Korean Grand Prix diary
skysports.com has headed to the southwestern tip of the country this weekend - the city of Mokpo to be precise.
By Mike Wise. Last Updated: 17/10/12 11:16am
The journey back from Korea was the longest of the lot so far, taking a day (give or take an hour) in total and gaining us eight hours. The latter probably explains why I was wide awake at 4 o'clock this morning. The prospect of a long, lazy lie-in had beckoned on Monday morning, thanks to a noon checkout. However, quite a few of us stayed out until the very early hours after the race, meaning that there wasn't time to wallow in love hotel splendour. It turned out to be the usual story: a brisk shower, get dressed, pack the suitcase, then leave. Then wonder whether you've forgotten something and go back in the room again to open your suitcase and check. Maybe that last bit is just me.
The five-hour bus journey back to Seoul was uneventful. The weather was glorious and showed off the countryside - wooded hillsides and flat plains - in quite some glory. Korea is a very pretty country, I think, very green. What's different are the gaggles of high-rise tower blocks that suddenly appear, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Does the farmer live on the 34th floor? Two comfort break stops later and we were at Incheon Airport. Eighteen hours later, we were back at Heathrow Airport via Hong Kong and I was swimming upstream against the torrent of rush-hour commuters. The adrenalin that sweeps me along during a race weekend was running low by now.
That was far from the case two or three hours after the race had finished, when there was still much work to do. The paddock was being packed up, and it was whilst waiting for an interview that I fell into conversation with a man who, as it turned out, was one of the race's organisers. He explained (as he perhaps might) that this had been the most successful race yet and that the Korean Grand Prix holds a contract until 2016. He admitted, however, that a lot depends on provincial politics: the current government backs the race, but what happens if they lose power?
However, it was something else he said which, I think, gets right to the heart of Korea's problem. The organiser told me that he had earlier attended to the needs of the Prime Minister, who was the second most important VIP present on race day after Psy. Apparently, the PM watched for quite some time before turning to him to ask who was actually leading. Even if the race continues to receive provincial government backing, I think it's that sort of reaction that demonstrates the real battle the Korean Grand Prix faces to establish itself.
I think I said yesterday that it takes half an hour to get from Mokpo to the Korea International Circuit. Scratch that, it's been more like 15 minutes these past couple of days. It wouldn't bother me if it did take a bit longer, though, as the coaches here are very comfortable. Stepping into one is also like entering a time machine: done out in muted colours like claret and curry orange, but with chintzy tassled curtains and strip lighting, it's like entering a social club that hasn't been decorated in 40 years. You expect a fug of cigarette smoke. Anyone fancy a game of dominoes?
On the subject of nostalgia, I'd wager that this is one of the areas the British shipbuilding industry decamped to. Those huge Hyundai cranes pose as a backdrop to the circuit, of course, but there are plenty such dotted around. What's more, the order books still look full. The bus takes us past shipyard after shipyard (they might be the same shipyard for all I know) and everywhere you look there are box sections of hulls and bridges under construction. Something particularly striking about coming here is the number of large - vast even - engineering projects that dot the landscape. An irony, I suppose, is that the full plans for the track have so far failed to materialise.
But it's not always possible to just sit there and gaze out the window, especially when this country's new greatest export is coming town. Yes, he is scheduled to be here on race day and the way people are talking, it's clear what we'll witness will go down as an epoch in the history of popular culture. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show? The Sex Pistols swearing at Bill Grundy? Both mere preludes, surely, to the sight of PSY waving the chequered flag and then performing at the after-race concert.
Facetiousness aside, the Gangnam Style phenomenon (which I wasn't fully aware of until Wednesday) is such that it's impossible to ignore. That explains why my bus reverie was interrupted the other night, when we filmed our very own version. All I (together with the rest of the crew) had to do was don sunglasses and nod my head. I was doing this when Ted suddenly appeared from nowhere doing all the moves. It'll be shown on race day and a version has already been posted here. I hope you enjoy it.
Of all the places we're visiting, it's Mokpo that has brought more anticipatory chat than anywhere else. Not Monaco, not Montreal but Mokpo. Just how bad is it? Less-than salubrious stories abound, with the five-hour bus journey from Seoul the least of our worries. I'd heard plenty about the city (population 250,000) and its euphemistically-titled love hotels; having enjoyed two delightful days in Tokyo, it was finally time to take the plunge. From the sublime to...where exactly?
I visited last year's race, but side-stepped Mokpo. First impressions are that it's nowhere near as bad as some of the tales I've heard. Located on the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula, Mokpo is a port city, which might help explain a few things. I mean, sailors like to cut loose when the boat is tied up don't they? The city centre looks brash and gaudy: bright colours and neon everywhere. And the hotel? Well, luxury it isn't but it's definitely better than I'd imagined. Certainly, I don't think the spare bedsheets and pillowcases I'd packed 'just in case' will be needed.
I don't doubt that the stories are true. Perhaps a few more will be spawned this weekend but the impression is of a place that has at least made an effort in the last three years. New coffee shops and restaurants cater for those of us who want familiarity and comfort at the end of a long day and while the whole event still has more than a whiff of the white elephant about it, progress has been made with the track. Well...sort of. Not the adjoining marina complex that was originally promised, perhaps, but rows of solar panels have been erected in the spectator car parks. They certainly weren't there last year. Alas, neither were the cars on Friday.
Located about a half-hour's drive from Mokpo, the Korea International Circuit appears to have been built on reclaimed paddy fields. It has less bustle than any of the other tracks I've been to. Indeed, gazing out of the press room, one could imagine being at many places more quiet and secluded than an F1 track. Give or take the mountain range on the horizon, it's reminiscent of the Norfolk Broads. The sunset is quite something.
And Mokpo itself? The easiest, laziest, parallel I can draw is as a sort of Korean Newcastle: shipbuilding; an unpretentious nightlife (people certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves this evening); far removed from the capital. Perhaps the latter creates a similar sense of shared identity, although that's yet to be reflected in support for their race. One hears speculation about its future and wonders whether that will ever change.