Photo-finish for Korea

Before the cars enter the grid of the Korean Grand Prix next week, the most important race in Korea has already been held: the one against time. Four years ago the South Koreans received confirmation to host the Formula 1 race in 2010, but not even two weeks before the race the FIA did approve the new circuit. While the foreign press began to worry about the track, the Koreans always maintained confidence.

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It appeared that Bernie Ecclestone made a smart move by stepping into the Korean market. The world’s fifteenth economy is also home to the world’s largest electronics manufacturer Samsung, LG is doing well and Hyundai’s cars sales are giving them the fifth rank in world’s largest car manufacturers. Although all this hasn’t yet lead to a flourishing Korean motorsports culture with their own tracks, an F1 team, a decent fan base, or notable racing talent, the Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO) and Bernie Ecclestone signed a contract in 2006. Within four years a Korean Grand Prix would rise in the southern countryside from scratch. This wasn’t the first time Ecclestone tried to set foot on Korean ground. In 1996 a deal was signed with Sepoong Engineering Construction to build a track in Kunsan, which never happened. In 2006 the confidence was back and as willing as the Koreans were, they laid the money on the table and promised to swing their wand.

Now, in October 2010 there is no sight of any true racing mania and the debacle of the nineties threatened to get a second bad chapter. The track remains unfinished, ticket sales are slow and Hyundai is remaining very quiet. After the new racing track was announced, the car company joined the buzz and announced its possible entrance with an F1-team of their own in 2010. Instead of the intended enthusiasm, stress now reigns: is it in any way possible a track can be used? Will the race at the track that barely resembles the atmospheric drawings appeal to the fans? On the empty land not only a racing circuit will appear, but half of that is planned to be a street circuit in a city that doesn’t exist yet. What happened there in the Korean countryside?

The foul weather and typhoons were bad luck, but that wasn’t crucial, tells Anton Scholz, a German consultant who was involved as an adviser for the organization. “Often times the organization didn’t take over our sufficient advice. Koreans like to do things by themselves and in most cases they manage, but not always. In the organization of Abu Dabhi, for example, a big group of foreign experts were involved, but here in Korea they used relatively little foreign expertise. I have been involved in other big sporting events in Korea and there I saw similar problems. I think they could have profited from the experience of people like me, but they didn’t. I’m not sure if it is arrogance, ignorance or both, but they however didn’t use enough of the foreign advice.” Yun Cho Chung, the CEO of the KAVO confirms that the Korean working culture is different from the West. “It might be a bad habit that like in the Olympic Games in 1988 and the FIFA World Championship Soccer in 2002 the facilities are finished in the very last minute, but in the end it was always managed. Where a westerner by example states that you’d need four weeks for certain job, in Korea we often will do that very same job in two weeks. We have a different way of organizing and also note that the Korean rules on construction are different.” A problem with that seemed that there is not much space for risks. Chung: “It was hard to build a track on wetlands. On dry ground or in the mountains a track like this could be completed in within a year. The extremely bad weather didn’t help us and also plans were changed often.”

For Scholz it was a frustrating process to convince Korean politicians of the potential impact of the Formula 1 event. Scholz: “With a lack of interest among the Korean people and the government it was difficult to make it happen. The upcoming G20 is being promoted heavily; everywhere you go you see the logo. They should have done that with Formula 1, which in my eyes is more important than the G20 for the country on the long term. The local government made their efforts, but the national government wasn’t interested. I even gave a presentation for the Korean president himself. He didn’t seem to realize the big economical potential, but also didn’t see the impact of the damage that would be done to the nation if the event would be canceled.” However Scholz is working hard on organizing the coming of the teams and media, he is moderately positive about the eventual race. “From the very start, it has never been realistic to turn this into a big success the first time, more time is necessary for that. I only can hope everything turns out well. It will be messy, but after this potential bumpy start Korea can surprise the world next year. Whatever happens, the Korean Grand Prix will be an exotic one. Every circuit you go to you always have the combination of a modern airport, five star hotels and a proper racetrack – that will be different in Korea. The differences between Seoul and the countryside are monumental; people live in the same way as twenty years ago. The rural environment has its rustic charms. The people are friendly and the area is authentic and special. I sometimes say there is the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Seoul; this is the chance to show that also outside of Seoul something special can be accomplished.”

