Paddock Diary: Zhou Guanyu's homecoming, track surface concerns

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SHANGHAI — After a five-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Formula One returns to China this weekend. The last time F1 raced in Shanghai, Lewis Hamilton won the race — the 1,000th in F1’s history — by six seconds from Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on his way to the sixth of his seven titles. Underlining just how much times have changed since then, F1’s current dominant force and reigning three-time world champion, Max Verstappen, finished 27 seconds off the pace in his Red Bull.

As much as the sport has changed since 2019, F1’s time away has had no discernible impact on the impressive Shanghai paddock. The team hospitality units, which are set within pagoda-style buildings among a maze of bridges spanning ornamental ponds, look as pristine as they did when F1 left five years ago, and the twin bridges over the pit straight remain as imposing as they were when the first race took place in 2004.

Some of elements of the track have changed, however, and provided an immediate talking point during Thursday’s media sessions.

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‘Paint’ on track

Built on marshland 25 miles from the center of China’s most populous city, the Shanghai International Circuit has always been evolving during its 20-year history. The tendency for land to shift under the circuit has resulted in bumps and lumps on the track surface, which have to be regularly remedied by the circuit owners.

Just over a year ago, asphalt along the entire length of the 3.4-mile track was re-laid in preparation for F1’s return, but it was the unusual treatment on top of the track surface that proved a point of conversation, and some confusion, on Thursday.

“It looks like they’ve painted the track or something,” RB driver Daniel Ricciardo told media. “They’ve done something to the surface. I don’t know how the track’s going to change, or if it’s going to be the same or super slippery. But maybe that changes the way the tires behave.”

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc added: “It depends a lot on the type of paint they use. And that can cause different issues or have no issues at all, which hope it’s the latter that will be the case tomorrow, but for now, it’s very difficult to predict.

“I have only seen pictures, so I haven’t gone around the track yet. I don’t think it’s the same everywhere, which also might not be great. But yeah, before adding further comments, I think we just have to drive and see how it feels. Maybe it’s actually completely fine, so we’ll find out tomorrow.”

It’s true that the track surface looks streaky in color, with darker patches off the racing line and lighter patches on it. However, the darker color is due not to “paint” but to a bitumen treatment, which, as is often the case on highways in Asia, has been used as a sealant to protect the asphalt underneath.

Although no other track on the F1 calendar has been treated with bitumen, its use is not entirely unheard of on racetracks. The streaky appearance is due to different series running on the circuit over the past year, wearing some of the bitumen away and leaving it intact elsewhere.

Whether it has any impact on grip levels will become clear in the single free practice session on Friday morning, which is the only opportunity teams and drivers will have to refine setups before qualifying for Saturday’s sprint race on Friday afternoon.


Despite driving in F1 since 2022, Zhou Guanyu has never raced on home soil in the top level of motorsport. As the only Chinese driver in F1 history, his presence has created extra interest in this year’s race, leading to tickets selling out ahead of the weekend, according to local reports.

Zhou’s image is plastered across the main grandstand as well as appearing throughout the city on bus shelters, subway posters and billboards. The Sauber driver admits there is extra pressure this weekend, but now, in his third season in F1, feels prepared to deal with it.

“I’ve been extremely busy — one of the busiest men probably in Shanghai over the last week and a half after the Japanese Grand Prix,” he said. “I came straight back, a lot activities done. And also a lot of meet and greets with fans, people like that. It’s great to say, for support from the country already.

“And for me, the pressure, of course, this race is a little bit higher, but I don’t think it gets much more than probably my first race, my debut in Formula 1, because by now everything feels a lot more familiar than back in the day.”

As key as Zhou seems to be to F1’s growth in China, his future in F1 past the end of this season is not secure. The ongoing driver market merry-go-round shows no signs of slowing, and with young drivers such as Ferrari junior Oliver Bearman and Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli waiting in the wings, it’s unlikely all of this year’s 20 drivers will retain a place on the grid next season.

Zhou’s position at Sauber is becoming increasingly coveted by rivals thanks to Audi’s investment in the team ahead of 2026, and with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg already linked to the team for next year, this weekend’s race could be Zhou’s only chance to drive in front of his home fans.

“Hopefully, it’s not going to be the only one because I’m planning hopefully to stay here as long as I could,” Zhou said. “Everybody loves to be having a long career in Formula One, and that’s where we dream to be. So yeah, let’s get over this weekend in a positive way, hopefully reach some good results on Sunday.”

Albon won’t back off despite recent crashes

Three big crashes and two damaged chassis have put Williams firmly on the back foot in the past two races. After sending Alex Albon’s chassis on a detour to the team’s base for repair work between Japan and China, Williams’ resources have been stretched, and the team arrives in China with fewer spares and updates than it hoped to have by this stage of the season.

But Albon — who was behind the wheel for both chassis-damaging crashes at the past two races — said his approach would not change this weekend.

“You go about your racing not really thinking about it, to be totally honest,” he said. “Obviously, it’s there, but the moment that you start to think about the lack of parts, or the lack of whatever, you might as well stay home. You have got to attack the weekend like you do any other weekend. You can’t treat it any differently. You’ve got to be on the limit to feel what the limit is, and you’ve got to get a balance for the car.

The first sprint race weekend of the season provides opportunities for points on Saturday and Sunday in China, but given the performance of the car at the opening races, Albon and teammate Logan Sargeant face a challenge to reach them.

“We’ve been on the back foot with the crashes, and it is no secret that we were already on the back foot before the crashes,” Albon added.

“So it’s another mighty job, as always, and we have to rely on the staff back at the factory to pull things together — as they continuously do so. And their work is very, very important, especially coming into a sprint race as well, with all the possibilities of whatever can happen this weekend, you kind of want to be as best prepared as possible.

“Races like this, where it’s so unknown, are an opportunity for teams like us.”

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