By sportswriter Michael Butterworth
SHANGHAI, April 13 (Xinhua) -- While this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix will be the 16th time that the Formula 1 circus has visited the Shanghai International Circuit, Chinese fans will once again have to make do without a homegrown hero to cheer on, as no Chinese driver has ever started a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
One man who might buck that trend is Zhou Guanyu. The 19-year-old driver has this year graduated to Formula 2, the racing series widely considered as the final step on the ladder before F1.
Having previously been a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, in January this year Zhou signed with the Renault Sport Academy, which sees him combine his F2 racing program with a role as development driver for Renault's F1 team, making him the first Chinese driver to sign a contract with a factory F1 outfit.
"It was a big decision that I made at the end of last season," Zhou said of his switch to the French squad, adding that he felt Renault would give him a greater chance of securing an F1 race seat.
"I'm definitely more involved with Formula 1 now. Renault have given me a lot of opportunities driving F1 cars, and doing development for the team is definitely [going to] help me improve, along with the F2 I'm doing this year. Working so closely with the F1 team, we can share a lot of information before each race."
With English being the dominant language within international motorsport, and many of the world's top racing teams being based in the U.K., Zhou elected to move to the country at 12 in order to pursue his dream. He told Xinhua of the challenges he had to overcome after moving so far away at such a young age.
"I think the highest level of racing drivers are in the U.K., so I went there to race against the best young drivers," Zhou said of his decision. "I only knew a few words of English, so it was quite a difficult challenge, especially [getting used to] how people live in Europe [compared with] how we live in Asia. It's completely different, and of course you have to improve your language to communicate with people."
"You also have exams in school, and you can't do badly in those either, so it was difficult. I spent a lot of time only with the team, who were all English, so I was able to improve my English by being with them and just following a normal lifestyle."
While Zhou has spent much of the last decade driving on some of the world's best-known circuits, it is a street track in China that has so far provided him with the ultimate challenge.
"Macao is the most difficult track in the world. In terms of layout, there's no track that can compare to it. Lewis Hamilton said the same. You don't actually have many kerbs, you just have barriers and walls. You can't make any mistakes."
And though he was born and brought up in Shanghai, the 19-year-old has a surprising admission to make regarding his home circuit.
"I haven't actually driven on it yet! I've only driven on kart tracks in China, because that's what I was racing here. After that, I've just been racing in Europe."
But despite having spent so many years away from his homeland, Zhou remains fiercely proud of his Chinese roots, and explained how much it would mean to him to become China's first ever F1 race driver.
"My dream is to reach Formula 1," Zhou said. "Coming from where I started, and going through everything that I've been through in my racing career, if I can reach F1, it's definitely going to be a proud moment for myself, and it will also help Chinese motorsport to grow much more quickly."