The race had to be restarted after Zhou’s car flipped upside down and crashed into a fence shortly after the start, which had been clipped.
It caused a long delay, but the driver was finally declared fit after an examination at the medical center.
After the race restarted, Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez suffered damage to their cars and fell down the pecking order, allowing Ferrari’s Sainz and Charles Leclerc to establish a strong lead.
But a safety car ten laps from the end allowed Perez to re-establish contact and both he and Lewis Hamilton passed Leclerc in a thrilling end to the race to secure second and third place respectively.
Sainz, who had also overtaken his team-mate after the safety car, had trouble holding back his emotions after crossing the finish line.
“I don’t know what to say, it was amazing,” said an emotional Sainz after the race. “It was a very special day that I will never forget.
“It wasn’t easy, I had quite a problem with my balance […] but despite all that, I kept believing.”
There was plenty of excitement leading up to the race with a host of world stars lining up on the grid before the start.
Shortly after the start of the race, however, that excitement turned to nervousness after the big collision ended the first lap.
Footage showed Zhou’s Alfa Romeo tipping over on his head in a dramatic incident also involving George Russell and Pierre Gasly.
Zhou’s car skidded headfirst across the track and then rolled over the tire barrier before hitting the fence.
During a nervous wait for news, medics attended to the Chinese driver and he was eventually carried to an ambulance after avoiding serious injuries.
Williams Racing driver Alex Albon, who was involved in another accident as a result of the incident, was taken to Coventry Hospital for a precautionary check-up.
After a long wait, the race began again with a standing start from the original starting positions – even though Verstappen overtook Sainz on the first start and Hamilton initially jumped from five to three.
The restart was clean, but not without drama. The Ferrari and Red Bull cars battled for the top four, with Perez damaging his car and falling back into the field after a forced pit stop.
Sainz initially did well to stop Verstappen but the Red Bull driver soon overtook and extended a familiar lead.
However, it wasn’t long before the reigning F1 champion suffered a puncture and was damaged on the rear of the car.
After a pit stop and with his performance impaired, his race was effectively over, to the delight of some at Silverstone who taunted the driver over the weekend.
When it looked like the two Ferraris would be clean, the safety car squeezed the field back together allowing Perez and Hamilton to fight their way onto the podium.
Sainz is hoping to follow up his first win in the sport with another in Austria next week.