Formula One comes with a certain level of glitz and glam, and any fashion lover will not be disappointed walking through the paddock any given Grand Prix weekend.
Sure, there’s plenty of team polos or branded items (majority of which likely will catch your eye). Lewis Hamilton elevates the game with his personal flare with bold colors and choices. But this season, F1’s beloved fashion icon may have met his match—Zhou Guanyu.
The Alfa Romeo driver and F1’s lone rookie sported a Supreme shirt and Prada shoes on Thursday ahead of the Italian Grand Prix weekend, both brands that are staples in his closet. Fashion is a passion of Zhou’s, who described his style as “high-level for a Formula One driver.”
The 23-year-old broke into the F1 scene this season with an eye-catching P10 finish in Bahrain, but as the season proceeded, he experienced more in his first 15 F1 races than most veterans do in the first 5 to 10 years of their careers—five DNFs with a slew of reliability issues and a heart-stopping wreck at Silverstone where the halo arguably saved his life.
But he’s remained bold and dedicated, making those back home proud as he became the first-ever Chinese Formula One driver to start a grand prix when he was called up to Alfa Romeo. Even with just five points to his name after unfortunate circumstances, Zhou is still happy to be on the grid.
A self-proclaimed Kobe Bryant fan growing up, he’s embraced Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” as he fought to achieve his dream and faces the pressures of being in F1. Now, Zhou returns to Monza in hopes that his luck will continue at a track that’s been good to him in the past.
As F1 gears up for the last race of the triple header, Sports Illustrated spoke with the Alfa Romeo driver about being the lone rookie and first Chinese F1 driver, what Monza is truly like and what the “Mamba Mentality” means to him.
Fuel for Thought is Sports Illustrated’s exclusive Q&A with Formula One’s biggest names. The following questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: How is Monza? What is it like because you were on the podium last season?
Zhou Guanyu: It has a very special memory for me because it’s also the track that I won my first ever race in a single seater in Formula Four in 2015 … It’s great to have that because it was kind of the first time for me to listen to the Chinese national anthem on the top of the podium. So it’s always a special moment. And of course, last year was good to finish P2, and Monza this year is the home race for the team. So [it] always gives me extra, say, motivation and excitement.
SI: What has this season been like, especially with being the lone rookie?
ZG: It’s been a tough one but very enjoyable on the other hand, because I very enjoy every weekend now just because [at] the beginning of the season, there’s a lot of doubts. And I’m just very happy that I can turn everything around and showing the real speed, the real me and F1. So it was great to be adapting quite quickly up to the speed, and, of course, scoring points, going to Q3 two times. It’s definitely well inside the target I was setting for myself, and everyone’s quite happy in the team so that’s the main thing. Of course, there’s some down moments with several DNFs while I was quite comfortably in the points. So that’s a bit unlucky and also had a big incident in Silverstone.
SI: You’ve experienced everything that most veteran drivers experience over an extended period of time.
ZG: Yeah exactly. Like I said, I experienced things people experience [in] maybe five years, 10 years, into one. It’s not something I want to do because most of them obviously [were not] the way I wanted to be. But, I mean, that’s kind of how motorsport is. It could be very harsh, at times. These problems [are] out of your control, and it happened. But we’re happy that in my side, I was able to still achieve everything I would like to do and continue to be walking, growing up as a Formula One driver.
SI: You kind of touched a little bit on this, but who are you? Who is the real you?
ZG: It’s Zhou Guanyu. There’s not much more to say. I like to convince people [with] everything on track, and obviously doing my job, deliver the results, and improving my skills and showing people that’s why I’m here. That’s, I think, the main things I tried to achieve this year, which we did already, and to continue to [do] that. And the other hand, [I’m a] very open-minded person, you know. I have many other hobbies except from just racing, and and just want to be the real me—inside and out.
SI: What are some of your hobbies? What is your happy place outside of racing?
ZG: I like listen to rap, hip hop music. I like to getting inside these fashion things and wearing cool stuff. And also designing either helmets or clothes is kind of my next hobby and something I like to do when I’m not racing.
SI: Do you have a favorite outfit that you’ve worn so far this season?
ZG: I mean, everything. My favorite outfit is probably always the next one so hopefully, Singapore will be the best one. I decide what I want to wear … Lewis [Hamilton] was the first one obviously doing that, and I started doing that. There’s more people actually doing that, following our steps. So it’s great to see people just trying to be [themselves], wear their clothes. Hopefully it’s their ideas, and it’s just great to see the others and the other side of motorsports.
SI: How would you describe what your fashion style is?
