F1 commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone – the man who rules the sport with an iron fist – has conceded that the inaugural Korean Grand Prix came perilously close to not happening at all, that both Spa-Francorchamps and Silverstone are considerably at risk and that Russia will be a welcome addition indeed to the annual schedule from 2013.
With months of inclement weather and political disputes having led to setback-after-setback regarding the construction of the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam County – around 250km to the south-west of Seoul – there was scepticism right up until the final approval was given by FIA safety delegate Charlie Whiting early last week as to whether the Asian nation's first-ever F1 race would be able to take place, and even now, drivers have severe misgivings about the durability of the freshly-laid final layer of asphalt on the track [see separate story – click here
Ecclestone – who not uncharacteristically oscillated between supporting the event and publicly doubting its viability – has now admitted that the persistent delays had very nearly resulted in an altogether different outcome.
“It's done now,” the Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive told British newspaper The Guardian
. “It's alright. Last month I didn't think it would be finished, and it would have been cancelled then, for sure – but the track has been inspected and passed. Everything's okay.”
F1's venture into Korea is symptomatic of Ecclestone's almost mercenary push in recent years to take the sport to new and hitherto uncharted countries and break down traditional boundaries, with Asia and the Middle East – neither of which have any great racing pedigree or, in many cases, fan base – enjoying a far stronger presence on what is now a far more international calendar than before thanks to the additions of Malaysia, Bahrain, China, Turkey, Singapore and Abu Dhabi over the past decade or so, all designed by not universally-loved German architect Hermann Tilke.
Next season, India is similarly due to join the fray, with the USA set to return in 2012 and Russia on the cards for 2014, with the British billionaire describing the latter as a 'super circuit' and 'all the things we need and wanted', explaining that 'they are trying to build absolutely first-class facilities both for the [Winter] Olympics and F1' and that he 'sincerely hopes F1 is going to play a big part in what I can see happening in [the Black Sea resort of] Sochi'.
“We're a world championship and so, by definition, we need to be in different parts of the world,” he reasons. “In the end, common sense has prevailed and we've expanded. It's just having the courage to do it.”
“Our problem is that we're trying to build race circuits that are super-safe,” he adds, in Tilke's defence. “You don't get so much up-and-down because you can't just put a new circuit anywhere, but one of the best circuits in the world is Turkey. It's a great circuit – and that's up-and-down.”
That is all well-and-good, only F1's increasing globalisation does come at a cost, with purists lamenting the departure from the sport's historic European heartland and the consequent loss of some of its most well-loved, charismatic and soulful if rather more outdated circuits that are by common consensus a world away from the bland, uninspiring, overtaking-averse so-called 'Tilkedromes'.
With the calendar expanding by the minute, it is inevitable that some of the existing grands prix will have to fall by the wayside to accommodate the incoming new venues – or else risk the sheer number of races becoming unsustainable. Ecclestone makes clear that Spa and Silverstone are two of the less secure incumbents – as well as a rather more recent addition.
“We used to have 16 races – there's 19 this year and next year, with India, it will be 20,” he reflects of what is already a packed eight-month schedule. “There's no magic number – it's what is commercially viable. I think we'll find a way to keep it to 20 somehow.
“Maybe someone will decide they need a rest because it's not working for them commercially. A good example is probably Turkey. They've built an incredible circuit and it might even be the best – but there's not much enthusiasm from the public. I don't know why.
“[Spa is] absolutely [in real danger of being dropped]. It's only good for the people who race – that circuit sorts out the men from the boys, and if I was driving again I'd feel very happy I'd won in Spa. It's one of those classic courses and we've kept it, [but] if it wasn't supported by the government over there, it probably would go because they wouldn't be able to afford it.
“It's the same with the British Grand Prix. The worst thing is that the government here have wasted a fortune on the Olympics which will come and go and be forgotten in a few weeks, when they could have supported Silverstone and made sure the British Grand Prix is there forever. The only good thing about the Olympics is the opening and closing ceremony. They do a lovely showbiz job. Otherwise, it's complete nonsense. What I was told they couldn't do at Silverstone has since been done and it will now be a good race that we can be proud of – but nothing is cast in stone.”