Scare stories put to bed as the 'Vegas of Asia' opens for business – just

Korea joins Ecclestone's circus with plans to use Grand Prix to help develop latest resort city. David Tremayne reports from Mokpo
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The Independent Online

"The track surface is very slippery, Bernie," somebody informed powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone on Thursday, as – against the expectations of the pessimists only a month earlier – the Formula One circus gathered here in South Korea.

Ecclestone, who turns 80 next week and granted the dynamic young businessman Yong Cho Chung his dream of staging a race in his homeland, played it perfectly. "I'd better not walk on the grid then, had I?" he replied, and the twitch of his mouth said it all. The inauguration of the Korean Grand Prix is as much his as it is Chung's and he is clearly extremely proud that it is here and it is happening and he's not willing to indulge the doom mongers. And, apart from an excess of trackside dust, the opening day's practice sessions went pretty smoothly.

There are, inevitably, seedy stories doing the rounds, not the least alarming of which is the suggestion that 500 women of easy virtue, regular inhabitants of certain areas of Mokpo in which most of the press corps seem to be lodged, have been rounded up and shipped elsewhere so that visiting Europeans don't get a bad impression of the community. Many hotel rooms, however, do still bear evidence of the women's occupancy and profession.

But all of the scare stories about the race failed to stack up in the end. The critics said that the $100m Korean International Circuit, near Mokpo in the Sampo District in Jeollanam-do, South Korea, 400km from Seoul, would not be ready in time after delays caused by bad weather. Or that the surface, laid only a fortnight ago, would be torn up the moment practice began and some of the world's hardest racers were let loose in 24 750bhp single seaters.

The race meeting did happen, the track damage didn't. That says it all.

Like so many of Formula One's new venues, Korea is an odd place on the face of it to stage a grand prix. The Koreans don't know much about motorsport, let alone Formula One. But neither, to be fair, did the Malaysians nor the Bahrainis nor the Singaporeans, and that didn't hinder the sport from increasing its global footprint in those venues.

At Incheon Airport in Seoul, a four-hour drive along speed camera-infested roads, the grand prix seemed to be a well-kept secret, and the man in the street appeared unmoved by the news of its imminence. Closer to the action, however, in the neon-fest that is Mokpo, signage offered a colourful welcome, while a field of paper scarecrows at the entrance to the track did likewise – and suggested that the local schoolchildren are already being educated about the exciting new sport that has followed the Olympic Games and World Cup to their home.

And everywhere you looked was evidence that this place was completed – at least to the point where a grand prix can be run – by the skin of its teeth. But the Singaporeans know that feeling only too well and three years in there are parts of their venue that are clearly still a work in progress.

Here, there is a general willingness to please. Korea is already embracing F1 with a spirit that has long eluded, for example, the Chinese.

But why are we here? Is it really about money? Or is it about spreading the gospel of F1?

Ecclestone has already benefited from the Koreans' desire to stage a grand prix. A 1997 project in Kunsan City foundered, leaving him an $11m settlement for the unfulfilled contract. Then tourism-boosting changes to Korean law created the chance to strike the deal between him and Chung's construction company to build a race track on 1,230 acres of reclaimed land. The seven-year contract has options to take it to 2021.

It is a picturesque place, with the Yudal mountains and islands dotting the shoreline of Yeongam Lake and the Yellow Sea. But it's looking into the future that really interests Chung. There's a 25-year plan to develop the region, and the grand prix is only the tip of an iceberg of Titanic-sinking proportions. The strategy is to deploy the race to generate public interest in the area. Then, the second stage of the development will be the construction of Education Town, which will include an international university, medical school and an aerospace engineering college, as well as a casino across the water from the F1 circuit, which will feature a themed hotel, convention centre, garden theme park, an aquarium and a golf course.

Welcome to the "Vegas of Asia" which will compete with global resort cities such as Orlando in Florida, or Abu Dhabi's fast-developing Yas Marina.

Whether the grandiose plan reaches full fruition to create a city around a race track, rather than the other way round, remains to be seen. We have heard such things many times before. But the Koreans have got off to a good start and the burghers of Formula One have been impressed.

"For this level of investment we need to be thankful to the organisers for what they are doing," said the Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali. "I was impressed by the level of infrastructure coming from Seoul to here by car. This is a sign of a great interaction between the present and the future. A lot has been invested and the most important thing is the economics. With regards to here I think that they did everything to be ready. For sure we have seen today the condition of the track and we knew it would be like that, but with the government and organisers spending this kind of money we need to be thankful as it is something amazing. No doubt about it."

Martin Whitmarsh, his opposite number at McLaren, echoed the sentiment. "It's a great commitment and I think everyone is happy to be here. A lot of fear and concern was spread in the months before we arrived but I think it's generally a pleasant surprise.

"Inevitably you can go out there and find some things that are not quite finished but I think everyone has been working hard and we've got to thank everyone who has put in an amazing effort. I think Korea has certainly been an adventure for some of the boys in their hotels, but it's also a new adventure for Formula One."

10 things you didn't know about Mokpo

1. A port city on the south western tip of the Korean peninsula, jutting into the South China Sea.

2. Has a population of roughly 260,000.

3. The fierce battle of Myeongnyang (1597) with the Japanese navy was fought just off its coast.

4. A significant commercial, fishing and passenger port: the fourth biggest in Korea.

5. The birthplace of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who received his 2000 Nobel Peace Prize in the city.

6. It was the setting of a film in 2004, Mokpo hangbu, which portrayed it as a hub of organised crime.

7. Sits in the shadow of Yudalsan, a mountain with an annual flower festival.

8. Sport in Mokpo had been previously limited to a second division football side, Mokpo City.

9. The National Maritime University is a leading Korean academic institutions.

10. Known as Moppo when under Japanese occupation during 1930s.

Jack Pitt-Brooke