Alfa Romeo technical director Jan Monchaux says he rates their rookie Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu as one of the surprises of the 2022 season so far.
Zhou made an early breakthrough by scoring a championship point in his maiden outing in Bahrain at the start of the season, but has since been plagued by poor reliability (four mechanical DNFs) and by a huge accident at Silverstone.
But the 23-year-old from Shanghai did finish in the points again when he was eighth in Canada, and he has put in a composed and solid performance throughout the first 13 races of the year where he could.
Monchaux says that Zhou had certainly performed up to and indeed beyond the team's original expectations, proving that he's no 'pay driver' just there to bring in sponsorship money and more than earned his spot on the grid.
“Zhou is for me a surprise of the season,” Monchaux told the official Formula1.com website this week. “He's a great driver. He's learning a lot, he is very focused.
"He's been impressive in the race from the onset in terms of his overtaking capabilities," he added. "In qualifying he's been consistently progressing.
“He is quite impressive for a rookie. He doesn't damage the car - I mean, he was involved in two accidents, but apart from that, he is usually neat."
Zhou is currently paired up with former Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, who gives the team the level of experience it needs to balance Zhou who is the only rookie on the 2022 grid.
Bottas provides Zhou with a benchmark to compare himself and his progress. And while the Finn is far ahead of Zhou in the championship points having won 46 of Alfa's 51 points so far, Monchaux says that Zhou still comes out of the comparison well.
“Luckily, we have a reference driver, so he knows also where to work on," Monchaux commented. "But Zhou is where we wanted him to be earlier than we originally expected.
"So he's a very, very good surprise for us and I think for F1 in general," he stated.
Even so, Alfa will need Zhou to up his game and score points more regularly if they're to succeed in catching their McLaren and Alpine rivals in the constructors championship.
Alfa are currently in sixth place in the standings, but still over four points behind the battle for fourth. Monchaux isn't giving up the hopes that they can cut that deficit in the remaining nine races of the season.
“I would hope we can spoil the party of [McLaren and Alpine]", he said, insisting that it was the team's aim to "be there to also have a word to say up until the end of the season."
“I mean, we're only at halftime," he pointed out. "It's a matter of now being consistent, bringing updates. I think from the pure pace of the car, we can go and challenge these guys.”
Currently in 17th place in the drivers title battle, Zhou also needs to start delivering points on a regular basis if he's going to retain the seat for a second season.
While Bottas is on a long-term deal with Alfa Romeo, Zhou's place is under threat from Sauber junior driver Théo Pourchaire who is a rising star in the Formula 2 support series.
"I’m not thinking about championship position," Zhou insisted in comments last week. "I’m just thinking to more regularly finish in the points will be a good target for the second half of the season."