Korea searching for Formula One star

Seoul (South Korea): Korean football fans pack into bars all over the country anytime national hero Park Ji-sung is in action for Manchester United in the English Premier League.

The stands at the Korean Grand Prix last weekend were not nearly as full, but that could have been because there wasn`t a Korean to cheer on.

While young Korean footballers like Park have managed to break through and sign with European teams in recent years, it`s been far more difficult for Korean drivers to gain a foothold in the rarified world of Formula One.

But organizers of the Korean Grand Prix are hopeful they are getting close. A Korean driver would instantly raise the sport`s profile in a country that was barely aware it existed until last year, when the inaugural Grand Prix was held.

Football was already an established sport in South Korea before Park went to England, but his overseas success has had quite an impact back home.

More than 1 million Koreans now possess Manchester United credit cards. The club`s Korean-language website receives 4 million visitors every year and an estimated 1 million people watch each of the team`s games on television and online. Manchester United has also played two lucrative exhibition matches in Seoul in the past four years.

"If we produce a Korean driver for Formula One it would be fantastic for the race in the country and for motorsport in general," said Shin Young, a spokesman for the Korean Grand Prix. "Korean people were not big followers of Premier League but after Park went there, all follow his progress. It would be a huge help."

Other sports have similarly taken off in South Korea following the success of a singular athlete. Kim Yu-na`s emergence as a figure skating star has made the sport so popular at home that the country came to a standstill in February 2010 as millions of Koreans tuned in to watch her win gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Motorsports, however, have yet to take off in the same way. There are three circuits in the country that host races and festivals throughout the year, but they receive scant media coverage and attract little corporate interest.

The country`s only big racing export, Mun Sung-hak, has also struggled to gain traction in his debut season in Formula Two. The England-based driver has found it difficult to compete financially without the same kind of sponsorships that are often available to talented young European drivers.

Mun, 21, went to England as a teenager to study and took frequent weekend trips to Italy to race go-karts. "I was the youngest Korean to race karts at the age of 11 but it is still late as Michael Schumacher was six," Mun told local media.

The driver relies on his father and a Korean university for financial support, but he still struggles to meet the costs of competing in Formula Two.

"I am close to the standard of Formula One," he said. "If it wasn`t for the motivation of being the first Korean then maybe I wouldn`t have made it this far."

Mun is in 26th place in the Formula Two standings after 14 races and has yet to earn a point.

Shin said young Korean drivers need corporate backing to develop their talents and break into the top tier of racing, as Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi has done in recent years.

"We know that the problem for young drivers here is the lack of sponsors," he said. "In Europe, they have a system already in place but we don`t. We have to prepare and invest in the drivers of the future. It will take time but we hope that there is a driver within five years and that is a realistic target."

He mentioned one young driver, Seo Joo-won, who has shown a lot of promise. "He is around 17 and is soon to leave high school. We are watching him," Shin said.

Formula One`s top drivers say Koreans should follow Mun`s lead and go to Europe to develop their skills.

"I think it`s definitely possible to have a Korean driver in the future," England`s Lewis Hamilton said over the weekend at the Korean Grand Prix. "I think it just appears that the formula for proving a young driver`s talent is to go to Europe to race. The majority of the drivers that you see here in the paddock would have gone to Italy to race."

Spain`s Fernando Alonso, who races for Ferrari, said hosting a Grand Prix in South Korea is the first step.

"This will be a huge improvement for the future in Korean motor sport and for the young kids, watching the race here," he said. "For us, when we started, we all moved to Italy to race in go-karts because Italy was and still is the best place to race in go-karts."

Another way to develop homegrown talent is for one of the Korean car companies, Hyundai or Kia, to sponsor a Korean team. The Formula One teams from India (Force India) and Malaysia (Lotus) have helped to boost the popularity of the sport in those countries.

"Hyundai has been enthusiastic about the idea around the middle management levels, but the CEO has yet to be convinced," Shin said. "In the future though, I think it will happen. I hope so."

Bureau Report