Red Bull driver and reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel of Germany races at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, Friday, during a practice session. / Yonhap
By Baek Byung-yeul
YEONGAM, South Jeolla Province ― The Formula One (F1) Korean Grand Prix has so far been a disastrous financial decision. But judging by the excitement level of locals seen at the circuit in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, the event could at least be argued to be a ''lovable'' money loser.
Some of the world's top drivers engaged in practice sessions at the Korea International Circuit here in the southwestern town Friday, ahead of Saturday's qualifying race and Sunday's final.
British star Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes posted the fastest practice time, coming in at 1:39.630 minutes. Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull came in second at 1:39.667. The German driving star is currently the runaway leader in the drivers' standings with 247 points, 60 points ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, after winning seven of the year's first 13 races.
The likes of Vettel and Hamilton would have received rock star treatment in countries where auto racing is a popular spectator sport. Korea is not there yet, but it does seem that the Korean GP has been increasing the level of public interest since the first race in 2010.
The seats at the circuit were buzzing with people enjoying the sounds of the multimillion dollar machines under the gorgeous sun.
''I really love it, watching these racing machines in person,'' said Kim Jin-woo, an elementary school student who came with his brother and mother.
''I want to grow up to be a driver like Vettel. I love my mom for buying these tickets. The noise of the cars was louder than what I imagined, and it was a little bit scary, but also awesome.''
Han Jin-sol, a ''hanbok''-wearing Mokpo National University student, was volunteering to help out with work at the Paddock Club, the facility for VIP guests, simply because she loved to be near the action.
''I have been working as a guide for guests of the Paddock Club every year since 2011. I proudly explain our traditional culture, including the hanbok that I am wearing, to foreign guests, who are increasing every year. I feel this is a growing international event,'' she said.
There are weather concerns over Sunday's final as tropical storm Fitow approaches.
''There will be a 30 percent chance of rain in the Yeongam area on Sunday, but we don't think it will be a downpour combined with strong winds. It could just turn out to be a drizzle because the typhoon has already turned toward China,'' an official from the Korea Metrological Administration (KMA) said Friday.
Under its contract with F1, Yeongam hosts three more GPs after this one until 2016. It remains to be seen whether there will be an F1 event in Korea after that as the GP has been a crippling money loser for the small South Jeolla Province town. The accumulated losses from the previous three events are now measured at around 180 billion won (about $160 million).
The Korean Grand Prix will be aired by MBC Television and SBS ESPN. For more information, visit its official web page at www.koreangp.kr.