F1 2022’s sole rookie suffered a monster shunt on the opening lap of July’s British Grand Prix when his Alfa Romeo was sent airborne after being sandwiched between Pierre Gasly and George Russell

Zhou’s car flipped upside down, skated along the tarmac and gravel, before being violently launched into the barriers and catch-fencing. 

Four times The Halo SAVED an F1 driver | F1 2022 Crash.Net

Remarkably, Zhou, who feared his car would catch fire with him trapped inside, was able to walk away from the sickening 160mph smash unharmed. 

The 23-year-old paid tribute to the Halo cockpit protection device and said he found it hard to believe he survived the incident. 

“It’s pretty much behind me,” Zhou told Crash.net in an exclusive interview ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. “Obviously what happened was not something I wanted, but at least I walked out completely fine from it. 

"It was quite good having a race weekend straight after it so that I didn’t have time to really think about what happened. Straight away, the mental side didn’t take me down from it. 

“Of course it takes me at least one race weekend to be back fully to where I was before, just because everything was renewed after the damage.” 

But Zhou admitted he has stopped himself from watching replays of the accident.

“I was able to walk away absolutely fine from it, even though it looks pretty terrifying on the TV and the videos,” he said. “So I tried to keep myself away from all this and just be thinking about what is coming. 

“I’m quite glad that after all these years of racing, I was mentally very strong and stronger than I expected. So it got me into a way where I didn’t have to reset everything, I could just carry on racing and it was all fine.” 

He continued: “It takes a bit of time to be back to where I was before, because after the crash, it was mainly like the car, rather than myself.

“It was all new, so we needed to do an install check to make sure it was all okay. Some updated parts we don’t have anymore, because we are quite short on production, so that’s kind of more than just myself.” 

Zhou, who scored his first point since the accident last time out at the Italian Grand Prix, believes his terrifying experience has only made him stronger.  

“Always when you have hard moments and tough times and come back to where you were before, automatically your mental strength gains,” he explained. 

“That always happens when you have that. So it’s more about how you manage to bounce back from those tough times, because these things just come together.” 

Proving his doubters wrong 

Zhou made history in becoming China’s first full-time F1 driver this year after he landed a seat alongside Valtteri Bottas at Alfa Romeo following three seasons in F2. 

Ahead of his F1 debut, which was secured partly thanks to backing from his Chinese sponsors, Zhou faced criticism and online abuse from people who questioned his abilities and labelled him as a pay driver. 

But Zhou had an immediate response to his doubters when he reached Q2 and scored points at the first attempt at the season-opener in Bahrain. 

On paper, three top-10 finishes and six points - versus Bottas’ haul of 46 - might not look too impressive, but there are several mitigating factors to take into account; including Zhou enduring a run of poor reliability which masked his performances when Alfa Romeo’s C42 car was at its most competitive at the start of the year. 

Zhou has made a strong impression at Alfa Romeo for how he has embedded himself at the Hinwil-based outfit, as well as his speed of development and progression, leading technical director Jan Monchaux to brand him as the “surprise” of 2022. 

And from a personal perspective, Zhou feels he has proved his critics wrong. 

“I think I definitely did and that was the whole point,” he said. “Obviously it’s not something I would like to have, and it’s not something I appreciated at the start of the year. 

“I knew that I wasn’t going to respond to any of that - I’m just going to do my talking on the track to get people knowing about me. 

“It felt so great to be doing that so early, because for a rookie, it takes time and you don’t have time to settle yourself in. So I was happy with how I was improving, race-by-race. 

“Already getting a point on my debut meant so much to me, just the pressure of wanting to prove myself had already been done in the first round. So that was a special moment. 

“After that, I was more relaxed and just working to improve my weaknesses. It’s definitely been one of the toughest winters but it has been very enjoyable after turning things around.”

Opening up about the abuse he was subjected to, Zhou said: “I don’t look at what happens on social media. But I can see that most of them are positive, so I’m very happy to see it. 

“It was fully understandable the reason, but I think people need to get to know the driver a bit better, following my career better, knowing where I’m coming from and how hard it is to get where I was, finishing top three in the championship to secure the seat. 

“Hopefully I can keep showing them a better side of me.” 

Carrying the expectation of a nation 

18 years after attending the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix in his home city of Shanghai in 2004, Zhou has realised his ambition of becoming China’s first F1 driver. 

F1 anticipates to capitalise, with Zhou’s landmark achievement seen as being the key to cracking the lucrative Chinese market. A second race in China is understood to be on Liberty Media’s wish-list for the coming years. 

Zhou faces enormous pressure as he carries the hopes of an entire nation consisting of over 1.4 billion people on his shoulders. He is not afraid to admit he feels the burden.

“Before I even signed the deal, people were naming me as the closest ever to get to F1,” he explained. 

“So I had quite a lot of pressure around because I knew I had to make it, because if I don’t, maybe 10 years later we could find another one, but that would be too long. 

“I think to be signing the deal, everyone was keeping an eye on me, having their countryman racing in the best series in motorsport. 

“It’s not easy. We have to sacrifice a lot, try to move to Europe to compete against the best. You don’t get here because of your nationality, you get here because of your superlicence points. 

“You need to be fighting for the championship in F2 to show people you deserve to be here, that you have the capability to be here. So, all these things were tough. 

“To be the first… I didn’t expect to be the first of anything, looking at how big my country is! It’s a very proud moment.” 

Such was the prior lack of Chinese influence in motorsport that Zhou didn’t even get to raise his country’s flag the first time he stood on the podium at the beginning of his career in go-karts.

“I remember my first ever go-kart race, when I won the race, there wasn’t even a Chinese flag for the podium, so I carried the flag of my racing team, which was England,” he said. 

"By the following race they brought the Chinese flag and I was able to bring that to the junior single-seaters all the way up to F1. I think it’s very inspiring for young people. 

“We can still do it, if it’s something you have the passion for. You just have to go for it whatever it takes. 

“It’s inspired me a lot during my life because dreams are difficult to reach and to be arriving at the dream and doing reasonably successfully is something I dreamed of.” 

Zhou’s next goal is to compete at his home grand prix, with F1 planning to return to China for the first time in three years next season. The race has been provisionally included on the F1 2023 calendar but hinges on the country's COVID-19 situation.

“To be racing at home, it’s my next dream target,” Zhou said. “Obviously it’s a dream to be in F1, but seeing other drivers at their home race, when my home race does come it’s going to be an absolutely crazy, phenomenal weekend for me. 

“The good thing is the Chinese Grand Prix has been signed for a few years, so if everything goes right, it’s going to be put in the calendar. 

“I feel reasonably confident it will be here next year, but we have to let F1 decide. If that is confirmed, then it’ll be a special weekend that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. 

“The crowd was amazing when I was there in 2019. I was still an F2 driver back then, so now it’s going to be crazy.”