October 10th, 2012 (F1plus / Graham Keilloh).- Were someone 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.
F1 has incrementally shifted eastwards in recent times, to the point that today no fewer than eight of the rounds are in Asia (rewind to 1998 and there was only one). 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 top dollar to the sport to do so. Yes, it'll likely make a financial loss, but it'll write the loss off either as helping a national branding exercise as a 'place to do business' or else to attract more tourists (or both).
But, sadly, the Yeongam facility in Korea shows what happens when things go bad with this.
It started with good intentions, and no little ambition. The talk was of a street circuit in reverse, with the circuit built and then to be surrounded by a new city complete with a harbour, 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 the case.
Before the first F1 visit, in 2010, construction fell behind schedule and the event looked under threat. As it was, the track was approved a matter of days before first practice and everything was alright on the night, although the facility was skeletal. But rather than reflecting mere teething problems it was a portent of things to come.
No sooner had their Grand Prix bow happened noises started coming out of Korea 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 isn't one minded to give money away. Thus the event lingers on, to no one's great enthusiasm (other than Bernie's when he looks at the bottom line).
And everyone turned up to Yeongnam 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.
The incomplete and neglected facility complete with a desolate backdrop ensures a rather eerie, other-worldly atmosphere, a little like an abandoned amusement park out of a teen horror film (it even has a separate pit and paddock complex for support events, despite not having any support events). And the lack of a surrounding city has ensured that remoteness adds to the circuit's problems: nearby accommodation is meagre, the nearest international airport is a mere four hours' drive away.
And it's all a pity, as the circuit itself is by no means the worst. It has much of the Tilke DNA, such as lengthy straights book-ended by tight slow corners, but the second half of the circuit is a flowing and challenging series of medium and high speed turns. It's a track with a bit of everything, so it will reward cars that are good at everything.
Sebastian Vettel won the 2011 Korean GP (Clive Rose / Getty)
Of course, many eyes will be on the Red Bulls in Korea. Sebastian Vettel has won the last two races, including running away at Suzuka. Many take this as evidence that Red Bull has had a eureka moment, possibly with a double DRS, a new exhaust solution, suspension changes, or revised front and rear wings (or a combination of the above), and is now poised to run away everywhere.
While 2012 persistently teaches us about the dangers of looking too far ahead, Korea could well be pivotal to the season. If the Red Bull runs away there too then it becomes hard to see it being stopped. That Vettel's now all over Alonso like a bad suit at the head of the championship race has concentrated minds especially. One note of caution for the Bulls though is that, with Yeongam's lengthy straights, it won't be able to 'write off' straight line speed as it did in Suzuka.
So, where does that all leave Ferrari? The hour and a half of racing at Suzuka on Sunday slashed Alonso's previously comfortable(ish) championship lead to next to nothing, so cruise and collect seems less on the agenda for it now and both development and race craft are likely to become more aggressive (though the team shouldn't forget that cruise and collect is broadly what got it the championship lead in the first place).
That Felipe Massa finished second at Suzuka, a track that gives the car a full aero workout, shows the F2012 is not all bad however, the 'bit of everything' Yeongam should suit the car more than Suzuka did, and reportedly there are many developments in the Scuderia pipeline. And no one's ever got rich by writing off Fernando Alonso ahead of time; his is a corpse prone to twitching. But none at Maranello can deny that to rescue the title they need to start finishing ahead of Vettel at some point.
But McLaren's case is a warning against assuming we know what lays ahead. Going into the Suzuka weekend it had won three of the previous four races and retired from the lead in the other, thus all assumed it would remain the car to beat. However, the cars finished a rather distinct fourth and fifth there, behind Massa and Kobayashi's Sauber.
Again, the 'bit of everything' characteristics of Korea should suit the versatile MP4-27 (it's taken pole on similar tracks this year, such as Barcelona and Malaysia) and the likelihood remains that the Suzuka weekend was an abberation. Many will have their eyes on Lewis Hamilton too as in Suzuka, his first race after handing his notice in, he was abnormally subdued. He attributed this to understeer in qualifying and the race due to going down a blind alley on set up, but if he has another subdued time of it in Korea people will start to establish a pattern.
Lotus again may be the dark horse in Korea. The E20 is also versatile and Pirelli is bringing the softest tyres allocation it can, as Paul Hembery noted it's the biggest challenge of the year that the super soft tyres face in terms of lateral forces, which if it'll suit any of the front-runners it'll suit the Enstone lot (though it also should be said that these compounds were used in Korea last year and didn't cause many problems). And Lotus is bringing a major upgrade package to Korea including a grandly-titled 'Coanda-style' exhaust (essentially an exhaust and sidepod which uses downwash effects to direct the exhaust fumes towards the diffuser, similar to the McLaren solution).
Further, the long lap should also rule out its occasional problems with qualifying lap tyre warm up. Kimi Raikkonen's just about clinging to the shirttails of the championship battle even in recent times wherein Lotus has struggled a little; he may be in a good position to claw back some ground this weekend. If he doesn't, then what remains of his championship chances could slip away very quickly.
The soft tyres and the track that allows a car to stretch its legs should also suit the Sauber, but the tyre allocation likely rules out one of its famous one-stop race runs.
Fortunately there should be plenty on track to keep us occupied at Korea this weekend. And possibly keep our minds off everything off it.