Michael Schumacher, Formula One’s most successful racecar driver, and Lewis Hamilton, the sport’s youngest champion, face unlikely competition for the limelight when they arrive in South Korea for the nation’s inaugural Grand Prix: Ben S. Bernanke.
The allure of millionaire drivers, supermodel girlfriends and racecars hurtling around the Yeongam circuit at speeds topping 300 kilometers per hour (190 miles per hour) has yet to capture the country’s imagination. For South Koreans, the real show this weekend stars the Federal Reserve chairman, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and the World Bank.
While Schumacher fights to regain winning form on the newly built track in the nation’s southwest, financial leaders from Group of 20 nations gather 260 kilometers away in the ancient capital of Gyeongju to tackle capital rules and currency discord. For South Korea, which produces 500,000 college graduates every year and no Formula One drivers, Bernanke is a bigger draw.
“Hosting the G-20 meetings is a significant event for South Korea because it provides us leverage to raise our status in the global economy and improve the national brand,” said Lee Dong Hun, a research fellow who specializes in marketing and branding at Samsung Economic Research Institute. “Compared with the G-20 meetings, Formula One is just a sporting event and is new to Koreans, who are more into baseball and soccer.”
Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea’s largest automaker, agrees. The Seoul-based company that’s known for family sedans doesn’t produce cars or components for Formula One, and isn’t sponsoring the event. Instead, Hyundai will use its Equus limousines and BlueOn electric cars to chauffer guests attending the meeting of G-20 leaders, which takes place in Seoul Nov. 11-12 after the meeting of central bankers and finance ministers.
“Motor sport is just one of the many sports marketing activities a company can choose from,” Hyundai said in an e- mailed response to questions from Bloomberg News. “We are currently focusing on football such as the World Cup, as we believe it fits well with our brand strategy and image.”
South Korea is the world’s fifth-largest car producing nation. Its automakers produced 3.5 million vehicles domestically last year, according to Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association.
The country’s drive for economic success is bolstered by academic achievement, with South Korea ranked No. 2 globally this year in a Newsweek survey on education standards.
The Korea Economic Daily reported last week that 50,000 tickets were sold, fewer than half the number available. The race promoter, Korea Auto Valley Operation Co., declined to say how many had been sold. Tickets for the Singapore Formula One on Sept. 26 sold out in the week before the race.
“We don’t expect too much on our first attempt at this event,” said Kim Jae Ho, a spokesman for Korea Auto, adding that Korea has won the right to hold the race for seven years. “We hope interest in F1 racing will increase after this.”
The cheapest tickets for race day on Oct. 24, for Grandstand J near turns 11 to 13, cost $132, according to the race organizer. That’s nearly 10 times the average cost of tickets for baseball and more than double for international soccer matches in South Korea. Seats above Pit Lane and the start and finishing lines cost $673.
The circuit of 18 bends and three straights is located 310 kilometers from Seoul in South Jeolla province. It cost about 340 billion won ($300 million) to build and will generate about 250 billion won annually in economic benefits for South Korea, according to Korea Auto.
Typhoons bogged down construction and national holidays for South Korea’s Chuseok thanksgiving in September delayed final inspection of the track by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, fueling concern it may not have gone ahead.
“I’d love to visit Yeongam to watch the F1,” said Lee Chong Myung, 20, as he watched a demonstration held by the Renault Formula One team in Seoul Oct. 3. “I’m not sure if I can go because the ticket prices are too expensive and the circuit is too far away.”
President Lee Myung Bak, who will host the November G-20 meeting, urged South Koreans to help the government make the G- 20 memorable in a nationwide radio address on Oct. 18.
“It is more important than many other international conferences,” Lee said. He called on people to support the event with “pride and self-esteem.”
While South Korea becomes the fifth Asia country to hold a Grand Prix, the G-20 meeting is the first for the region.
The Korean Grand Prix is the third-last race of the season. Red Bull’s Mark Webber leads the drivers’ championship with 220 points, 14 points more than teammate Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
“I’m really excited but Koreans are only interested in cars as a way to get around, not for sport,” Kim Eui Soo, 38, a touring car racer with the CJ Racing Team in Seoul. “Hosting Formula One may raise awareness of motor sport in South Korea, and eventually attract corporate and government support.”
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