of the Chinese New Year, Zhou simply smiled when asked by an experienced journalist whether he had confidence in reaching his ultimate goal, and answered firmly, "I do."
He added, "I don't think anyone else [from China] has had such results. I've played the Chinese national anthem in European F3 before, and now we've seen the Chinese national flag fly in F2. I'm really proud shows what Chinese are capable of.
"I think what is really important is that this result is expressed in every sport. As long as you have the result, people will know that Chinese [drivers] can do well in motorsport."
While the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the new F2 season, Zhou, who will be returning with Virtuosi alongside the British Callum Ilott, is prominently represented at sim racing events and has appeared in four of his five appearances in the Virtual Grand Prix series F1 on the podium with Renault and victory in the first race in Bahrain.
Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
Zhou admits that he has spent several hours each day with his simulator to reproduce the concentration required for real races, and sees the results in the Virtual Grand Prix series as nothing more than encouragement before resuming real races a top 4 result F2 enough to give him enough points to apply for the F1 super license.
The vacancy that Daniel Ricciardo left at McLaren for 2021 means that this year is even more important for Zhou. Since Renault returned to F1 as a factory team in 2016, Abiteboul has been talking about making its own future star, and that's exactly what Ricciardo's current teammate Esteban Ocon does.
But despite the rumors that the great world champions Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel associated with the seat, Abiteboul did not rule out the possibility of picking up a driver from his own junior pool if he spoke to Autosport as part of the #thinkingforward series put on the line that a replacement for Ricciardo will only be chosen after the start of the season.
"We want to see how fast Guanyu Zhou is, how fast [Renault Junior and F2 racer] Christian [Lundgaard] their competitiveness. They could be fantastic options," said Abiteboul.
"As we speak, it's a little bold to think that, but who knows? With another season of F2 for them, it might be the right thing. And that's usually the kind of thing we couldn't decide on when the decision had to speed up with Daniel. "
Regardless of Abiteboul's alleged zeal to make no decision, Zhou says he must continue to deliver in his own campaign to keep his name in the picture.
"My goal is to finish the season in the top three - the first four will be fine - as long as I get the points I need for a super license," he says. "If there is a chance, I don't want to miss it."
Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
Although the global economic impact of the pandemic raises concerns that some F2 drivers will struggle to survive the season, the field is still impressive.
In addition to the returning Schumacher and FIA F3 champion Robert Shwartzman at Prema, F2 2019 runner-up and Zou's former teammate Luca Ghiotto will lead the attack for the new Hitech team. The proven race winners Louis Deletraz, Jack Aitken and Nobuharu Matsushita also want to face a title challenge with Charouz, Campos and MP Motorsport.
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Zhou was the best rookie qualifier last year - his Silverstone pole was the only time qualifying was crowned by a rookie all year round - and he made two more front row starts with Paul Ricard and Monza . Nevertheless, he knows that he has to improve his game in order to achieve his goal. Constant performance in the main race is one of the key areas that he wants to address.
"This year I have higher expectations because if you want to be in the top spot in the championship, you have to focus more on the first race that offers the full points," Guanyu Zhou
In the eleven laps of last year, Zhou's average target position for feature races was 4.8, while it was 6th for the sprint race - but two DNFs for feature races in Baku and Monza lower that average.
"At the beginning of last year, my goal was to fight for the podium in the second race of the weekend, but my first podium came in the first race in Barcelona," he says.
"This year, of course, I have higher expectations because if you want to finish in the championship, you have to focus more on the first race that offers the full points. It will be my priority this season."
Avoiding wasted time in midfield is another element he identified.
"This is definitely an area that I need to improve, which I think I can do from last year's experience," he says. "It's only about strategy if you are in the middle.
Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
"If you push too aggressively at the beginning to overtake the cars in front, you will absolutely lose your tires and cost a lot of time in the second half of the race. So tire management will be crucial. But I am confident that I can." take another step. "
Tire management could be difficult for all drivers switching to Pirelli's new 18-inch tire this year, but Zhou is optimistic that the experience he and his colleague Ilott can bring to the table in the second year will work against the learning curve becomes.
"As this year's tire has changed, I hope that our team can adapt to it as early as possible and find the best setup for our cars, especially at the beginning of the season," said Zhou. "We have two drivers in our second full season in a row, which should help the team improve on last year's lessons.
"The first races will have many consecutive weekends. If we manage to get a good set-up to score as many points as possible, with experience as our advantage, the second half of the season will do. easier.
"I hope the car can do what I want and we could get good results."
If Zhou manages to tick all the boxes, the young man himself and the nation behind it will be one step closer to fulfilling the dream they share.
Is this the driver who could fill Renault's F1 gap?
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