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Korean GP: when it goes wrong

The Yeongam Circuit might host his last Formula 1 race, which never seemed to properly fit in with the Formula 1 world.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013

October 1st, 2013 (F1plus/G. Keilloh).- If someone was to ask you how the F1 calendar has changed in the last 10 years or so, or alternatively ask what the financial model of F1 is these days, in both cases you'd probably come up with the same answer.

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You don't need me to tell you that F1 has been chasing the Asian brass in recent times. That the itinerary has incrementally shifted eastwards to the point that today no fewer than eight of the rounds are in Asia (rewind to 1998 and there was only one), including the run of five in a row which we're currently in. The story of the new countries joining the calendar usually goes something like this: a government decides it wants to stage a Grand Prix, and is prepared to pay a lot of money for the privilege. Yes, the event will likely make a financial loss, but you can write the loss off either as helping a national or regional branding exercise as a 'place to do business' or else against your tourism budget (or both). Got any motorsport heritage? Or a motorsport infrastructure? Or even much local interest? No? No matter. That will come later. Perhaps.

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But what if it goes wrong? Well, we know. Sadly the tale of the Yeongam facility in Korea that F1 gathers in this weekend is a slow motion demonstration of it.

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Korea and F1's road to hell was paved with good intentions, and no little ambition, at least in its days of inception. The talk then was of a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a new marina wherein the beautiful people could pose on their boats, as well as the whole range of leisure facilities, hotels etc etc. A Monaco for the new generation if you will. Or perhaps a new Singapore, as a night race was talked about too. It sounded impressive whatever was the case, and presumably that it was in a remote location - some 400km from Seoul on reclaimed swampland near a shipping port - would stop to matter once everything was in place.

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Before the first F1 visit, in 2010, construction fell behind schedule and the event looked under threat. As it was, the recently-laid track was approved a matter of days before first practice and everything was alright on the night, although the facility was skeletal at this stage and everything had a 'last minute rush to achieve the bare minimum you could get away' with quality.

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And worse, rather than reflecting mere teething problems it was a portent of things to come. No sooner had their Grand Prix bow happened as noises started to emanate from Korea that the money accumulated had come up short of what was required for their grand plans, as well as that they weren't happy with the losses they were making from the event (though quite how this point eluded them when they signed the deal in the first place is anyone's guess) and wanted to re-negotiate their multi-year deal or pull out altogether. Unfortunately, Bernie - to borrow from CJ on Reggie Perrin - didn't get where he is today by giving away money. It's said that a lowering of the fee did indeed take place, but beyond that the event lingers on grudgingly, and to no one's great enthusiasm - other than Bernie's when he looks at the bottom line.

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And everyone turned up to Yeongam a year later to find that there had been no progress on the new gleaming city. Indeed, literally it seemed, the place had been locked up when the previous year's Grand Prix circus had left town and not opened again until the next year's had come along.

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Things are roughly the same now. As a result, the atmosphere at Yeongam race meetings certainly is unique, but not in a good way. The incomplete and neglected facility, in the beginnings of being crept upon by nature, complete with a desolate backdrop, ensures a rather eerie, other-worldly feel. With its unnatural quiet, brief flashes of modernity and unmistakable sense of waste and decay, it's a little reminiscent of an abandoned city from a dystopian future, perhaps out of the imagination of a Marvel Comics illustrator. And when the cutting edge F1 cars are circulating in the threadbare surroundings with a suitably sparse crowd watching on, the atmosphere starts to border to the Orwellian (it even has a separate pit and paddock complex for support events, despite not having any support events). It's a stark reminder, as if we need it, that in modern times it is TV viewing and money being moved around behind the scenes that rule. Getting numbers in through the gate to spectate is far down the list of priorities.

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That the recently-published 2014 calendar had the Korean event marked as provisional got a few hopeful that F1 is entering its last mile when it comes to Yeongam. This weekend thus could mark the not-especially-fond farewell. And presumably the facility will then have its back turned on it by a world with little urge to recall it other than as an oddity, to slowly crumble and linger only as a monument to its own folly.

It seems no many things have change or being update at the Korea International Circuit.

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