x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

South Korea's Formula One circuit too far from the madding crowd

Formula One drivers are wondering if the circuit should have been closer to a city, such as Seoul.

Drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, have asked why the Formula One track was built in Yeongam, 320 kilometres south of Seoul, the capital, rather than have it around an urban setting. Others have been disappointed that little has been done to improve the facilities from last year.
Drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, have asked why the Formula One track was built in Yeongam, 320 kilometres south of Seoul, the capital, rather than have it around an urban setting. Others have been disappointed that little has been done to improve the facilities from last year.

Lost in a little corner of south-western South Korea, far from the swagger of Seoul or the neon nightlife of Busan, lies the small, coastal, industrial county of Yeongam.

At times, with a low mist hanging over the Yellow Sea and the mountains of nearby islands looming on the horizon, this quiet rural town is reminiscent of Muscat. But with a population of only 60,000 it offers far less life than even sleepy Oman.

A few shops are dotted around, five men squat in a circle in a grassy field, a woman walks along the roadside with a tattered bag of vegetables.

However, a few kilometres along the road, like a spaceship having landed from planets afar, sits a splendid racing complex which is home to the Korean Grand Prix.

The Korea International Circuit cost US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) to build and is capable of seating 130,000 spectators. It was funded by the local government, yet precisely why Formula One is in Yeongam - and why it has a contract to remain here until 2016 - continues to baffle many of the people who plod around the paddock.

The answer is, inevitably, money. The hosting fee remains confidential, but organisers pay on a year-by-year basis.

Already, critics are wondering if the circuit's contract will run its course. Sebastian Vettel, the world champion, called Yeongam "a bit too quiet" and said it was "a shame" the race was not closer to the Korean capital. "Really to judge the country you have to go up to Seoul," Vettel said.

Yet that is not the plan of the local government officials, who want the grand prix to bring publicity to the southwest of the country.

As Park Won-hwa, the circuit's chief executive, explained: "Other than the agricultural industry, there is nothing in particular here to boost the economy, so that is why we bring the Formula One."

Outside of motor racing, a long-term plan is spoken of that involves residential properties and marine sports for the county, but in the 12 months since the inaugural race, little appears to have changed in terms of development.

"I think, generally, there hasn't been a lot going on since we left," Vettel said.

"The circuit was ready just in time last year and obviously they've had a year break to finish everything. As I said, it looks unchanged in many ways."

Heikki Kovalainen, the Team Lotus driver, said: "I would have thought in a year they would have done more."

Park, who became chief executive in January, said that while it is relatively easy to build a grand prix circuit, "building a city is a lot harder and these things take time".

He added that while he was disappointed by international criticism that denigrated local transport links and nearby accommodation, he accepted that it was fair: "To be honest, last year was not a success, but this year we are confident it will be different."

More than 80 per cent of tickets available for Sunday's race have been sold, and organisers expecting to surpass last year's attendance figure of 150,000.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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