The car went into anti-stall in Turn 1. Turn 1. Not just Turn 1 of the race, or the year — but of my F1 career. I'd been looking forward to Bahrain 2022, well, basically my whole life. I'd dreamt of that moment a million times. My first F1 race. And a few seconds in, I just looked at the steering wheel for help as everyone went right by me. If I'm being honest with you? In that moment … I felt the pressure. I felt the weight of a whole country, the scrutiny that came with getting the seat, the expectations I put on myself — I felt it all.
That winter, in November of 2021, when Alfa Romeo announced I'd be in the seat, I knew what people thought of me. It was impossible not to hear it. And it's hard, right, because I worked my entire life for an opportunity like that. My family sacrificed a lot. We moved from China to Sheffield when I was 12. It took everything. Some luck, too. And then before I ever get a chance to race, it's, He doesn't deserve it, it should be so-and-so, he's only there because of money.
I understand. People are allowed to have their opinions. And there's a lot of politics in F1, of course. I know that just as well as anyone. From the outside it's hard to see everything that's going on. And I'm beyond thankful to be where I am — it's not lost on me what a privilege it is.
But I'm still just a person, a guy with a phone who can hear the noise.
I think it was hard at the beginning for me because I felt such a connection with F1. I was a fan for so long. I still am. I went to every Chinese Grand Prix, and I still would if I weren't racing. It's who I am. If I could take you back in time with me and show you my room from when I was a boy, you'd laugh your head off. I had Fernando Alonso posters all over the walls. It looked like the room of a teenager idolizing their favorite pop star. I sat in front of the TV at all sorts of weird hours, with the volume turned all the way down, as my parents slept a few rooms over.
And I would just dream.
I'd pick my favorite little toy cars off the table and push them around the carpet as I watched Michael and Fernando and Kimi win races.
I knew that's all I wanted to do.
I loved this sport. But honestly, I didn't feel like it loved me back. I know I'm not alone in feeling that. You grow up fast in F1. It comes with the territory. But my journey is my journey. And along that journey, there's a day I think about a lot. It's one I draw on for strength, for confidence.
My first FP1 session at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix.
I was still in F2 at the time, but I was really hoping to get an F1 seat for the next year. Alpine offered me a session, and it was in Fernando's car. In his car. I'd seen him win in China when I was six years old. I helped my mum put up all those posters in my room. I wore a copy of his helmet during my karting career. He was my guy. And my first F1 weekend was in his car. It felt so surreal. I walked the track with him and the team. I asked him as many questions as I could, and he was unbelievably kind. He told me to be free, to enjoy it out there — to just do what I know how to do. He texted me the night before and let me know I could always reach out to him.
The next day I got in the car and I looked at the steering wheel like, That's Fernando Alonso's steering wheel. And the session went by like a blur. On my cooldown lap, I remember my engineer telling me Hamilton's time, that Vettel was on a hot lap, and I had to pinch myself.
I felt like I was so close to everything I'd wanted. It made me just push harder. And later that year, when Alfa Romeo were close to making their choice, I really had no idea what to expect. Those few weeks before they decided were intense. The interviews, the waiting … it drags on. I spent those days thinking about the karting, all the trips around Europe and Asia, chasing the dream. The nights lying in bed missing my home. Missing my family. I wanted it to be worth it. I saw six-year-old me sitting in the living room, and I wanted to be the one on the other side of the TV.
Eventually, I got the call. I can't really put that feeling I had that day into words. To be the first Chinese driver in F1 history … it's everything to me. I'm so proud of where I'm from — the support I've received from everyone back home. I race for them. I want to show that, even though we aren’t known for motor sports, we can still be great. That we can be fast. That we are a racing nation.
That desire, that passion — that's what made the first lap in Bahrain so tough. In the grand scheme of things it's just one lap of more than a thousand over the course of the year, but I wanted to prove to everyone, to myself, that I belonged there. So I just put my head down, and I followed my instincts. Our team had a great strategy and we battled all the way back. It was a crazy few last laps and when I came across the line in 10th, scoring a point…. It felt like a win.
I hugged my mum in the paddock that night, and I think we both just felt this incredible sense of relief. Like, We're here, and we're doing it. Those countless hours going to and from sessions hoping one day something like this might happen, and we were really there, racing in F1. I thought of a little boy or girl watching back home in China and it made me a bit emotional. It still does.
That weekend meant so much to me. Every single one does. I hope the fans know that.
And I want to use this opportunity, this platform, for good. Being an athlete, I've always had an admiration for the Special Olympics. So when I was given the chance to be an ambassador for the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, and to visit with so many of the incredible athletes — it was really impactful for me. To see their strength, their passion, it was contagious. I was able to host a few of them this year in the paddock at Silverstone, and it meant as much to me as it did to them. The inclusion and togetherness that Special Olympics fosters is something I try to bring to my daily life.
I carry the spirit of those athletes with me. Like them, I want to keep proving it every day. I've learned that the pressure I felt, it never goes away. And if it does, you're probably doing something wrong. I've learned how to deal with it, how to harness it. I feel at home in F1 now, and though there's been some highs and lows the past few years, I know that I'm improving.
I know who I am. I know who I can be.
Valtteri has helped with a lot of that. He's somebody who's been at the top of the sport and he's dealt with just about everything an F1 driver could imagine. He's mega quick and he's a great teammate. I think, because we're at different stages of our careers, there's a level of camaraderie that has helped me a lot. We compete, of course, but he really wants me to be the best version of myself. He's always there for me. We've struggled this year as a team, but I really believe in what we have in the garage and in the factory. There's a great group of people here. There really is. I believe we can finish the year strong and head into next season with momentum.
I think of next year a lot because the Chinese Grand Prix is back on the schedule. It's going to be so, so special. I can't wait to see so many of the people who have helped me on this journey. My friends, family and teammates. The fans who have picked me up when I've needed it. I just can't wait. I know when I'm on track, I'll have a moment where I look up into the stand where I used to sit, and I'll remember the feeling of waving Fernando's flag in the air as he raced by, his V-10 screaming through my earplugs.
That will be a moment I cherish forever.
And I will know that I did it.