Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Oh, South Korea. The land where the famous band BTS originated and where famous singer Psy composed his all-time hit, Gangnam Style. The craze for music and shows runs deep in this part of the world. Although, the same hasn't been the case for motorsport events held in South Korea. While Formula E has recently signed a contract to race in the capital city of Seoul until 2025, this isn't the first motorsport event held in the country.
Yes, Formula One had ventured into the lands of South Korea over a decade before the Seoul E-Prix. The pinnacle of motorsport used to take place around the part-temporary, part-permanent circuit situated in Yeongam, South Korea. Named the Korea International Circuit, it was a distinctly-shaped track consisting of three back-to-back DRS (Drag Reduction System) zones to start the lap. The rest of the circuit was a tight and technical section of corners where overtaking was difficult. The duration of the initial contract was seven years with an option to extend the contract for a further five years, until 2021.
A unique and challenging circuit, having secured its sporting future and a debut during a closely-contested championship battle between as many as four drivers - surely, this seemed to be a mantra for success. So, with South Korea not having hosted a race since 2013, one might wonder: how did it all go downhill for the South Korean Grand Prix?
The interest in hosting a Korean Grand Prix came way back in 2006. In early October 2006, it was confirmed that the event would take place at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam, and the race would be promoted by a public-private company. Construction of the circuit began on 2 September 2009, shortly after having approved funding for the event in 2010. The plan was to finish construction of the circuit on 5 July 2010, three months before the 2010 Korean Grand Prix which was set to take place on 24 October 2010. The organisers revealed that the biggest challenge was to find accommodation for the Formula One staff and spectators. Meanwhile, the FIA postponed the track inspection several times and set a final date of 11 October 2010, just 11 days before the start of the Grand Prix weekend. After a two-day inspection, then-race director Charlie Whiting gave the go-ahead for the track to host the event.
The drivers' response to the circuit was mostly positive, with Michael Schumacher and Adrian Sutil expressing their awe for the circuit. However, concerns were raised about the entry to the pit lane, which was on the racing line. Several drivers expressed concern about being rear-ended while decelerating to enter the pit lane. Upon discussion with the race director, drivers were told they could enter the pit lane from the racing line itself.
Rain had been forecast for the race and the track was wet after overnight rain. This necessitated the race to be started under the Safety Car (SC), but the race was stopped after just three laps due to excess spray and standing water on the track. After a 45-minute stoppage, the race resumed, albeit under the SC for another 14 laps, helping clear some of the standing water on the track. As the SC came into the pits, Sebastian Vettel led the race from Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, and Lewis Hamilton. A few laps later, Webber lost grip on the wet track between turns 12 and 13 and spun. He hit the barrier and collected an oncoming Nico Rosberg too. This brought out the SC once again. Racing resumed on lap 23 with Vettel leading from Alonso and Hamilton. The SC was deployed once again due to an incident between Sebastian Buemi and Timo Glock. The front runners pitted for intermediate tyres and Alonso lost second place to Hamilton, following a slow pit stop. He reclaimed the position on the restart as Hamilton went deep into turn one. The visibility level reduced towards the later stages of the race, and Whiting announced the race would go on for 25 minutes on lap 43. Vettel's engine went up in smoke on lap 46, and he pulled over to retire from the race.
Alonso maintained the gap to Hamilton and went on to take the race win, in near-darkness, at an average speed of 68.349 mph (109.997 kmph). Hamilton finished second, 14.9 seconds adrift, and Felipe Massa made it a double-podium for Ferrari with a third-place finish. However, there were issues regarding the uneven asphalt and unfinished facilities around the circuit due to the delayed construction.
The Korean Grand Prix was held until 2013 but was cancelled for the 2014 season. The race was given a provisional slot on 3 May 2015, citing contractual obligation but was cancelled too, at the wish of the race organisers. Plans to host the event in 2016 too failed to materialise.
The downfall of the Korean Grand Prix can be attributed to many reasons. It was a domino effect put in motion by the delayed construction of the circuit. Construction of the circuit cost around $77 million (88 billion won). The amount requested to be used in the scholarship was 52.8 billion won. However, raising the remaining amount was an issue due to the lack of government aid too. The Korean Auto Valley Operation (KAVO), a part-private venture in collaboration with the local South-Jeolla Government, provided loans worth $159 million to build and operate the circuit.
A racetrack normally earns revenue from selling tickets by hosting events and through hospitality packages. Increased publicity would lead to support events taking place on the circuit. Unfortunately, Formula One was the only event to take place at the track in 2010. The revenue from ticketing wasn't as great, though, as only 168,000 people attended the inaugural race over three days, 80,000 on race day in a facility capable of seating 135,000. This unusually low attendance forced the organisers to slash the ticketing prices for the 2011 running of the event from 460,000 won ($410) to 315,000 won ($280), with tickets available for as low as 87,000 won ($77). Discounts worth 50% were being provided to those booking tickets as early as March 2011. All these incentives reduced the revenue from selling tickets, and despite these, the races saw sparse attendance and ran into losses year after year. According to reports, the track ran into operating losses of up to $37 million in 2012. These attendance figures can be attributed to yet another reason.
The track is situated in Yeongam, located in South Jeolla province. It was not close to Seoul at all. In fact, Yeongam was 400 km (250 mi) south of the capital city. The track was located far away from other big cities such as Busan and Incheon too. This proved to be an inconvenience for the fans, who would have to undertake a cross-country journey to reach the racetrack, and reduced their interest in the event. A good percentage of spectators were expected to travel from nearby Japan to watch the race, however, the lack of connectivity to the nearest airport or train station put an end to this plan too.
The Korea International Circuit was expected to help boost tourism in the South Jeolla province. It was perceived that the circuit would be surrounded by futuristic buildings and luxury hotels, and the entire locale would have a very urban look, come the future. However, none of the plans came to fruition as the region saw barely any tourism, and the circuit itself became a white elephant. The only beneficiaries from this event were the owners of the "Love-motels" in the quaint port city of Mokpo, who hiked the prices when the show came to town.
All in all, the Korean Grand Prix never struck a rapport with the local crowd and was ill-perceived, dogged by financial issues right from the beginning and it would take a Herculean effort to revive the event. The event ran into as much as $180 million worth of losses. Perhaps, the only silver lining in the entire event was the circuit being remembered by one and all from the F1 community for its challenging and demanding nature.
Former McLaren driver and 2009 World Champion Jenson Button's statement in 2013 could be summed up as the non-success story of the Korean Grand Prix. When asked if he would miss the Korean Grand Prix, he hesitated for a bit and then stated, “I don't know what to say to that one.”