Money does talk in F1 but Guanyu Zhou is joining the grid on merit


You can argue that other F2 drivers deserve a shot in a grand prix car, but Guanyu Zhou has also earned his chance at F1, writes Chris Medland

Guanyu Zhou celebrates F2 victory at Silverstone

Zhou passed polesitter Oscar Piastri at Silverstone to take victory in this year's feature race

Sebastiaan Rozendaal/DPPI

I know that I don’t need to tell anybody reading these pages that motor racing is an expensive sport. Really expensive.

I play football regularly – just a five-a-side thing on a Monday night – that costs a grand total of £5 each time I play, plus about £100 in total when you add up the cost of the boots, socks, shorts and tops I’ve bought over time to play in.

Karting is also a hobby whenever I get the chance, but it’s much more limited by finances. That’s close to £100 per race just to enter, before you factor in a helmet that was six-times that, plus a race suit, gloves and boots. When you add in all the other bits of clothing, you’ve spent nearly four figures before you’re asked to part with each race fee. And that’s just an arrive-and-drive casual event to compare to the football.

With such a disparity at grassroots, obviously those gaps widen the further up the ladder you go and more seriously you take things. The cost of racing for a junior driver is obscene, with seven figures needed by most to race in Formula 2. But that’s what it costs.

So when Antonio Giovinazzi posted on Instagram in response to his departure from Alfa Romeo, it was romantic but it wasn’t realistic.

“F1 is emotion, talent, cars, risk, speed,” Giovinazzi wrote. “But when money rules it can be ruthless. I hope to change my mind about this soon. I believe in the surprise of an unexpected result, of big or small victories achieved thanks to one’s commitment.”

Giovinazzi is 27 years old, and he fought hard to reach F1, where he picked up a grand total of 19 points. 14 of them came in his first season, and ten of those were scored in a chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix where he was fifth behind team-mate Kimi Räikkönen. Or to put it another way, he scored nine points across the other 58 races he has contested.

I really liked Giovinazzi and his (usual) positivity, plus his occasional really strong performances in an Alfa Romeo that was inconsistent, but it’s hardly like Ayrton Senna has just been dropped.

Kimi Raikkonen fights with Antonio Giovinazzi in the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

Giovinazzi lost out in his battle with Räikkönen at Interlagos

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

But the problem is, the reaction seems to be fueled based on the driver who is replacing him, and too often a driver gets associated with money, or doesn’t, and that massively clouds the way they are judged.

It’s exactly what has happened with Guanyu Zhou, who is second in the Formula 2 standings and as a Chinese driver is viewed as having huge commercial potential. What hardly anyone seems to be saying is that based on this season’s form, he’s the second best prospect in the F1 feeder series and therefore fully worthy of a shot.

Part of that comes from the fact that the best prospect – Oscar Piastri – looks set to secure back-to-back championships as a rookie in F3 and F2 but wasn’t promoted. And I agree, Piastri absolutely should be in F1. You can’t argue with his record. But to argue that Piastri’s existence means Zhou shouldn’t be in F1 doesn’t quite sit with me.

For one, Zhou could well still overhaul Piastri to win the title due to the fact there are two rounds and six races left in the F2 season. And given the way the playing field was levelled somewhat by the new wheels in 2020, he’s not able to bank on all of his previous experience to try and get that job done, though he does have an advantage in that regard.

Guanyu Zhou fights with Oscar Piastri at Silverstone F2 race

Zhou passes Piastri on his way to victory at Silverstone this year

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

So you’re looking at two drivers who are very much in each other’s ballpark. If we’re talking up how good Piastri could be, then Zhou can’t be too shabby himself to be his closest championship rival.

If we go back to Giovinazzi – who has received plenty of support after losing his drive despite showing a pretty underwhelming rate of development across his three seasons in F1 – he was seen as the uninspiring choice a year ago when Ferrari juniors Robert Shwartzman and Callum Ilott were in the frame. But Shwartzman’s rookie year hasn’t led to a clear step up this season, as he sits behind Zhou and his team-mate Piastri, while Ilott’s F1 chance never came.

I felt sorry for Ilott and believe he deserved a shot, but when you think back to their season as team-mates last year for UNI Virtuosi he and Zhou weren’t a million miles apart by any stretch. Ilott stayed in the title fight to the end with three wins and three podiums, while one win and five podiums left Zhou in sixth.

For Ilott, because he’s not viewed as having had Zhou-like levels money behind him it’s as if he’s been massively hard done by, and the Chinese driver is completely undeserving. But nobody’s getting to do this for free.

At some stage, someone had to put the money up. For Giovinazzi, it was Sean Gelael’s backers for a spell, then Ferrari. Zhou had Alpine, because they saw enough talent for him to potentially reach F1, and if that happened then it could prove very lucrative. That’s just like any other sponsor wanting a return by getting exposure from F1, and to do that they associate themselves with a driver who looks good enough to make it.

Guanyu Zhou celebrates F2 victory in Bahrain 2021

Zhou’s success has brought the finance needed for F1

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

There are a lot of things wrong with the FIA Super Licence points – not least the lack of credit it gives to IndyCar drivers despite the level of talent in that series – but one thing it has done is raise the bar so that the worst drivers that reach F1 are significantly better than some of those who were able to in the past.

I’m not going to lie, all things being equal I’d take Piastri over Zhou given his form the past two years. But then I’d have been tempted to take Theo Pourchaire over both of them given his age and rapid improvement, especially as he looks to be a dead cert for a future Alfa seat anyway.

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But all things being equal, there would probably have been far more decisions to make, because different drivers would have been progressing through with them. Other talents would have been able to afford to continue, and to stake their own claims, and not fallen by the wayside long ago. And while some of them fell by the wayside because of nationality, or attitude, for others it was because they were deemed to not be quite as good a prospect for a team to put their money behind as some of those we’re talking about.

Some of the best talents benefitted significantly from having more money to spend than others, but it’s not always used against them.

Lando Norris, for example, had huge investment in his junior career, racking up massive testing bills as he spent as much time in a car as possible. But it helped him hone a set of skills that make him one of the most exciting young talents on the grid. He was an F2 runner-up, too.

But nobody is turning down a talent because they made use of more money to improve themselves, let alone one who might still bring that money with them. Similarly nobody is replacing proper world championship material solely for commercial reasons. If you’re THAT good, you’ll get a seat.

Giovinazzi got his chance and got three years during which he didn’t leap out as a driver that was going to go any further. It’s now Zhou’s turn to see if he’s worthy of a long career at the highest level, and he probably won’t get afforded the same time Antonio was, especially with the Sauber-backed Pourchaire waiting in the wings.

The Italian is right: F1 is ruthless, and it has to be. There’s far too much money involved to simply be romantic.