This past weekend marked the first ever running of the Korean Grand Prix, held down in the puckerbrush of Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, near the coastal city of Mokpo. Despite four years of planning and construction, the event nearly didn't happen. South Korea was beset by unusually heavy rains over this past summer, which delayed construction (although rumors of poor planning were afoot long before the weather became a factor), thus forcing Formula One to break its own rules on track approval. Formula One circuits are supposed to have their final inspection and approval 60 days prior to the race, yet the Yeongam track was approved less than two weeks before the drivers burned rubber. Not content to simply delay track construction, the weather gods outdid themselves and dropped buckets of rain on the race itself.
While organizers cannot be blamed for the lousy weather of late, they certainly should have anticipated other problems that elicited gripes from the media and spectators. From the Joong Ang Daily:
For the Korean Grand Prix, the weather wasn’t the only factor that delayed and disappointed, as many accommodations had serious problems.
Scores of reporters, team members and spectators were assigned to sleep in so-called love motels - which are usually used by people for quick sexual encounters - since these places usually charge by the hour.
BBC Sports’ Jake Humphrey posted a photo on his Twitter account that showed the love motel he was assigned to sleep in, which embarrassed some Koreans.
Also, an Italian reporter who was also assigned to sleep at a love motel was shocked to find a bundle of used condoms under his bed. Another reporter said that his room had been used by others during the day. A French reporter even said he would never come back to the Mokpo area again.
In addition, the local roads leading to and from the track were not designed for such an influx in traffic, leading to traffic snarls that had many people, well, snarling. Several of my friends who attended the event also complained of a shortage of toilet facilities, and thus of long waits to relieve themselves.
Some of these problems can likely be attributed to inexperience on the part of the organizers, and I'm sure that next year's event (Korea has a contract for at least six more races) will run more smoothly. More toilets can be constructed, volunteers can be better-trained and thus more helpful, and construction crews won't be rushing to finish the track at the last minute.
That said, several of the problems cited by attendees won't be so easily fixed. For instance, few investors will be lining up to build new hotels for a three-day event that happens only once a year. Similarly, why should the South Jeolla government pour more resources into expanding road infrastructure near a track that, 362 days a year, sits empty?
In writing this, I am reminded of a 2006 paper by Darren McHugh, in which he conducts a cost-benefit analysis of the Olympic Games on the host city. Despite the clamor to host such events, McHugh finds that the net economic impact on the host region is substantially negative. I can't help but wonder if a Formula One event isn't in the same category. I suspect it is.
One hint that Formula One might not be a profitable venture: as private industry backs away from sponsorships, local governments are stepping in to fill the gap. From The New York Times:
Where private industry withdrew, the new races have one common backer: local governments.
South Korea passed historic legislation last year in the “F1 Act,” which supported the construction and management of the new circuit — the first time that the government had voted on an act to help a motor-sport project.
I have to ask: if private investors aren't clamoring for the opportunity to invest in Formula One events - that is, they see no hope of reaping a profit - why should local governments dump taxpayer money into what is little more than a high-profile money pit?
Given the less than stellar production values of the first Korean Grand Prix, I worry that the South Jeolla government will do what governments usually do when one of their programs doesn't work well: blame the problems on insufficient funding. The result will likely be more public funds - to subsidize, for example, hotel and road construction - down the drain. Such subsidies might well make next year's event run more smoothly, but at what cost?