Formula One: Promoter defends 'wonderful' Korean GP

As a career diplomat whose service spanned more than 30 years, Professor Park Won-Hwa needed all his powers of persuasion in stints that included South Africa.

But it is unlikely that he ever met a character quite like the larger-than-life Bernie Ecclestone, the 81-year-old supremo of Formula One.

"We had to renegotiate with Mr Ecclestone and brought a few ideas and persuaded him that Korea cannot continue the event with such a big financial loss," said Park, promoter of the Korean Grand Prix, which takes place Sunday.

"The event has to be sustainable for the benefit of both parties. I showed to Mr Ecclestone all the statistics. It took a long time, and in the end Mr Ecclestone agreed to make another contract," he added in an interview with AFP.

Promoting the Korean Grand Prix is an unenviable task and a far cry from Park's job as professor at Korea Aerospace University. He was chosen for his knowledge of dealing with foreign companies including the F1 management.

The race has been dogged by problems since its debut in 2010 and hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. It lost $50 million in the first year, Park, 62, said.

In part that was because it has failed to spark the interest of South Koreans and been roundly panned for its remote location, stuck out on the southwest coast, a three-hour train journey from Seoul.

Little wonder then that Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights holder, needed some persuasion to persist with Korea, eventually agreeing to a revised deal that will last until 2016.

"Mr Ecclestone thinks that it is important to have F1 in Korea as the country is a fast-growing country and benefits from a booming economy and fast-growing economy," said Park, who was drafted in to save the grand prix.

"It would be a huge strategic mistake to withdraw from this part of the world. The future for the F1 is important and not only the day-to-day running."

A priority for Park when he agreed to take on the challenge -- his predecessor Yung Cho-Chung was sacked in January 2011 -- was to slash costs. As a native of the province that hosts the track, he had an extra incentive to succeed.

"We have to work hard to reduce the deficit of the first Grand Prix," he said. "This is the biggest issue and the organisation needs to make money."

Getting the locals to come and watch the grand prix -- "popularity is still low"-- has been a particular challenge. The lack of spectators at the circuit near the city of Mokpo has not gone unnoticed by the drivers, the result of a shortage of interest and high ticket prices.

Organisers had to give away free tickets at the last minute for the inaugural race in 2010 to fill the stands, although they did not need to do that last year and have reduced prices this time.

On criticism about the remote location and lack of infrastructure -- journalists and fans are staying in love hotels because there are insufficient affordable places to stay -- Park said: "Seoul is a centre of activity.

"But Korea needed to highlight this rural and industrial area. We live in peace here with clean air, no pollution and a good environment.

"But we are trying to boost the area and build its image at the same time. This is the idea of the government behind the race."

He added: "Here in Mokpo the project is beautiful with the lake and team building and huge paddock club lounge with a permanent team building. Our biggest concern is how to maintain the use all year round.

"This is a wonderful F1 project."

The authorities have bold plans, the circuit being only a small part of a project that they hope will put the sleepy area on the map.

"As the side effect of this first-stage development, the central government has decided to set up a cluster of the motor industry near the circuit with the investment of 78.6 billion Won ($70 million) by 2016," said Park.

"The second-stage development spanning to 2021 will include building a casino, hotels, commercial district, new high-tech industry cluster etc. on an area of 2.4 square kilometres."

An agreement was signed with two Chinese investors last month for the second phase, he said.