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Future of Korean GP hangs in the balance

Alan Baldwin
5 October 2013
Ferrari Formula One driver Massa drives during the first practice session of the Korean F1 Grand Prix at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam
Ferrari Formula One driver Felipe Massa of Brazil drives during the first practice session of the Korean F1 Grand Prix at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

By Alan Baldwin

YEONGAM, South Korea (Reuters) - South Korea's loss-making, poorly attended Formula One grand prix could be axed after Sunday's race but local organisers are still hopeful of renegotiating their contract and keeping it on the calendar.

Promoter Park Won-hwa told Reuters on Saturday that he was optimistic despite recognising the future of the event at the Yeongam circuit hung in the balance with just a 50/50 chance of survival.

"I do not think it's going to be the last one. We are eager to continue this event because we invest a lot of money to build this circuit," said the bespectacled Park in an interview at his office.

"Public opinion in Korea was very much against continuously holding this event because of a huge deficit. But now we are more or less stabilised financially and we would like to continue," added Park, who is a professor of air and space law.

The grand prix, held near the shipyards of Mokpo some 400km south of Seoul and now in its fourth edition, is listed only provisionally on the 2014 schedule along with Mexico and a new race in New Jersey.

If all are confirmed, Formula One would have a record 22 races next year but few in the travelling circus believe that will be the case. Most teams are reluctant to go beyond 20 rounds.

Korea and New Jersey, whose debut was already postponed last year for financial reasons, are seen as the most likely to be dropped.

"We don't know yet whether we can continue or not because we have to deal with Formula One Management. I do not know how it will end up," said Park.

"We want to renegotiate. Mr Ecclestone has his position, we have our position. Obviously the core issue is the money problem and we don't know if we can find a satisfactory solution or not.

"But I am very much hopeful because Mr Ecclestone is such a nice person and he knows our situation."

HARD BARGAIN

Formula One supremo Ecclestone, who turns 83 this month, is renowned for driving a hard bargain and securing eye-watering deals that have poured billions into the coffers of the commercial rights holder.

The Briton, who has taken the sport to ever more exotic destinations where state subsidies are readily available, is not famed for making generous concessions to those unable to meet his terms.

The Korean circuit's current contract, agreed before Park arrived, runs to 2016 with an option to extend for five years.

The race has ended substantially in the red every year, according to local media reports, with an operating loss of around $37 million in 2012.

"We certainly wish to improve the contract so that we can continue the event with the support of provincial parliament and the central parliament and public opinion," said Park.

"With certain amelioration internally and externally we could reduce the deficit very much. That's why public opinion has changed recently rather in favour of continuing the event."

The race has become a talking point for low attendances, with many more empty seats than spectators on Saturday, although Park put last year's overall figures at 160,000 and said he expected 80,000 on Sunday.

Drivers, used to being mobbed by fans and autograph hunters at circuits like Monza and Monaco, have experienced a quieter weekend for a change.

"You just have to try to draw inspiration from the empty seats," joked Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton.

His compatriot and former team mate Jenson Button spoke enthusiastically of the food, the scenery and the lack of anything to distract from driving.

But he also missed the buzz of a cheering crowd.

"It's always sad when there are no fans at a race," the 2009 world champion told reporters. "It hasn't really got the South Koreans excited and they don't travel to see the race.

"If you have a full house it makes the atmosphere and makes it a special race. This place doesn't have that because no one comes to watch it."

Asked whether he would miss the race if it disappeared from the calendar, Button's hesitation spoke volumes.

"I don't know what to say to that one," he grinned.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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