Sunday, 24 October 2010

Korea's grand prix stutters to the start

Written for Asia Times

GWANGJU - On the eve of the first Korean Grand Prix, organizers will be hoping the exhilaration of a five-way Formula 1 championship battle wrestles the spotlight from what has been a shambolic buildup.

Concerns over the readiness of the track, poor ticket sales, lack of local interest and the reluctance of local sponsors to support the event have all overshadowed the race, which was only rubber-stamped last week.

Organizers Korean Auto Valley Operation (KAVO) have admitted they have "not been well prepared" for the event, but there is some confusion as to why, particularly considering the country'shistory of hosting premier sporting events.

Despite publicly paying lip-service to the solidity of Korea's event, F1 chief executive officer Bernie Ecclestone waited until October 12 to officially give it the green light, amid rumors that circuits in Europe were being readied to step in. The grand prix will now, it seems, go ahead, but a nervous weekend awaits both KAVO and the sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

Ostensibly, the main worry has been the huge delay in completing the Korean International Circuit, located in Yeongam the southwest of the country. Designed by Herman Tilke, it is considered to be one of the most extensive and high-tech racing complexes ever built. Along with the accepted difficulties that come with undertaking such a huge project, workers had to contend with an abnormally long monsoon season, including Typhoon Kompasu, which hit the peninsula in September.

While the weather has certainly caused havoc on the region (it is also being blamed for the current "kimchi crisis") it is doubtful that this alone could lead to the holdups. Yet it is the only concrete excuse being offered.

One alternative theory being proposed is that an attitudinal conflict exists between how Koreans engage in large-scale projects and how the West would prefer to see them completed. There's a prevalent mantra in Korea, particularly among the older and controlling generation, stating: "If we do it, it will work." It's an approach that has seen them through hosting global events in the past, but not without cost.

Case in point: the Seoul Summer Olympic Games, 1988. A leading Canadian peace-time disaster planner, who worked in conjunction with the Korean government from 1985-87, admits being "appalled by the construction practices used to throw up the Olympic venues". Despite being impressed by the speed with which the Koreans completed the venues, he warned that the poor planning processes and the general attitude of senior staff resulted in "inferior products, buildings and institutions".

On paper, it's certainly not a methodology that's compatible with an increasingly safety-conscious FIA; nor is it in keeping with the prestigious image projected. The world is a much smaller place now than 22 years ago and the microscope's focus is all the finer. While the Seoul Olympics are remembered fondly, Korea won't escape lightly where Formula 1 is involved. Success in this one field, Asia Times Online's source suggests, may prove elusive unless they start looking outward and embracing a more globally accepted approach.

The location of the grand prix itself has also been a bone of contention. Yeongam is a small county, some 400 kilometers from Seoul. Its province, Jeollonamdo, is the "breadbasket of Korea", reliant on agriculture and with relatively little other industry. Construction in such a rural area brings its own logistical problems. The immediate vicinity can only accommodate 38,000. With a race capacity of 120,000, a huge percentage will need to find lodgings in nearby Mokpo or Gwangju. If the plan is to build a city around the venue rather than vice versa, then it has yet to begin materializing.

There can be no arguing, however, with the potential an annual grand prix has to invigorate Jeollonamdo, also the country's poorest province. The deal signed with the FIA is for seven years, with the option to extend for an additional five. If all goes according to plan this weekend, KAVO and President Lee Myeong-bak's government will have a chance to ready the infrastructure for 2011. Whether the latter will commit more fully having assessed the benefits of the first grand prix remains to be seen, with local people currently seething at what's been perceived as "another snub for Jeollonamdo".

An agreement to stage a grand prix in the area was first reached between KAVO, the local government and Ecclestone in 2006. Anton Scholz, founder of Korea-Consult and a key figure in the development of the race, has spoken of how it took the central government another three years to formally agree to financially support part of it. Scholz says he "even had to hold a speech in Korean senate in Seoul" and describes how at one point, he "gave a personal presentation to President Lee Myeong-bak", before the Korea Grand Prix was acknowledged as having special significance to the country.

