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(Yonhap Feature) Korea needs to do more than host to join elite F1 ranks
By Richard Leiper
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) -- With a worldwide audience of more than 500 million, Formula 1 (F1) sounds like the ideal sporting contest to host in your own backyard. With Grand Prix throughout the year, from Monaco to Texas to Montreal, Korea should be delighted to join the ranks of those hosting the highest class of open-wheeled auto racing.

   However, since the inaugural 2010 Korean Grand Prix, Korean interest is sagging and the organizer's accumulative three-year loss is approaching 175 billion won (US$163 milion), which has attracted negative coverage in local press.

   Beyond that, despite Korea's status as a prosperous, competitive country, it has failed to produce any F1 competitors.

   In fact, all of Asia could use a boost in developing interest in F1. Europe and the Americas have long dominated the sport as the only continents to have supplied F1 champions. Europe's flags crowded this year's championship table with Germany's Sebastian Vettel piping Spain's Fernando Alonso to the title. Finland's Kimi Raikkonen finished third, with two British drivers completing the top five.

   Only a smattering of Asian drivers have even competed at this top level.

Despite their efforts to draw public attention, the Korean Grand Prix organizers say interest is sagging and financial losses accumulating. (Yonhap file photo)

As the governing body of motorsport, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) has worked in recent years to expand the number of Asian circuits to eight as of 2012, a significant portion of the 20 circuits hosted globally. Home to some of the world's strongest markets, Asia could offer huge commercial opportunities for the sport if it were tapped properly.

   Motorsport organizers also have worked to help bridge the gap between F1 and Asia. The GP2 Series, a stepping stone to F1 for many drivers, expanded to Asia in 2008. Teams competing in the GP2 Asia Series are encouraged to supply a driver who is neither European nor from the Americas. Drivers from Bahrain, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan and China have grabbed the wheel, but Europeans have retained a stubborn hold on the lead, winning three out of four championships.

   Japanese drivers have made meaningful appearances. Kamui Kobayashi managed to serve as a viable link between the Asian series and F1. Initially a driver in the GP2 Asia Series, he moved into F1, replacing German driver Timo Glock for the final races at Toyota in 2009, before moving to Sauber in 2010.
Decades ago, Masahiro Hasemi led the pack, first competing in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. Unfortunately, with an 11th place finish, seven laps behind the winner, it would prove to be his only Grand Prix. His compatriot Aguri Suzuki continued to blaze the trail, finishing on the podium at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.

   But these drivers are the exception, not the norm.

   "We have the infrastructure in Korea. We have F1 in Korea," said Recardo Bruins, a Korean-Dutch race car driver. "But we need corporate sponsorship, one of the big Korean companies to align itself to the most expensive sport in the world."

   Born Choi Myeong-gil, Bruins, who was adopted from Korea to the Netherlands, took the typical path toward the racetrack. Like many drivers, he started go-kart racing from a young age. At five, he got behind the wheel, moving on to win prizes and titles at mini class events in the Netherlands between the ages of 8-12.

   From there, he graduated to junior class competitions on international circuits, taking the Dutch National Championship in the process. Bruins switched to Formula racing in 2004, driving for Orange Motorsports before switching to Van Amersfoort Racing to finish the 2005 Dutch Formula Renault 2.0 series in third place.

Recardo Bruins, a successful Korean-Dutch race driver, says what Korea needs is strong corporate sponsorships to support one of the most expensive sports in the world. (Courtesy of Recardo Bruins)

Success propelled him into the faster and more intense Formula Three Championship in Germany. Bruins clinched more victories, earning two wins and several podium finishes to close his second season in fourth across Germany. Along the way, he hoped to catch the attention of teams one level higher in the European GP2 Series.

   More recently, Bruins has won the top class of Korea's Speed Festival the last two years running.

   According to Bruins, Korea needs a driver or team to help spike the nation's consciousness. The movement, he said, could be akin to Korea's football fever brought on by its heroic World Cup effort in 2002.

   But young Koreans can hardly follow in Bruins' wake, said Walter Foreman, an F1 fan who has volunteered at circuits both inside and outside Korea.

   "World Champion F1 drivers like (Michael) Schumacher, Vettel, (Jensen) Button, (Lewis) Hamilton and Alonso, they all got their start in go-kart racing," Foreman said. "As far as I know, Korea lacks a competitive amateur go-kart racing series."

   Go-kart racing circuits have opened in large cities like Seoul, Paju and Gwangju, but they are still few and far between.

   Foreman also points to money and infrastructure as key components. "Naturally, those two areas go hand in hand," Foreman added.

   F1 drivers tend to be extremely affluent before joining F1 unless heavily sponsored by others. Unlike sports like soccer or tennis, motorsports are not accessible to the masses.

   "It would be akin to someone wanting to play on a professional football team, and although they can't play football well, they have rich benefactors who essentially buy them a place on the team," Foreman explained.

   This can be linked to the massive branding and corporate opportunities afforded by F1, with over a third of the world's top companies having been involved in the sport. As Bruins points out, "F1 provides a huge networking platform for Fortune 500 companies."

   Waiting for wealthy young Koreans to coast through the European circuits is quite unrealistic. A more realistic approach would mean the right infrastructure, powerful Korean corporate sponsorship, opportunities and a little bit of luck.