It is often said that it is easier to find the negatives in life than the positives. I guess that’s true of all of us at times. But rarely does Formula One slump to such navel staring as for its annual trip to Korea. And to a degree I get it.
The track was hastily and only partially completed when first we arrived, it was situated in the middle of marshland, and the connecting city of Mokpo seemed a strange and unwelcoming place. We’d been told we wouldn’t be staying in hotels, rather “Love Motels.” The whole place just sounded a bit seedy. Oh and the food… don’t they eat dog in Korea? Forget it, we’ll find a burger. Unless that’s made of dog too.
But over the years I have come to enjoy Korea, and to discover the joys of Mokpo itself. I guess it all stemmed from a fabulous few days spent in the Itaewon district of Seoul last year after my Brazilian colleagues Ico, Felipe and Tati had passionately extolled the virtues of this incredible country to us all in the months preceding the race. It is from Itaewon that I am writing this article, waiting for close to 30 friends and colleagues to turn up before we all enjoy what this city has to offer.
Of course it would be wonderful if the Korean Grand Prix had happened in or close to Seoul, but that wasn’t the point of bringing the race to this country. The purpose, as with so many of the new fly away F1 races, it so bring footfall and investment to emerging parts of a nation. When one takes the blueprint laid down by the Grand Prix of China, one can see the potential benefits.
Jiading was mostly farmland when I first visited a decade ago. It is now a bustling metropolis and the base for many Asian and Western auto manufacturers’ Chinese operations.
The intention for Mokpo was fairly similar. Already a hub of heavy industry, the Grand Prix track itself was due to be the central feature of a new leisure park. The final sector of the track with its closed, street course-esque features, was due to be just so, with majestically tall buildings and hotel lining the circuit. Alas, the money fell out of the venture and so we are left with a race track in the middle of marshes and next to a shipyard.
Mokpo itself has a unique charm. If one ventures out of the westernized bars and into the local eateries, Korean food holds my intrigue and delivers individual flavours I’ve never found anywhere else. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve not eaten dog once.
The people are genuinely charming, and will do anything to help. I can’t quite imagine how most of the English speaking world would fare if a Korean asked them how to find their hotel in his native language. A shrug and a look of confusion might be the best our travelling friend could imagine, but here in Korea people seem to genuinely want to help. Jason and I would never have found our hotel in Itaewon last night were it not for a fan at the circuit yesterday who, despite speaking zero English, managed to translate our hotel address from English to Korean and input it to our brilliant Infiniti JX35’s Korean GPS.
I love Korean fashion style. I spent an evening out in Mokpo buying clothes. I love Korean music. And so does the world. K Pop is the single biggest selling style of music on earth. And with good reason. Melodic, beautifully produced, I’ve actually fallen a little bit in love with it.
And the hotels. First thing’s first, let’s get this whole concept of the motels being sleazy and seedy out of the way. Love motels in Korea remain a massively taboo topic. As the name suggests, they’re generally used to allow young couples a place to spend a few private hours, given that in Korean and Japanese culture the family unit remains living together until children become young adults and are well into their sexually active years. Of course there is also the sleazier side of prostitution for which some are used, thus leading to their taboo-like nature in Korean society.
As such, and given that all the hotels used by teams, media and fans are approved by the circuit and authorities… do you really think we’d be put in what are at their worst, and to be blunt, knocking shops? Every hotel/motel I have ever stayed at in Mokpo has been awarded the “Good Stay” badge. According to the Korea Tourism Organisation, “The Goodstay logo is the promise of a reliable and affordable accommodation. Only motels and inns whose facilities and operations meet high standards can receive the Goodstay endorsement. To date, over 180 establishments nationwide have received the Goodstay seal of approval, ensuring everyone from backpacker to business traveler has a delightful stay in Korea.”
180 establishments in a country the size of South Korea is not a huge number. This year at my motel my sheets were changed daily, the room was comfortable. Let’s be honest, these places aren’t going to win Grande Luxe competitions, but they’re not anywhere near as bad as they’re made out to be.
And Mokpo itself? The town is derided as being soulless. But we stay in the smallest square mile of what is an enormous city, stretching down the coastline. I’ve rarely set foot outside the tiny area we call home for the race weekend. I doubt anyone else has. But this is a city with parks, temples, museums, culture and history. F1 is so focussed on itself it just hasn’t taken the time to see what’s on offer.
There is a lot of talk that we won’t ever come back to Korea, and I think that would be a huge shame. Just as it took time to build the fan base in China, so it will here in Korea. But just as in China, they are going about it the right way, by bringing in huge parties of students and school children to fill the stands and put that passion in their hearts from a young age. They did that in China too, and it is starting to pay off. China has real, devoted, passionate and knowledgeable fans.
This year in Shanghai, en route to the TV compound, I was met by a lovely group of local fans… who, quite incredibly, knew me from my GP2 commentary. They had printed photos and asked for an autograph, we posed for photos, and they had bought a lovely doll for my daughter. I was incredibly touched. The next day they were waiting with a beer because they’d seen from my twitter I was absolutely aching for one after a long day.
Two weeks ago in Singapore, we all met up again! They had taken the time and expense to not just visit Jiading for their own race but to fly to Singapore. And they were looking forward to the GP2 as much as they were looking forward to the F1. A decade into China’s Formula 1 foray, that bedrock of genuine die-hard fans is starting to show itself.
It would be a shame to take that away from Korea, because in a short time you can already see the fanbase building. The motorway from Mokpo to Seoul last night was filled with cars returning home after the race. Stopping at a service station I bumped into Davide Valsecchi and we were amazed with the fact that almost everyone in the place had an F1 team cap on their head.
The last time we said a track was in the wrong place it was Istanbul. We lost that race and I miss the place. I loved the country and I loved the track. While I really don’t care much for the Korea International Circuit, it has given us some highly enjoyable races and I hope that in six month’s time we’ll be coming back here.
It’s all too easy to knock somewhere that’s a bit different. It’s all too easy to dismiss and to mock what we don’t take the time to try and understand.
Korea has started to fall in love with Formula 1. I just hope Formula 1 returns to this great country to allow those that haven’t already, the opportunity to fall in love with Korea.