By F1 correspondent Michael Butterworth
BEIJING, June 2 (Xinhua) -- After the excitement of the 2021 Formula 1 driver merry-go-round last month, when it emerged that Sebastian Vettel would leave Ferrari to be replaced by McLaren's Carlos Sainz, whose place would in turn taken by Daniel Ricciardo, the big question now centers on who might slide into Ricciardo's seat at Renault in 2021.
While star names such as Vettel and Fernando Alonso are available and have been linked with the drive, their salaries might prove prohibitively expensive for a Renault team eager to cut costs.
With this in mind, might China's rising star and current Renault test driver Zhou Guanyu take Ricciardo's seat, thus becoming the first Chinese driver to start an F1 Grand Prix? Xinhua takes a look at Zhou's credentials.
A RISING STAR IN THE MAKING
After four years with the Ferrari Driver Academy, 21-year-old Zhou elected to move to the Renault Sport Academy for 2019, in the hope that joining up with the French squad would give him a better chance of progressing through the ranks and landing a coveted F1 race seat.
The Shanghai native has made steady progress so far, dovetailing his role as a Renault F1 development driver with a debut season in the feeder F2 championship, in which he finished seventh to end up as the series' top rookie.
Under FIA regulations, Zhou needs to finish in the top four of the 2020 F2 championship in order to be eligible for a Super License - a requirement for all F1 race drivers.
Assuming the COVID-19-delayed 2020 F2 season eventually starts, a top-four finish should be within Zhou's reach as he prepares for a second year with the UNI-Virtuosi squad, who placed second in the 2019 F2 team's championship.
However, even if Zhou succeeds in finishing fourth, this is unlikely to be confirmed until at least October, and Renault may be keen to have a driver signed up before then in order to prepare adequately for next year.
Equally, if Renault announce ahead of time that they intend to hire Zhou and then he fails to gain a Super License, this would be highly embarrassing for both parties and leave Renault scrambling to find a suitable replacement at short notice.
A GREAT LEAP FORWARD?
Renault at least appear satisfied enough with Zhou's current trajectory and promoted the Chinese to official test driver status for 2020. This will see Zhou attending every F1 race alongside his F2 commitments and increasing his involvement in developing Renault's 2020 challenger, the R.S.20.
The financial implications of the COVID-19 outbreak also prompted motorsport's governing body to declare a temporary development freeze, meaning F1 teams' 2020 cars will also compete in 2021. Zhou's experience of testing the R.S.20 this year will therefore give him first-hand experience of Renault's 2021 car - something that could not be said of other candidates for the drive.
Unlike Ferrari and McLaren, who rushed to confirm their 2021 lineups before the 2020 season had even started, Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul said last week that Renault would not hurry their decision over Ocon's teammate next year. This is good news for Zhou, as a later announcement may allow him enough time to secure his all-important Super License.
MONEY'S TOO TIGHT TO MENTION
Paradoxically, Zhou's odds of a 2021 race drive at Renault might also have been shortened by the recent news that the French carmaker is to cut its global workforce by 15,000 and reduce costs by over 2 billion U.S. dollars over the next three years.
While this prompted speculation that Renault's underachieving F1 team might fall victim to the scythe's remorseless swing, the company's interim CEO Clothilde Delbos moved to allay such fears last week, confirming that the French squad would remain in F1.
However, with cost-cutting very much on the agenda, Renault's pursuit of marquee drivers such as Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel - both multiple world champions with salary demands to match - may be stymied by current financial realities.
By contrast, Zhou would be a considerably cheaper and more pliant partner for the highly-rated Ocon, and promoting from within would represent a huge show of faith in Renault's junior program.
Signing Zhou to a full-time race seat would also make more broad commercial sense for Renault's road car division, which in April announced that it would concentrate long-term on selling EVs in the lucrative Chinese market.
Hiring Zhou as China's first ever F1 racer would likely help Renault shift cars off dealership floors, as well as potentially attracting greater Chinese investment to the French marque's F1 effort.
Outside the Renault camp, F1's owners Liberty Media are also acutely aware of Zhou's potential to affect the growth of the sport in China. "We'd love to see him in F1," the sport's former Head of Global Sponsorship Murray Barnett told Xinhua last year. "Ultimately, that's down to the teams, but I think even they recognize what a fantastic opportunity China is."