The chief editor of the Korean F1 Racing Magazine, Gee Hyun Park, is also very positive about the track being situated in Yeongam in the Jeollanam-do province. “I think that Korean autumn is a beautiful and unique scenery for the race, even if the track is unfinished. I don’t consider it a problem that everything isn’t finished yet. Singapore, for example, didn’t have everything in order the first time either.” As an editor for a magazine in a niche market, he knows that it will be hard to excite the Korean audience for the GP. “Motorsports aren’t popular at all in Korea; few people know about the existence of it. At the moment there are two professional and five amateur races. Though, I can say things are changing. Everland Speedway (a track belonging to the Everland themepark) is undergoing an upgrade from the hand of Hermann Tilke at the moment. At racing events there, I saw large crowds showing up there in the early 2000’s, so there is potential.”

The strategy to first create a motorsports culture before getting involved in big events like F1 doesn’t work, according to Anton Scholz. “Koreans need a big brand to get excited. I saw the same at the FIFA World Championship in 2002. Soccer didn’t mean anything in Korea, but when it happened on such a scale the Koreans went crazy. Many foreigners who were involved in organizing the event never had seen anything like it. So it is certainly possible, and can happen fast. The question is whether the negative press at the moment hasn’t already done too much damage. People are under the assumption that the whole thing was canceled already, or at least think it to be some insignificant event.” Gee Hyun Park also thinks big players need to get involved to give Korean motorsports a boost. “Without the participation of a big car brand of a company like Samsung, the Korean motorsports will develop extremely slowly. Even the cart series at the moment have a hard time surviving. Yet with the new track we can take larger strides. I think we should open a class like the WTCC, BTCC, DTM or Super GT. Based on this we can make way for a formula class. Of course Hyundai would be the best player for that. If they participate and make some noise, the Korean motorsports will revive.”

The new circuit anticipates the ability to boost Korean motorsports. Chung: “We will play an important part in developing motorsports here in Korea. Teams will move towards the new track, we are working on education for young talent and we work hard to attract other international events to the circuit. We believe that by doing this we can motivate bigger electronics and car companies to get involved in motorsports.” And if you’re talking about a car company, of course it is about Hyundai. Chief editor Park doesn’t see them getting exited to get involved. “At the moment it is very unlikely that Hyundai enters motorsports. Compared to tire manufacturers Kumho and Hankook, Hyundai’s participation, strangely enough, is very limited. They dominate eighty percent of the domestic market and don’t consider it necessary to invest in a marketing tool like motorsports. Also, after seeing Honda and Toyota pulling back their teams, they won’t have confidence in being able to compete in F1.”

Kumho is almost the only one showing fresh enthusiasm. It is going well with the Korean tire company that rapidly moved up in the global tire market. The recent positive results were reason enough to flirt with Formula 1 through the media. “The passion of our staff toward motorsports is beyond your imagination.” told Jong Ho Kim, the CEO of Kumho, in a recent interview with Aftermarketnews. The company has been developing tires for motorsports since the nineties; at the moment they are the sole supplier of tires for the F3 Euroseries. Kim: “In 2007 we already finished our Formula 1 tire. We already completed the development of F1 tires in 2007 and now watch for an opportunity to enter into the F1 market” Another potential Korean company is LG – also responsible for all electronics at the new Korean circuit. In 2008 the company became a sponsor of Formula 1 and earlier this year they shook hands with Red Bull Racing. Though, that marketing strategy is mainly focused on the west. The biggest competitor then: Samsung? The company is world famous for its electronics, but the Samsung Group also owns a car company in cooperation with Renault: Renault Samsung Motors. That company produces cars for mainly the Korean market under the name of Samsung. Three weeks before the Grand Prix of Korea they hosted a demonstration of the Renault F1 team in the heart of Seoul, warming up the potential GP audience with dazzling donuts. While the press showed up massively, behind the fences it remained relatively quiet. Can the Big Weekend next week unload a definite racing mania? The CEO of KAVO smiles off all criticism. “We’ll make everybody astonished on the 24th.”