Zhou Guanyu. (Photo: Xinhua)
China's Zhou Guanyu has moved a step closer toward realizing his dream of becoming the country's first-ever Formula One driver.
On Wednesday, Renault announced Zhou as its test driver for the coming 2020 F1 season. His promotion followed Jack Aitken's departure from the French team to take up a similar role with Williams.
"I'm looking forward to becoming the team's test driver. It's another step up from being a development driver in 2019 where I did a lot of simulator work and some RS17 tests," Zhou said on Wednesday at Renault's official season launch at its flagship showroom on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
The 20-year-old has harbored ambitions of joining the F1 grid since he was kid, when his fascination with motor sports began with a go-karting session at the age of 8.
F1's China debut in 2004 further piqued Zhou's interest, though he admits he could barely distinguish between the racers as their cars zoomed around the Shanghai International circuit.
One blue car, however, stuck in his mind: Fernando Alonso's Renault. And the two-time F1 world champion later became Zhou's idol.
"I really want to thank Renault for giving me the chance of becoming their test driver," said Zhou. "I've been working smoothly with the team for the past season. We trust each other.
"Last year, I worked on the simulator and helped with the team's reach and development work. I will continue to help the team this year. Moreover, I will have more chances to drive the F1 car and will be able to gain a better understanding of how an F1 team actually works.
"I'm also excited about my own F2 season this year, and I hope Renault can have great performances this year."
The Chinese racer signed with the Renault Sport Academy in January 2019 and gained some F1 experience as a development driver, earning him the right to work at the team's British base in Enstone.
The position involved driving the team's simulator and participating in engineering briefings, making him the first driver from China to fill a Formula 1 role with a manufacturer team.
He also claimed the best rookie title in the Formula 2 Championship where he finished seventh overall in a superb debut year, which included five podiums and one pole position.
"I'm exceptionally proud to be a member of the Renault Sport Academy. We go to Enstone at the start of the year and we have a personalized schedule to follow to improve during the season," Zhou said.
"This year I have an even better opportunity, meaning I'll be working harder than before, getting as much information as possible for driving a Formula 1 car and, at the same time, improving the areas the team needs to work on to help them get better in the future."
Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo will pair up with France's Esteban Ocon at Renault for this season's F1 campaign, meaning Zhou will get to work closely with one of his idols.
"It's quite cool as Daniel is my favorite driver, so to work with him is a fantastic opportunity," said the Shanghai-born driver.
"I know Esteban a little bit too and look forward to getting to know him better. It's going to be fun working with both of them.
"Having more information and working with Daniel and Esteban will help me a lot, not only on the Formula 1 side but also for the Formula 2 season."
Zhou will stay another year in F2 to compete with UNI-Virtuosi, aiming to collect enough points to procure an FIA Super License, which is a prerequisite for all F1 drivers.
His promotion will see increased participation on grand-prix weekends, as well as at the team's Enstone-based factory, as he gets set for an expected F2 title challenge in 2020. Zhou will be joined in F2 by fellow Renault Academy driver Christian Lundgaard, who will drive for ART Grand Prix.
Renault teased its new RS20 F1 model on Wednesday afternoon in Paris in an all-black testing livery ahead of preseason testing, which begins on Feb 19.
Ricciardo and Renault are determined to put a disappointing 2019 behind them and are targeting fourth place behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Last term, McLaren claimed fourth spot.
"I know in my heart we'll be better everywhere," said Ricciardo, who joined from Red Bull last year and has been linked with a 2021 move to Ferrari.