South Korea’s Formula One struggle

The country’s omission from the 2014 calendar did not come as surprise after four years of struggle.

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    The four years of struggle cost organisers an estimated loss of $180 million [EPA]
    The four years of struggle cost organisers an estimated loss of $180 million [EPA]

    When the vote to select the host for the 2014 Winter Olympics took place in 2007, the Russian resort of Sochi broke South Korean hearts as it won by the narrowest of margins.

    Winter sports don't have much in common with Formula One but now it’s 2014 and Sochi has taken Korea's place on the Formula One calender with its first race scheduled for October 12.

    Bosses at Formula One have been seeking to take the sport to the world - especially Asia - from its European origin. The attempt has largely been successful but not completely.

    For the 2014 season, Korea and India were dropped and replaced by Russia and Austria. India's absence should be temporary as it tries to solve taxation issues but the East Asian nation is going to struggle to return to the fold, at least with the race in its present form. 

    The new track at Yeongam, in the far south-west of the peninsula, has hosted four races but is unlikely to see Formula One ever again.

    Looked good on paper

    But bringing the world's most glamorous sports to the Land of the Morning Calm sounded like a good idea on paper.

    “Even though Korea is the fifth largest automobile manufacturer in the world, the motorsport industry was still in its infant stages,” Peter Baek told Al Jazeera.

    With the right people in place and the right location – combined with many other factors - I believe we have the potential to learn from past mistakes

    Peter Baek, Sports marketing consultant

    Baek is a sports marketing consultant in Korea and a former General Secretary of the country's automobile association who was involved in bringing Formula One to Korea and, according to him, it was “hoped that that having Formula One in Korea would positively affect the automobile industry as a whole”.

    It was also done to put South Jeolla, the country's least developed and populated province, on the East Asian map both from a tourism and foreign investment point of view.

    In practice, however, neither objective was achieved with location perhaps being the biggest reason.

    Half of the country's population of 50 million lives in and around Seoul and Baek. Hosting the race around 350 kilometres away from the capital and far from any other major population centre was a mistake. Even the teams did not seem to enjoy the long journey south.

    "This facility is good, the track is good and interesting in many ways but Formula One has to work harder if we are going to get people to drive four or five hours out of Seoul to come and see it," McLaren principal Martin Whitmarsh had said after it opened.

    "This doesn't have a natural catchment area of fans so you've got to make a fairly compelling case if people are really going to visit.”

    Delays

    Such a case was not made and the race struggled with negative publicity from the start.

    There were months of speculation in 2010 that the track would not be finished on time and it was given the all-clear only days before the event was due to take place.

    The track was ready but many facilities were not and the local infrastructure struggled to cope with visitors, especially in terms of accommodation.

    Even so, many more visitors were needed but this was not easy in a country that with little motorsports history or culture.

    In the four years the race took place, from 2010 to 2013, it is estimated that the organisers lost around $180 million.

    Despite convincing F1 bosses to reduce the hosting costs, Yeongam was still a burden on local and national tax-payers especially as the track was used scarcely during the rest of the year.

    In the end, its exclusion from the 2014 Formula One season schedule did not come as surprise.

    Possible switch

    That does not mean Korea is out on a permanent basis. There have been rumours of a Seoul street circuit - along the lines of a successful Singapore model - for years.

    With its wide streets built after the Korean War and extensive riverside expressways, the affluent capital could be ideal.

    According to reports, South Korean officials were in Singapore recently to chat with F1 movers and shakers about the prospect of a switch to Seoul.

    “With the right people in place and the right location – combined with many other factors - I believe we have the potential to learn from past mistakes and if the event were to be held in or near the capital city,” said Baek.

    “I believe Korea has a chance to make this into a very successful long term event.”

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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