Korea organizers face deadline on track readiness

BY foxsports • September 15, 2010

The man in charge of making sure that South Korea's first Formula One race goes ahead is feeling pressure. Tons of it.

''Am I stressed?'' asked Jason Cho, track manager at the Korean International Circuit. ''Just look at my face,'' he said, smiling.

The sunglasses come off, but the hard hat stays on. It has to, because the race organizer acknowledges the circuit is not yet ready with time running out before the Oct. 24 event.

While the Korea Auto Valley Operation (KAVO) insists the track will be finished on time, there are many doubters in Formula One circles heading toward the day of reckoning on Tuesday.

That's when Charlie Whiting, head of F1's technical department, arrives in the remote southwestern corner of the country about 250 miles from Seoul to inspect the track and decide whether the race can go ahead. If he gives the thumbs-down, Korea will lose this year's event as well as the second race of its seven-year agreement.

Construction of the circuit and associated infrastructure began in November 2007 and was scheduled to have been finished in July, but cars and trucks are still whizzing around the track in a frantic effort to meet the deadline.

Cho's team is working 15 hours a day, seven days a week to try to get everything ready. The focus of the remaining work is to put on the third layer of the track and the various finishing touches. Work will continue up to the eve of Whiting's inspection.

''We will finish all of the circuit in 10 days, on Sept. 20th because Charlie Whiting is coming here on 21st September,'' Cho told The Associated Press last week. ''It will be ready, it's a must. If we don't finish then we don't have an event; so it will be done in 10 days.''

The weather is to blame for the delays, the construction manager says.

''There has been a lot of rain compared to most years and all this land was all wetland and we had to take all the water out first,'' Cho said. ''Seventy percent of the work was because of hardening the land. If it was just regular land, we could have done it in a year. That made it more technical.

''We are all professionals, but we don't have experience in Korea of building tracks up to F1 standard. If there had been a manual of guidelines to follow, it would have made our work much easier and we would have finished sooner.''

The 3.489-mile counterclockwise circuit is the latest to be designed by Herman Tilke. Though the German's tracks often look spectacular, they don't always produce the thrilling racing seen on some of the tighter traditional layouts and street circuits. The track did get a boost earlier this month, when F1 driver Karun Chandhok took some laps and gave it a positive review.

Though about 4,000 fans attended that demonstration, there have been questions about how many people will attend the race given the remoteness of the circuit and F1 having almost no historical connection to Korea.

Peter Baek, KAVO's deputy marketing manager, acknowledges that Yeongam, the small town nearest the circuit, was not the first choice.

''Initially, our CEO (Yoon Cho Chung) wanted to hold it in Seoul and have a night race that they could race on the street,'' he said. ''That was many years ago and it didn't happen.''

Seoul's loss is South Jeolla Province's gain, and the regional government owns 40 percent of KAVO. The province is regarded as the least developed area of the country and the event is being used to put it on the map both at home and overseas.

Even Korea's efficient and extensive public transportation system may struggle to deliver fans on the race weekend. KAVO has refused to say how many tickets have been sold.

The nearest big city, Mokpo, can be reached by train in just over three hours from Seoul. Another 30 minutes by car gets you to the circuit, though that is on a quiet Friday morning and not an F1 race day.

''Transportation-wise, there are obviously not enough planes going down to the Mokpo area,'' Baek said.

''During the grand prix, however, there's going to be chartered flights, buses, trains, and all sorts of transportation will be available to the public. It's normally four hours to drive, I wouldn't expect more than four and a half hours even with the traffic.''

Privately, organizers admit there will be some traffic problems, but are confident that delays will be much shorter than many other Formula One venues around the world.

The doubts about the readiness of the circuit have dampened enthusiasm among the Korean public.

''Having a circuit and not having a circuit is a huge difference,'' Baek said. ''Next year will be better and there will be a fan base established in Korea. The tough part is obviously the construction part; people are asking if it is ready. We are marketing and promoting the event, but people think that it isn't ready.''

KAVO is confident the track will be finished.

''The Korean construction industry is very developed and at a high standard. We work fast and get the job done,'' the organizers said in a statement. ''We have seen in the past at the 2002 World Cup and the 1988 Olympics, there were always questions of 'Are you guys ready?' but we always got it done and we are positive that the venue will be ready, and it is almost ready.

''Europeans have a set schedule and want to keep to the schedule as actively as possible, but Koreans always get things done.''

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