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Korea: Nice place. Pity about the race track

Maurice Hamilton October 10, 2012
The ship-building town of Mokpo © Sutton Images
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The Korean Grand Prix is a strange one. It got off to an unusual start when I spent my first night in an Irish bar having Guinness and a hamburger while playing darts with David Croft (then of BBC Radio 5 Live but later having to abandon his West Ham shirt and dress properly following a switch to television and more first-rate commentary with SkySportsF1).

This was in Seoul, a buzzy city that reminded us of Tokyo, but with about a million less people on the sidewalks. We should have enjoyed the evening more because it was to seem like our last link with a perfectly civilised country before heading into the back of beyond.

Not that you would know it during a three-hour train ride that was not only comfortable and reasonably priced but also had the benefit of Wi-Fi throughout the journey - well, most of it, the tunnels in the vicinity of Seoul causing a few disconnects mid-Tweet. The truth of this journey begins to dawn when you make your way through the exit door of Mokpo station.

I missed the inaugural GP in 2010 (the one where Mark Webber lost his championship against the wall and Sebastian Vettel took a significant personal step towards winning it by remaining remarkably calm and motivating Red Bull despite his Renault having converted itself into V8 full of broken bits). There was method to my absence.

Colleagues reported the unique pleasures of staying in Love Hotels with dimly-lit rooms decorated in shades of pink. The bedside drawer contained a manual on safe sex, which made an interesting comparison with the usual Gideons Bible and the offer of succour and comfort in times of need. Vending machines stocked goods that could not be consumed - or, at least, not in the food and drink sense of the expression.

Taking advice, I chose to stay in a women's hostel - but without, I hasten to add, the women in residence. This being a centre of help and protection, its location was kept so private that none of the taxi drivers outside the station had the faintest idea about our destination. After half an hour of waiting - and the frustrating sight of watching colleagues cheerfully waving goodbye as they sped off to a waiting Love Hotel - one very helpful passerby, feeling sorry for us, got on the phone to goodness knows whom, discovered the exact location and passed on the message to the next taxi driver to appear.

That done, and given the driver's nonplussed expression, we did query the wisdom of it all as the journey took us into the far reaches of a deserted industrial estate (it was now early evening). We need not have worried because our man knew exactly where he was going and, as we were to discover, the non-plussed look belongs to anyone having to live in this very average corner of the country.

The hostel was immaculate and the service impeccable. We discovered clean, spacious rooms which, although strictly minimalist with a mattress on the floor, looked like the Ritz when shown on our smartphones to hapless colleagues shacked up in some shabby downtown bordello.

The circuit is in a place called Yeongam which, judging by the location, means 'Reclaimed Land We Don't Know What To Do With'. Someone did a very good sales job to persuade those responsible to build a race track on which Mr. Ecclestone would let his F1 cars loose and charge several million dollars for the privilege.

The Korean Grand Prix is not set against the most inspiring background © Sutton Images
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The track itself is actually pretty good. The shame is that this is the Korean equivalent of Bahrain with a purpose-built circuit that appears to have no purpose as it disappears into the empty distance and comes back to the pit straight. There are supposed to be hotels, harbours and houses but, the last time I looked 12 months ago, someone had forgotten to build them. Either that or they had lost the key to the main gate and the lads from Wimpey Construction (South Korea) Ltd could not gain access.

This is closer to the truth than you might think. The teams' advance parties arrived to set up the garages and do the unpacking only to find, once the gates had been opened, what looked like a holiday camp that had been closed for the winter. Or abandoned, more like. Tufts of grass and weeds sprouted in the paddock, an infinitely more agreeable sight than kitchens containing left-overs from race day lunch in 2010.

The track itself looked fine but you will notice how the camera angles remain tight to avoid showing the desolation beyond the concrete walls. Korea may be without a racing heritage through no fault of its own but, judging by the wastes of Yeongam last year, it appeared disinteresting in creating one.

The really nice people there deserve so much better than this. So does F1 and it can only be hoped that matters will have improved this weekend. But, if this is the future, then you might want to consider the alternative of popping down to the pub for a game of darts and a Guinness. In some ways, it was the best part of Korea 2011. And we ganged up on poor Crofty and gave him a hammering into the bargain.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live