When thinking of special races in motorsports, events such as the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hour Race spring to mind.
Indeed, those three races form what is known as the Triple Crown of Motorsports, with Graham Hill the only driver in the history of motor racing claiming all three of those trophies.
Premier races do not only belong to the higher echelons of motorsports – when one looks further afield, there are events that are special to many a formula.
The most highly recognised of these is the fabulous Macau Grand Prix that takes place in China every November. Other events that have enjoy great reputations and vast histories are the Pau Grand Prix (returning with Formula 3 in 2011), the Zandvoort Masters and, of course, the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch.
Over the years, there have been attempts to try and replicate the success of Macau and others, but rarely have they worked long term for various reasons. One of those attempts was the short lived Formula 3 Korea Super Prix on the streets of Changwon, a city bordering on the south-eastern tip of South Korea.
The temporary street circuit was in reality, just a converted carpark, that somehow managed to squeeze in an incredible 18 corners in just under two miles. So many turns in such a small space made the track naturally twisty, to the point where passing became virtually impossible for much of the lap, unless mistakes were made.
As a pair of short straights bled into two and long twisting corners, the circuit then fell into a series of slow burning tight bends that drew competitors almost to a stop. Beyond these turns, two medium speed 90 degree right handers would spit the cars onto a long kink, interrupted near its conclusion by a temporary chicane. With the end of the lap fast approaching, a further pair of 90 degree right handers would swing the high speed traveller around, feeding them out onto the start / finish straight and to the start of a new lap.
Every venue has the ability to become a theatre where art is presented not as the finished article, but rather loose sketches of the future, rough etchings of what is to come.
Changwon never exuded such feelings – whereas Macau is something of a rite of passage for young drivers hoping to make it to Formula 1, the Korea Super Prix was just another race. It is easy to understand how the circuit designers were (clearly) influenced by the famed Macau track, but Changwon was simply not Macau – nor would it ever be.
The race had its inaugural run at the tail end of the ’90’s, eventually only running on five occasions. In 2004, the Super Prix moved to the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain, running only once, before disappearing of the motorsports landscape completely.
Bad luck or a curse?
During its run, victory at the Korea Super Prix became something of a curse, as it is arguable that none of the winners have gone on to success at higher levels.
Drivers that have taken to the top step at Changwon include former-IndyCar and BAR test driver Darren Manning and ex-Jordan Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan. Karthikeyan’s Formula 1 adventure would only last a single season – he has since moved on to Superleague Formula and the NASCAR Truck Series with Starbeast Motorsports.
Frenchmen Jonathan Cochet and Oliver Pla won in 2001 and 2002 respectively, before Richard Antinucci took the final race in 2003. Pla raced for three season in GP2 with DPR, yet despite taking two race victories, he never made a lasting impression – he has since raced in sportscars, whereas Cochet has taken to GT racing and Lamborghini Super Trophy runs.
Antinucci was runner-up in the 2008 Indy Lights Championship, before partaking in five races during the 2009 IndyCar season – neither he nor his squad, Team 3G, returned thereafter.
Thankfully fortunes have fared rather differently for the unsuccessful at Korea – podium finishers include reigning World Champion Jenson Button and three-time World Touring Car Champion, Andy Priaulx.
Grand Prix winner, Heikki Kovalainen raced at the event in both 2001 and 2002, having a miserable time on both occasions, while both 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton and current Renault pilot Robert Kubica would both struggle somewhat on their appearances at Korea.
In a bizarre twist, 2003 front-row qualifier – Nelson Piquet Jr – initiated red flags after he collected Hamilton and crashed into the wall. With the positions realigned to match that of the lap prior to the stoppage, Piquet Jr reclaimed his 3rd spot upon the restart of the race.
Someone to cheer for?
Yet for all these events, the Korea Super Prix has always been shy of Korean competitors – bar several backmarkers, the fields have been generally been made up of racers from around the globe. Alan Cho may have claimed 11th in 1999, but that is the closest any Korean driver had come to success in the competition.
While the contract ran out on the event, it is conceivable that the lack of local drivers sealed the fate of the Super Prix and with no Korean driver’s anywhere near top level motorsport right now, the Formula 1 race at Yeongam could also potentially suffer in the short term. However, this is not a situation that confines itself to far off territories either.
Spain ran Grand Prix motor racing for decades before the success of Fernando Alonso pulled the sport into the spotlight.
When Michael Schumacher left Formula 1 at the end of 2006, German audiences appeared almost apathetic thereafter – a feeling that still resides to a small degree. Even British media occasionally seemed subdued about the series in the barren spell between Damon Hill’s downturn in form and the appearance of Lewis Hamilton.
In IndyCar, the drought of homegrown talent has been cited as one of the reasons why it has been difficult for that Championship to rebuild itself in the United States.
Of the territories that have been since the late 1990’s, Malaysia has struggled with crowds, as have Turkey and Bahrain. While these are obviously not the only reasons while these races suffer from time to time, they can be key factors.
One thing is for certain – new drivers do not mysteriously appear from nowhere and, like Spain, it may be some time before a competitor appears that grabs the attention of the “home crowd”.
With the inaugural Korean Grand Prix now only days away, this is the perfect time to nurture and grow motorsports in the area and what better way to help sow the seeds than to reinstate the Korea Super Prix.
Despite gaining little attention in the wider motorsports arena during its original run, the Korea Super Prix has discovered a new lease of life thanks to the construction of the Korean International Circuit at Yeongam.
Running from November 26th – 28th, one week after this year’s Macau Grand Prix, the field – comprised of Formula 3 drivers from around the globe – will race to become the next Champion of Korea, seven years after Antinucci last lifted the crown.
Whether the organisers can turn this into an even that has value across the motor racing world is entirely up to them. They certainly have a long road ahead of them.