This alleged lack of support has only served to widen the schism between Seoul and the southwest. Moon Ho-sung, a student of Chonnam University in Gwangju, said: "Busan has many factories and Seoul has all the companies. Here we only have farmers. We are simply not valuable to the government. If Formula 1 was coming to one of the more glamorous parts of Korea, Lee Myeong-bak would have supported it straight away."

Should Pyeongchang, in the north of the country, be successful in their bid to host the 2018 Summer Olympic Games, it is envisaged that funding be released at once, as was the case with the football World Cup in 2002. It would create a situation comparable to the one criticized in the United Kingdom press this week by Ecclestone. He accused the British government of "wasting a fortune on the Olympics which will come and go, and be forgotten in a few weeks, when they could have supported Silverstone and made sure the British Grand Prix is there forever".

Seoul has also failed to provide significant public relations for the occasion. The grand prix has flown under the radar across the country and even locally, interest is low. There has been speculation all week as to how many tickets have been sold, with some sources estimating as little as half. Motor sport doesn't have the foothold here that it does in many other parts of the world, despite South Korea being the fifth-largest producer of automobiles in the world. The provincial streets are devoid of "petrol-heads", with mopeds being the vehicle of choice for young motorists.

Park Myeung-seop, a teacher from the outskirts of Gwangju, said there is no interest, simply because "Koreans find Formula One boring". Park also condemned ticket prices, saying: "They are much too expensive for normal people in the area. If they wanted to make it an occasion for the Korean people, they should have made the prices lower. Otherwise, it is not something the people can enjoy."

The prices dwarf even those at the established British Grand Prix at Silverstone. A three-day pass at Yeongam will cost you more than US$1,000, while the British equivalent will set you back just north of $600. While high ticket prices are certainly a deterrent, one wonders how different things would be if there was a Korean car or driver lining up on the grid?

The nation has taken to a wider interest sports in recent years with the success of figure skater Kim Yun-ah and swimmer Park Tae-hwan. The next circuits to debut, India (2011) and Russia (2014) are likely to have local competitors for the partisan crowd to roar on in the shape of the Force India team and Renault's Russian driver Vitaly Petrov. Whilst neither nation has a glorious history in Formula 1, a local interest is a reliable way to boost the sport's profile.

The country's largest car manufacturer Hyundai (also comprising Kia) has as good as ruled out entering a team in the championship and have also surprisingly not taken out any sponsorship on the event, saying that their "utmost priority is to boost brand image in Europe". It's a bizarre turn of events, and one that has left LG as the sole local sponsor, with some of the teams carrying out promotional activity in the region themselves. Subsequently, the profile of the event has remained relatively low, with most of the press in the run up to the event being negative.

The Korean Grand Prix isn't the first to experience teething problems. In this year's Turkish Grand Prix, organizers had to cover the grandstands with tarpaulin to disguise the fact that there was nobody there. The Abu Dhabi and Bahrain Grand Prix have also experienced low turnouts, but they have the excuse of small populations and have the funds of oil-rich patrons at their disposal. Many fans have pointed at Ecclestone, accusing him of chasing the money, ignoring true followers of the sport and spreading the F1 brand globally, but only in the geographical sense of the word.

For Korea, all will not be lost if KAVO and the government treat this year's disastrous run-up as a steep learning curve. The promise of at least another six grand prix could reap dividend, should the glaring deficiencies be addressed and in that respect, the rhetoric from KAVO's camp is positive. Kang Hyo-seok, director of the province's F1 Support stated: “We don't expect early returns, as this project needs long-term investment to turn this area into a regional leisure and tourism hub”.

A study into Formula 1 in Australia by Flinders University, Adelaide, estimated a profit of A$1 billion (US$944 million) could be recouped over 10 years. Alongside direct economic impact, there is huge benefit to be gained from employment, tourism and infrastructure. But if the Korean Grand Prix is to have realistic designs on success, organizers need to be sure they can steer, before they put the foot down.

Finbarr Bermingham is an independent journalist from Northern Ireland, living and working in Gwangju, South Korea.

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