Monday, October 25, 2010

New Shores

Regular readers will know that I'm a bit of a stick-in-the-mud purist on the question of Bernie Ecclestone's desire to always be dragging the F1 circus to new corners of the globe. OK, so I can live without Magny Cours, although it's not a bad circuit, and I don't much miss the ersatz A1-Ring (a pale imitation of the old Osterreichring which once graced that site) . But the thought of losing Spa Francorchamps because the governments of Abu Dhabi or Bahrain are willing to shovel cartloads of cash FOM's way for their white elephant Grands Prix on mickey-mouse circuits that nobody goes to watch leaves me more than a little worried for the future of the sport.

So you might expect me to despair of the latest addition to the F1 calendar - the Korean Grand Prix. And when stories circulated in the weeks leading up to the race that the track was nowhere near being ready for its debut on 24 October, a part of me secretly hoped that FOM might at last get their comeuppance, and that the brakes might be put on races in parts of the world with no motor racing tradition and no local interest. As with the recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi, though, stories that the venue was only half built turned out to be a touch exaggerated (a friend who was on the Manx shooting team tells me that the horror stories about the athlete's village can only have come from people who'd spent their entire lives in five star hotels) and the race went ahead.

And my first impression of the circuit itself? Well I don't think it's quite up there with the best of Herman Tilke's work - the Otodrom Istanbul and Sepang, which perhaps uniquely among the German architect's works, merit comparison with the classic European circuits, but it didn't look too bad. A couple of long straights followed by first/second gear corners which appear to be a necessity if passing is to occur in a modern-day F1 car, and some moderately interesting off-camber medium speed stuff in the latter part of the lap which caught out not a few drivers over the course of the weekend. The relatively gripless freshly laid asphalt and the inclement weather might have helped, but it provided a reasonably entertaining Sunday afternoon's action once things got going. Whether it will make for good racing on a dry day once the tarmac has cured properly I'm not so sure, but at the very least, it's considerably more likely to than Valencia.

The biggest contrast with other recent additions to the F1 calendar though - particularly the three races in the near and middle east, is that the locals appear to be interested. Insofar as its possible to tell from the television pictures, the grandstands - or at least those which were finished before the race - looked reasonably full and there were tales of long queues of traffic as people tried to get into the venue on the Sunday morning. Not, perhaps, what the organisers were wanting , but it strikes me as the right kind of problem for a new venue to be having. Certainly preferable to Turkey and Shanghai's headscratching around how best to hide the fact the grandstands were empty.

One reason I was a bit sceptical about the idea of a Korean Grand Prix when it first appeared on the 2010 calendar is that the country has little in the way of a real motorsports culture to speak of. Can you name a Korean racing driver? No, didn't think so. Come to that, before the Yeongam circuit opened for the business, did the country even have a race circuit? (I'm genuinely interested - if you know, do get in touch - for once, google is failing me...) There is, though, an important difference between the races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and the South Korean race. While those Middle Eastern States are hereditary monarchies which are at best only partially democratic, South Korea emerged from military dictatorship over 20 years ago, and is now described by the CIA world handbook is a mature democracy. It is not, in other words, a country in which those in charge are so far detached from the ordinary people that they can throw hundreds of millions at absurd vanity projects like the neon monument to bad taste that is the Yas Marina circuit. If a democratically elected government in a country with a free press is going to agree to spend significant sums of money attracting the F1 world to its shores, they will have to be sure that people will be supportive of the idea.

I'm sceptical about the whole idea of Government-funded Grands Prix. I think the sport would be well advised in the long run to stay away from the tax-payers' pockets and if FOM weren't the heavily leveraged play-thing of a private equity house, it would be quite capable of surviving, and indeed making a good profit, without the need to charge event hosting fees that no race, no matter how well attended, can hope to recoup from gate receipts alone. But a race that forms part of a broader plan to regenerate one of the more backward parts of South Korea as an automotive and technological hub makes a certain amount of sense. And for once, I found myself thinking that the idea that a Grand Prix can help promote an area as a tourist resort might not be an entirely false one. The pre-race 'local colour' segments about Bahrain, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi have never left me wanting to visit those places, but I couldn't help thinking that, while the circuit might look like a giant building site, the surrounding countryside looked pretty stunning.

Equally, I do concede that there is a strong case for F1, and motorsport more generally, breaking new ground, going to countries where the sport has not yet established itself. South Korea is now a prosperous, fast developing country, and there is no reason why, in the medium term, the sport couldn't take off there. Certainly there appeared to be a good deal more interest than in Turkey. After all, there was a time when Japan had no home-grown motor racing culture to speak of, and that's hardly something which could be said of the place today. And South Korea, unlike Turkey or Bahrain, has a significant motor industry - Hyundai have already dipped their toe in the WRC, and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually they made the leap into F1. So a qualified thumbs-up to the Yeongam circuit and the South Korean Grand Prix, I think. Provided we get to keep Spa, Monza and Silverstone.

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