S. Korea, Ecclestone and the Emperor’s new clothes

The Korean GP is held at the Korea International Circuit is a 5.62 km (3.49 mi) Herman Tilke designed circuit located near the port city of Mokpo. It is estimasted the cost of building the 135,000 capacity facility (including Tilke’s fee) was around $264 million (250 billion won). The promoters of the race are Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO – a joint venture between the mysterious M-Bridge Holdings and Jeollanam-do regional government) and the inaugural race in 2010 was close to being called off due to delays in construction. 

Crowds in the past 2 years at the Korean Grand Prix have hardly been significant in their absence. Empty grandstands and comments about no atmosphere at the circuit from TV reporters hardly substantiate the organisers claim to have sold 85,000 tickets last year. Even if we believe this exaggerated figure when compared to the venue’s 135,000 capacity, this indifference from the Korean public is not really helping the organisers financial woes. The Korean Times in its article “is it worth the tax payers money” tells us the local government will lose $60m every time they hold the race.

Current troubles

Troubles for the organisers deepened when the 2 main sponsors from last year – POSCO and SK Lubricants – pulled out for 2012. They were supposed to provide $1.2 million each. “After reviewing our corporate image and alternatives, we decided not to take the main sponsor deal this year,” a POSCO official, who refused to be named, said in a phone interview with The Korea Times. The national government also refuses to contribute more than $5m.

The track itself has received more criticism than any other in the past 3 years. The pit lane entry is on the racing line of a 250km corner which has a blind apex. This means cars entering the corner cannot see the slower cars positioning themselves for a pit entry. The FIA tinkered with the problem and shortened the pit entrance to move the cars making a stop further round the corner

The pit exit too has been described as the most dangerous in F1 as the cars emerge onto the racing line of other cars travelling at high speed. So serious was this that the FIA took unprecidented action by installing a set of traffic lights at the end of the pit lane, warning drivers rejoining the race of cars approaching at race speeds. Teams also employed the use of spotters to warn drivers (both racing and exiting the pits) of any cars in the pit lane.

The vibe from much of the F1 circus is pretty negative toward the location of the Korean GP. Kevin Easton of the London Times writes today, “Bernie Ecclestone, was presumably of sound mind when he signed a deal that would take the Korean Grand Prix to the metropolis of Mokpo [heavy sarcasm], but then he does not have to stay in the Adam and Eve Love Motel. Or get rid of the mouldy sandwiches from the fridge“. A lack of infrastructure has been a problem over the past 3 years with a lack of Hotels and enormous difficulties from gridlocked traffic getting in and out of the circuit.

Where exactly is Mokpo?

Well, its in the region of South Jelloa which has a land land size equivalent to Northern Ireland. The city of Mokpo has a population of just over 250,000 and is 5 hours drive from the nearest international airport. Compare this to the capital Seoul which is 400km away and has a catchment area similar to Mokpo – but within this area there are 40 times as many people, all living in an area 112 times smaller than the province of South Jelloa.

So why is the Korean GP held in such a location. I’ve trawled through the region’s demographics, history, socio political structures and industrial profile and there is no obvious explanation. I did though I discover that Mokpo has Southwest Asian fame for Hongeo – a strong smelling fermented cuisine of the skate (a kind of ray fish). Yummy.

Yet it is a mystery why this predominantly agricultural region which produces large amounts rice, wheat, barley and potatoes was chosen to host the F1 circus for 7 years.

First choice location

The drive to hold an event in South Korea began in 1996, when Ecclestone previously tried to do a deal further north. Yet unlike other countries the national government in Seoul refused to line Ecclestone’s pockets with tax payers money, so Bernie needed to find another target and eventually struck a deal that year with the Sepoong Engineering Construction Co Ltd to hold races at Kunsan City (half way between Mokpo and Seoul) from 1998 to 2002.

The track was never built and Ecclestone won a subsequent court case in Britain allowing him to keep a payment of $11.75 million. Mr. Ecclestone is known to be quite determined and made it widely known that he felt Korea was to be at the heart of the coming F1 Asian expansion, painting pictures of Koren driver’s soon to be on the grid.

The marketing department of FOM can be very persuasive, they have a team of highly paid lawyers who approach potential new F1 hosts, often national and regional governments (cf. France this year). The finacial model they have built tells tales of unbridled economic wealth and treasures unbounded that will all flow as a result of hosting an F1 race. Billions, not millions of dollars are cited as the income that will be derived from the International prestige and tourism receipts over the life of an F1 contract.

Why South Jelloa

Like many other countries, South Korea has a North-South divide in terms of wealth and investment. Unlike the UK, the wealth is in the north and the south has struggled for investment. Mokpo has a new port that it is hoped will be able to take advantage of China’s new desire to trade, but South Korea’s 6th largest city has lost its once growing power in recent decades. The investment policy of the national government has snubbed the S. Jelloa region and been mostly directed towards others, in particular another coastal city Ulsan which has received huge sums of national development money.

So reading the tea leaves, could it be in as a reaction to the national government years of neglect, the South Jelloa regional administration thought the economic bounty Ecclestone promised would give them the profile and further international investment they craved. Tourism would surely boom and industry would come flocking.

Yet 3 years on the reality is quite different. Congestion has been improved from the construction of a new bridge, but the fancy harbour designed for the mooring of millionaire yachts and the expensive quayside bars are quiet.  The areas of the track earmarked for high rise modern apartment development are still derelict. F1 reporters are saying today they still can’t get a decent hotel for the weekend. The promised international Hotels just never came and the local government cannot complete the infrastructure requirements they expected outside investors to bring.

A disappointing legacy

Gone is the excitement of 2010 when South Korea was viewed as new and alluring place for F1 to go. F1 people on twitter have been staying as long as possible in the bustling city of light that is the capital Seoul. The long journey to the drabness of Mokpo is left to the last minute and even the promoters appear to have lost some interest in the attention to detail. The 2012 guide published for F1 newcomers this week states, “Refuelling and ‘bumper to bumper’ racing two things to watch out for”. Re-fuelling? Does Michael Schumacher know this? He may change his decision to retire if so.

So the normally buzzing F1 circus crawls its way down to Mokpo. One media person tweeted today, “Fantastic 3 days in Seoul. Early train to Mokopoko tomorrow. Like being in London then heading to Shetland Is for an F1 GP! #madness” @f1photographer.

For the local government, losses over the term of the contract, plus the cost of construction the circuit will come to nearly $700m. And for what? The promise of vast swathes of international investment that would bring enormous economic benefit and regeneration to this neglected southern region of South Korea. Yet the reality is that local tax payers will be left with what must be the largest white elephant in the F1 history.

Just like the naked Emperor, South Jelloa’s new and highly expensive clothes were eventually to be seen as nothing but a cruel myth.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Korean Times, Seoulkoreaasia.com, rediff.com, grandprix.com

Please leave a comment with your observations.

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7 responses to “S. Korea, Ecclestone and the Emperor’s new clothes

  1. well, at least south korea can afford it… i’d feel worse if this were an impoverished nation, but theirs is one of the few booming economies in the world just now. which really begs the question of why the race hasn’t been better attended…?

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  3. Pingback: #F1 Circuit Profile: 2013 – South Korea, Yeongam, Korea International Circuit – Round 14 | thejudge13·

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