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South Koreans lap up F1 sights and sounds
South Koreans lapped up the atmosphere at their inaugural Formula One Grand Prix yesterday, even though high prices at the track had forced some to stuff toilet tissue in their ears.

While soldiers and hard hat-wearing workers were still bolting seats to the grandstand, fans young and old watched McLarens, Ferraris and Red Bulls roar around the new 250 billion won (US$221.6mil) Korea International Circuit about 400km from the capital Seoul.

Koreans hope the race, which until last week had been in doubt due to concerns the circuit would not be up to standard, will revitalize the idyllic South Jeolla region and boost the country’s image as a business and tourism destination.

“I think this is great for this region,” said Sa Seon-hwan, who drove from the city of Gwangju to watch yesterday’s practice sessions.

Seon-hwan added that Chung Yung-cho, the head of Korean organizers Korea Auto Valley Operation who hails from the region, had worked hard to do something good for South Jeolla.

KAVO has a seven-year deal to host the grand prix in Yeongam through 2016, with an option for five more years, as part of a national project aimed at bringing investment and jobs to a region in decline.

While sales have lagged expectations, organizers are confident 90% of the 120,000 tickets for the three days will be sold.

As fans poured into the stands to watch drivers take to the oceanfront track for the first time, many locals greeted the grand prix as one of the best things to come to the country’s southwest in decades.

Some thought organizers could have done a better job publicizing the race and telling fans what to look out for however.

“We wanted to bring the kids out here to show them what it’s like,” said Choi Yong-hui from Mokpo, a port city just a few miles north of the circuit built on reclaimed land.

“But they didn’t do enough publicizing it right,” she added as she stuffed rolled up tissue paper into her three children’s ears to muffle the noise from the cars.

Most of the spectators visiting the circuit yesterday had come from Mokpo and Gwangju, but some, like 14-year-old Seo Hee-rak, took a journey from the neighboring island of Sinan with her 57 schoolmates for their first taste of Formula One.

“I think it is fun,” she said. “But our teacher is the one having real fun. He’s the one with the sunglasses over there.”

There was plenty of traffic at the merchandise vendors behind the stands but business was not brisk.

“Sixty thousand won for a T-shirt?” said one man as he rolled his eyes and pulled his wife away from a vendor. Another fan noticed foam earplugs were being sold for 5,000 won, more than 10 times the normal price, which might explain why most chose to stuff tissue paper into their ears instead.
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