Monday, 30 August 2010

Korean Grand Prix Preview

Written for the Gwangju News

On Sunday October 24th of this year, a cacophonous drone emanating from a stretch of tarmac in Yeongam, just south of Gwangju, will chauffer in a new era in Korean spectator sport. The country will join an elite band of 18 others in paying host to a Formula One Grand Prix. It is testament to Korea’s growing presence on the international stage that they have convinced F1’s governing body of their capability to host such a high profile event. Some speculate that it may bring even greater rewards to the nation than the 2002 World Cup. Should that be the case, Korean sport is in for a serious boost.

The inaugural South Korean Grand Prix will attract a crowd of around 130,000 to the newly built Korea International Circuit and officials have been scrambling to find ways to accommodate the masses due to descend on South Jeolla. Car parks are under construction, hundreds of shuttle buses are to be laid on. This sleepy, rural community is about to get a whole lot louder, but a few days of autumnal madness will undoubtedly bode well for the region’s finances.

F1 has long since been tagged as a rich man’s sport, filled with charmers and playboys like Flavio Briatore ( former Benetton and Renault head honcho, former beau of Heidi Klum and larger than life impresario, now banned from the sport because of his part in the Crashgate scandal in 2008) and Eddie Irvine (straight talking and flamboyant Irishman, former Ferrari driver and once a squeeze of Pamela Anderson). Ticket prices are often condemned for being astronomical, unaffordable by locals in many venues. The South Korean Grand Prix will do well to avoid such criticism. The cheapest come in at around 165,000 Won. For the best seats, you can expect to pay upwards of 1.2 million. The locals may have to be content with a thunderous hum, rattling their windows. But the money invested in the area through tourism will more than make up for the racket.

Unsurprisingly considering it’s the world’s fifth largest producer of cars, this is not the first time Korea has attempted to host a GP. The government previously attempted to capitalize on the industry’s standing when they reached an agreement to host an event in 1998, although a lack of funding hindered the construction of a circuit. Malaysia won the race to host another F1 event in Asia and the blogosphere’s rumor mill is rife with allegations that F1 CEO Bernie Eccleston managed to keep the money originally paid to him by race promoters. Indeed, the 2010 race has not come to fruition without a few hitches, either. There were whispers right up until the beginning of the summer that it would not go ahead. Initially, doubts were harbored over whether the course would be ready in time. Promoters, Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO), however, were at pains to dispel such fears, announcing that the track would open on September 5th. Perhaps of more serious concern to the survival of the race has been the recent unrest between North and South Korea. Political uncertainties on the Peninsula sparked rumors that the GP would be moved to a venue in Europe, with Magny Cours (France) and Motorland Aragon (Spain) mooted as potential replacements. But with the checkered flag looming ever nearer, it would seem the organizers have avoided such measures and that the event will go ahead as planned.

The deal the Korean committee has struck with the governing body will see the country host a Grand Prix every year for the next seven, with an option to extend the deal for another five. The course itself has been compared with another Spanish track, that of Valencia. Designed by Herman Tilke (the brains behind circuits in Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore, China and many other venues), it’s the second longest track on the calendar, trailing only Monza in Italy at 5.6 km per lap. Along with Turkey and Brazil, it’s the only track whose racing direction is counter-clockwise. The estimated average speed for an F1 car around the course is 212km/h, with a maximum speed of 320km/h, meaning the quickest cars should be getting around in about 1.5 minutes.

And with the race being number seventeen of nineteen, you can be sure that there won’t be any drivers holding back. After winning the Hungarian GP in Red Bull’s Mark Webber (Australia) is hoping to seal his first ever championship crown. He leads 2008’s champion Lewis Hamilton (McLaren, UK) by just four points, with his teammate Sebastian Vettel (Germany) trailing by a further six. The party travels to Belgium, Italy, Singapore and Japan before making its maiden voyage to Korea in October. The Japanese have traditionally put on a spectacular show and their Korean counterparts would no doubt be delighted to emulate them. All eyes will be on Yeongam on the weekend of the 22nd to see if they can do exactly that.

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