Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (2024)

For Sauber's Zhou Guanyu, the return of China's grand prix after a five-year absence this weekend marks a significant moment in his own career and the country's interrupted Formula 1 story.

On Sunday, Zhou will become the first home driver to race in the Chinese GP when the Shanghai International Circuit stages a Grand Prix for the first time since 2019, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2024 event will be the 18th running of the race, on the 20th anniversary of its 2004 debut, but never before has a Chinese driver taken the starting grid there. The closest a local driver came before now was when Ma Qinghua appeared in a Friday practice session for Caterham in 2013.

Zhou, a teenage Formula 2 driver at the time of F1's last visit to the country, says the return of the race - and the fact there is finally a local driver in the field - has whetted appetite among what he says is a growing Chinese fanbase in the years the sport has been away.

"There's been a massive impact," Zhou told Sky Sports.

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"A lot of people who stopped watching F1 are returning to watch it and the young generation is getting into the sport, which is such a nice thing for me because I want to grow motorsport back home.

"It's going to be a massive one this year, having a home race. That feeling of a live event and emotion, there will be a lot of people and it's going to be an exciting event in front of the home fans."

Also See:

What F1 now has over the Champions League in China

In a country of 1.4bn people, Zhou's status is unique.

The 24-year-old is now in his third season of F1 at Sauber and is due to reach his half-century of starts at the next event in Miami. He has a best race finish of eighth so far from 2022's Canadian Grand Prix.

Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (2)

As for his following back at home, Zhou says: "We wear masks, so it covers half of my face! But it's quite easy to get recognised, especially in places where there are young people.

"So you get recognised but I find it's not a bad thing. It's nice to see how much you have impacted your country."

Amid strong competition for audiences from other sports, Zhou says F1's popularity is on the rise in China and that his place on the grid gives the country something they do not currently have elsewhere.

"Football and basketball are very big [in China]," he said.

"But in those sports, you don't have a Chinese player who is in the Champions League or competing in the NBA.

"We like to see our own country do well, so hopefully one day I can step on the podium and F1 is definitely growing in the last few years."

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Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (3)

'I was there watching every single year in the grandstand'

Zhou was five years old when F1 first came to Shanghai, the city of his birth, in September 2004 amid a period of expansion for the sport in Asia and the Middle East.

Built on swampland in a province around 18 miles outside of the city at a then-record cost of $450m, the Shanghai International Circuit wowed at the time for both its sheer size - the site covers 5.3 square kilometres - and space-age design, particularly the vast 29,000 main grandstand and accompanying structure over the pit straight.

Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (4)

Crucially, the circuit's 3.4-mile track quickly proved itself good for close racing too.

Designed in the shape of the Chinese character 'shang', which means above, the layout of the ever-tightening Turns One and Two are all-but guaranteed to provide action at the race start, while the medium-speed turns through the middle of the lap provide a challenge for drivers.

The 1km-long back straight leading into a hairpin has proved the scene of numerous overtakes - and costly collisions - over the years.

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Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (5)

Rubens Barrichello won that inaugural race for Ferrari, with Lewis Hamilton since going on to become the most successful driver at the track with six wins from 2008 to 2019.

Zhou, a Fernando Alonso fan as a child, recalls: "I have incredible memories of the Shanghai International Circuit because as a kid I was there watching every single year in the grandstand."

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Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (6)

Years later and it'll now be the next-generation of young fans and aspiring drivers looking up to Zhou from trackside this weekend, either from a grandstand in the local star's own name or from one of the other similarly sold-out viewing points around the circuit.

"I was at the dinner table at eight o'clock, that was when the ticket was selling, and then people were just texting me that my grandstand had been sold out in four minutes," says Zhou.

"In reality, the first 10 minutes, because the app was shutting down by too many users trying to buy the tickets!

"It's great news, I think, especially for China, coming back after five seasons, to finally have the Grand Prix there and just to see the whole audience, how much it's been growing, has been built over the last past few years.

Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (7)

"It's great to see. Also, a lot of the young generations, they are starting go karts, racing abroad more often compared to the age I was, moving out to try to do racing in motorsports or to gradually get into Formula 1.

"So, it's exciting, not just my grandstand, the whole ticket has been sold out for the Grand Prix, so can't wait for that. And it's a Sprint weekend, so I think the fans can definitely have more entertainment and there will be more racing action going on so it's going to be a memorable weekend."

Sky Sports F1's live Chinese GP schedule

Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (8)

Thursday April 18
5.30am: Drivers' press conference

Friday April 19
4am: Chinese GP Practice One (session starts at 4.30am)*
8am: Chinese GP Sprint Qualifying (session starts at 8.30am)*

Saturday April 20
3.30am: Chinese GP Sprint (race starts at 4am)*
7am: Chinese GP Qualifying build-up*
8am: Chinese GP Qualifying*
10am: Ted's Qualifying Notebook*

Sunday April 21
7am: Grand Prix Sunday: Chinese GP build-up*
8am: The CHINESE GRAND PRIX*
10am: Chequered Flag: Chinese GP reaction*
11am: Ted's Notebook*

*also live on Sky Sports Main Event

Next up is the return of the Chinese Grand Prix on April 19-21, which is also the first Sprint weekend of the season. You can watch every session live on Sky Sports F1 and steam every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership - No contract, cancel anytime

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Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (9)

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Chinese GP: Zhou Guanyu on impact of Shanghai race's return and F1 vs Champions League (2024)

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