ZG (laughing): High level for a Formula One driver. Very matching Mr. Hamilton, but, obviously, I try to do my best and try to wear whatever I feel comfortable in. I feel I’m happy to to have that look. Not really getting someone to do my own kind of fashion sense, getting someone to prepare my clothes for the catwalk on Thursday. For me, it’s more like just wearing whatever I feel is the right thing to do. So just always [my real self].
SI: So, what’s it like competing against drivers that you grew up watching or some of your heroes like Fernando Alonso?
ZG: Pretty crazy. Obviously, [I] didn’t expect that to have happened maybe two years ago. ... So it’s great to have that because he was the person, let’s say, I was growing up and watching him and want to be as good as him one day. He was kind of the Formula One driver who inspired me a lot by joining at a very young age. So to [have] achieved what he achieved to being in F1 and to be racing against him is pretty sensational. Really honored to be have that opportunity because, obviously, he was here before I even started karting.
SI: When did you realize that your dream of being an F1 driver could be a reality?
ZG: Maybe midseason of late last year. … You have your dream that you want to [be] aiming for, but believe me, the older you get, and the more mature you get, the more close you’re getting to that target, the less realistic it felt, especially for me as a Chinese driver, because there’s a lot of good drivers in the younger series [who] want to be like F1 driver, but for me, I don’t have anyone [who] can give me a massive help. I don’t have any manufacturies, people like that, and super difficult coming from where I came from because the culture is different. So you have to really believe in yourself, which I did. ... So yeah, last year, finally I felt ... actually, I have a shot for that seat. [I] made it, so happy.
SI: How did you stay motivated throughout that entire journey?
ZG: It’s great, firstly, having people believe in you as well. So a lot of fans or people around me saying I can do it. And I always believed in myself, because the guys I raced against in the past, they actually became a Formula One driver. For example, people like Lando [Norris], Mick [Schumacher]. Everything became much more realistic, and I felt like I have a chance. To be the only Chinese driver that’s fighting for a championship being F2, F3, that’s something that already [motivated] me a lot and having a lot of support back home. So everybody wanted me to be in Formula One as much as I do. So I really want to make people proud. So that’s why it [kept] me going.
SI: Why did you choose the number 24 for your car?
ZG: Firstly, my favorite number has [been chosen] so I looked through all this thing. I was growing up as a massive Kobe Bryant, Lakers fan with watching basketball a lot when I was a very young age. Basically, I want to do that in the honor of Kobe. Also just to [keep] his mentality, to keep me going in Formula One. So hopefully, bring me some luck to continue here. That’s the reason because I want to pick a number that means something to me or has some energy for me rather than just pick a [lucky] number for myself.
SI: What does his Mamba Mentality mean to you?
ZG: I think it means a lot for every sportsman because it’s like when you’re one of the best in your country, which he was one of the best in the world in the NBA and then he’s training harder than the others. The stuff he said in his book is crazy. Just saying that he will be training at 4 a.m. or something like that. And like he said, when you stop training … they will catch up to you. If you want to be always the lead, then you have to be always putting in the double effort. I think that’s what everyone in the world should do when you want to achieve something.
SI: So looking ahead to this weekend, what should we be watching for with the Italian Grand Prix? What part of the track is most challenging and why? Because it’s probably the lowest downforce setup that y’all will have.
ZG: I think the main thing is Turn 1 because I think everything is making most of the action here in Turn 1. It’s very easy to miss your breaking point and locking up the front tires as we saw happens in the past. I think that’s gonna be tough, and as you just said, with low downforce, there’s very small window that you have to be making the right braking zone. So it could be a very challenging race. I think it will be a tough race and very unpredictable race so hopefully we can come out better than previous races.
SI: With this next generation and I guess our generation too, it’s kind of a different storm with how social media is such a big presence in everyone’s lives. What would your advice be for this next generation?
ZG: My generation has always been like that so it’s pretty normal for me. With the pressure, with the stuff I had on the social media, let’s say, last year when I signed, I think nobody can imagine how much I got just for a kid reaching his dream. For me, there was no issue because I always look in the positive way, because otherwise I won’t be here. People will try to take you down. People are jealous of whatever you do when you reach at the top, which is very understandable. So if whatever they say makes them happy, then I’m happy to let them to do that. But all I have to do is just do everything, all the real talk, on track, which for athletes is what you want to do. And just never put your head around the [negative] stuff. So always try to just kind of skip over what’s bad and just look at the positives. Just believe in yourself, and everybody will change their mind. Like this year, they did.
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