Twenty-eight hours door to door seems about the average when it comes to travelling to Mokpo, Korea from Europe and it is with a heavy heart and heavier eyes that you arrive in the south of the country. It is not the most thrilling venue on the calendar but this year, the place was as good as it has ever looked. But the question is, does the Korean Grand Prix actually work as an event?
It certainly threw up an exciting Grand Prix if you look beyond FP3, qualifying and the race result. We had tyres, fires and frustration for many of the 22 drivers. We had a few big smiles and celebrations for Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hülkenberg.
As an event, there is no doubt that it is getting better and year on year and Mokpo improves as a town, as a place where you have to spend a week. I did wonder if we were just getting conditioned to it but it has improved. We still stay in very strange motels that are normally booked by the hour and not certainly not where you would choose to stay for four nights. There is still a shortage of restaurants and there were fewer print journalists and TV crews at this Grand Prix than any other on the calendar with many choosing to sit it out. Paddock clubs, for sponsors and most teams, are non-existent.
Away from the town, the track has not changed at all. The paddock is still a bumpy, uneven area that teams struggle to push tyre trollies and other equipment along before they hit a bump and all the equipment tumbles off, rolling around on the floor, which is an unusual and ungainly sight in the world of F1!
Friday started with a display by the South Korean Air Force. We have air displays at most Grands Prix but before qualifying and the race, but not for free practice. There is no doubt that they are trying to make an event and a sense of occasion but it takes fans to create an atmosphere – not even excitement in the skies or on track can do that.
An official press release claimed that on Thursday, when the cars don’t run, there was a crowd of 20,000. That would be an impressive Korean crowd on race day! On Friday, the 135,000 capacity grand stands did have people in them but we are talking about a handful of F1 fans and some school children. I am slightly jealous; how many of us ever went on a school trip to a Formula 1 race? It certainly makes the Butterfly Kingdom in Glasgow seem slightly less exciting. To educate people about F1 in new venues, of course it is a good idea to start them young, but you cannot help but think it was more about making the place look busy as opposed to bringing in the fans of tomorrow.
Holding a Grand Prix five hours south of the capital city Seoul is the problem. It is a multi-cultural city and one of the most advanced places in the world when it comes to cutting edge technology. Seoul is home to over 10 million people and there is no doubt that businesses, sponsors and fans would be much greater had the race been held nearer there.
When I covered A1GP, we raced at a wonderful hidden gem in Indonesia. The Sentul circuit is an hour outside of Jakarta and the track itself was a good layout and provided some decent racing. It seemed such a waste to have these old, majestic, decaying facilities not being used but sadly I think this is the fate which awaits a few of our current Formula 1 venues. I think someone could be writing a pretty similar column in a few years time saying they visited India and Korea, which ‘once held F1 races’.
At the Yeongam track there was a sign from the local Governor which read: “Thank you Mr Ecclestone for the 2013 Grand Prix”, which brought a wry smile to many people’s faces. While they paid a reduced rate this season, figures of $20 million were being bandied about.
It’s not expected that we will come back to Korea in 2014 but most people have said adieu to Mokpo for the last three years and we’ve always returned. So it is more of a cautious farewell and good luck that I bid to the Yeongam circuit as I leave here. If F1 has used the area and found it wanting then surely letting young racers develop their skills and create a decent, competitive racing series would be the way to begin a motor sport legacy and in turn attract more fans.
Priorities have changed over the years though and now the TV audience is king, but I still think and hope that atmosphere carries from the race track into your living rooms. Maybe we should persevere with Korea on the calendar for a little bit longer. You never know, maybe it will become the Suzuka of the future. I love going to Japan, for both atmosphere and a classic circuit. Bring on next weekend. It’s a venue which ticks all the boxes.