Last Sunday saw the inaugural Korean Grand Prix take place as part of this year’s Formula One fixture list. There had been much debate up to the last minute about whether or not the track would be ready in time and would pass its final safety inspection but it was and it did. As it’s not every day one finds oneself living in a country about to join the F1 circus, a group of us bought tickets and went to enjoy the event.
The Korea International Circuit (KIC) is in the south-west corner of the peninsula near the city of Mokpo; about four hours’ drive from here and a similar time from Seoul. We had been warned that there were neither many hotels nearby to stay in nor much work yet done to prepare the local roads for the heavy race traffic. The race started at 3pm so we agreed to set out in a coach at 7am to be safe.
Sunday morning dawned grey, grim and filthy wet. It was miserable bad luck: the weather is typically very dry at this time of year and there had been no rain for days if not weeks prior to race day. What a way to introduce Korea to the GP-watching world.
Arriving at KIC just after 11am, we were greeted by huge expanses of mud, gravel and puddles. Yes the track was ready for use but the surrounding facilities were clearly far from finished. Aside from some food and merchandise stands in the main grandstand building the site was bereft of amenities beyond a scattering of portable toilets. I collected my tickets from a tent by the edge of the car park then crossed the mud to Grandstand C via a pathway of ineffectual sodden blankets. It felt more World War One than Formula One.
There was an advantage to the work being unfinished: while our tickets bore seat numbers they had yet to be applied to the actual seats so we were invited to pick our places. As relatively early arrivals we had a fair choice and found a spot close enough to Turn Four to enjoy the action but high enough to see a good portion of the track. It also afforded a good view of the green and handsomely hilly surrounding countryside.
Our three-and-a-half-hour wait for the race to start was briefly punctuated by a ‘support race’ of Genesis Coupes (a popular local car) which ran a total of three laps, all driven behind the safety car due to the weather. Later and fortunately during a brief pause in the rain, the drivers plus camera crew and an interviewer did a lap of the track on the back of a truck as a pleasant ‘meet the fans’ exercise, all relayed on the PA and big screens. The rest was damp silence.
Then unannounced the cars came out to form up. Sitting by the fourth corner we were far enough away from the start/finish line and the pits to hear nothing of the activity there. First we heard a sound like the distant wail of a sports bike with an after-market exhaust pipe. Seconds later Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull flew into view leading a spray-shrouded procession of snarling, spitting machines into the corner beneath us.
Bellowing engines popped and banged on the over-run with flames flashing from the exhausts and revs bounced high to low as each car shifted down the gears for the turn. Gleaming clean paintwork was firework bright in the subdued light. The air became redolent with aromas of exotic lubricants and materials heating up and rare fuels combusting, smells that seemed simultaneously natural, synthetic, foreign and familiar.
Sensual overload was complete, raising the hairs on the back my neck and spreading a large smile across my face. The 7am start, the hours of waiting, the mud, the expense of the whole exercise: they were no longer a problem. My first encounter with a living, breathing Formula One racing car had me completely hooked.
The rest as they say is history: three laps behind the safety car, an hour’s stoppage, a re-start behind the safety car followed eventually by some actual racing which after all the delays finished in twilight.
Up until this point I had only ever watched Formula One racing on television and I often sympathised with the complaints about boring processions, no overtaking and similar. Such points of view are still valid but my approach to them has been amended. While a wealth of camera angles can show much more of a race than will be visible from a trackside seat, the more immediate, near-visceral experience of actually being next to the tarmac is on a different plane.
The live experience affords a detailed insight into the man-machine racing dynamic that no amount of in-car footage or slow-motion replays can ever convey on screen. I will continue to watch the races on television and do so feeling an even greater amount of respect for the efforts of the drivers and the teams but at the same time I will be wishing I was watching from the trackside.