Barbeques, scarecrows and love hotels

 

 

Fernando Alonso celebrates victory in Korea © Sutton Images

After all the scare stories before the race, the Korean Grand Prix turned out to be a huge success. We had a couple of issues along the way but overall it was a really fun weekend.

Mokpo was definitely the place to be and not the backwater town we were led to believe beforehand. It was a huge place and it’s the biggest ship-building port in the world.

There was plenty going on every night and some brilliant restaurants. Our agent took us to a traditional Korean barbeque on Saturday night where we met Christian Horner, Adrian Newey and Helmut Marko of Red Bull, who turned up and booked into a private room. There was all this talk of accidentally eating dog, but it was absolute rubbish. It’s a speciality out there and you’ll only get it if you order it, and if you do it’ll cost you more than pork and beef.

I think a lot of journalists were out to wind people up and I heard that one of them got a bollocking from Bernie Ecclestone for writing a negative piece in a newspaper. In the end there were 80,000 people there on race day, which is a pretty good statistic for a brand new circuit. I think some of the Koreans have got a bit to learn about the sport – some were getting up and leaving before Q3 on Saturday and before the end of the race on Sunday, but I suppose they may have been trying to catch a train back to Seoul.

 

The town of Mokpo © Sutton Images

We thought the accommodation – albeit in ‘love hotels’ – was fine, but then we’re happy in two or three star places anyway. The only people I did feel sorry for were some of the members of the Toro Rosso team, who booked a hotel that turned out to be right next to a rave on Saturday night. There was also a car drifting competition right outside, with cars sliding past late into the night – I think they might choose a different one next year. The best nightspot we found was the Wa Bar that was serving very cheap beer at about £1.50 a pint and attracted a lot of the F1 paddock over the weekend.There’s still a lot of work to do on the track itself, but I think the layout is actually very good. There’s a marina due to go in and a lot of skyscrapers and business parks as well. They are taking the opposite approach to Singapore and Monaco by building the city around the circuit rather than the circuit around the city.

The local government are certainly behind it and they aren’t going to let it sit there like a lame duck. So every year that we go back it should have progressed a little bit more and become more interesting for photos and the TV.

 

The bridge over the pit straight © Sutton Images

As an example of just how quickly they can get things done out there, the pagoda bridge over the pit straight was put up in just four days. They built the main part of it somewhere else and then craned it in and bolted it all together in just 96 hours. When we got there on Thursday the concrete on the stairs was still wet and it wasn’t until Friday that you were allowed to use it.It was great to get up there for the sessions because it offered a high vantage point for photos and you could shoot through the turret tops like a marksman or an archer. It made for a good photo looking down onto the final corner, which proved to be a pretty popular one to cut on Friday and we got some good action shots.

So a lot of the weekend was about finding new angles and different compositions. Around the back of the circuit it was quite difficult but we found one with the big shipping cranes in the background, which was soon copied and became one of the iconic photos of the weekend. We took that shot on the Friday and everybody went out on Saturday to get the same photo. There was a lot of that going on, with people looking at rival agency’s websites, but there’s nothing you can do about that.

 

Scarecrows at the circuit entrance © Sutton Images

The organisers were great and we kept asking for access to certain areas and they kept obliging. On Friday we got in a few grandstands, by Saturday they opened a few more and by Sunday we were allowed to go in any one we liked as long as we didn’t take someone’s seat.The only place the organisers weren’t keen for us to take photos was outside the circuit where they had a load of scarecrows on the hillside. Apparently they were there to scare off demons because it used to be a paddy field and now it has been converted to another use. My brother Keith and I were thinking of taking some cardboard cut outs of the drivers and putting them among the scarecrows, but we thought better of it.

Compared to most of the tracks it was pretty much open access. I went up on the roof of the pit building for qualifying, but that was probably a mistake as everybody saw me up there and then I was joined by several other snappers for the podium shots after the race on Sunday.

 

Mark Sutton snaps a photo of Fernando Alonso on the podium © Sutton Images

We got some good shots from up there because the podium ceremony took place in the dark and you could get some great lighting effects with black backgrounds, almost like shooting in a studio. As Fernando Alonso was leaving the podium with the winner’s trophy the three of us still up there shouted Fernando! Fernando! And he looked up and gave us a brilliant photo that has been used quite widely.Next up is Brazil and we should be set for another great race. It’s always wet there; somebody was just asking me for some paddock photos and every year of the archive that I looked through we seemed to have at least one rainy day. The circuit is great and it’s been the scene of same great showdowns over the years with the last five titles being decided there. You can get some of the best photos of the season due to the track’s undulations and the favelas in the background. There is nowhere else in the world where you have multi-million pound F1 cars flashing in front of a favelas, it’s unreal.

First impressions of Korea

The view from the main grandstand © Sutton Images

It’s been a very long trip to get here, but from my first impressions of the circuit it was worth it.

After a ten-hour flight to Seoul, a first class train journey to Mokpo and a quick taxi ride to our ‘Love Hotel’, we’ve arrived. The accommodation is a bit bizarre and there are easily 30 of these ‘Love Hotels’ in the area – the one down the road is called the Hotel Feel, but we steered clear of that. Ours, The Washington, is actually very nice. It’s still a ‘Love Hotel’ but it’s clean, has a 42″ TV and free internet access. They wanted the media to stay an hour away in the city of Gwangju, which is much bigger and has more luxurious hotels, but it’s far more important to be close to the action so we’re happy where we are.

Reports that this place is in the middle of nowhere were wide of the mark. There are loads of hotels and restaurants and Mokpo is actually a small city with everything you could want. There’s a full blown concert going on by the coast at the moment and then on Friday and Saturday there are going to be raves going on until 2am – I’m not saying I’ve got the time to attend them, but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere.

 

The pit and paddock complex in Korea © Sutton Images

The circuit is also impressive and much more advanced than a lot of the reports leading up to the weekend suggested. I first came here a year ago to take some photos and there was a single track leading up to the entrance, now there is a three-lane highway. The investment they have made is impressive and the basic infrastructure is all there.The paddock looks up to scratch and the team buildings are huge, so they aren’t even using the top floors of them. The media centre and the photographers’ area is all complete, although the internet is a bit temperamental, but I’m sure that will be sorted in time for the action.

 

The grandstands still need to be completed © Sutton Images

The main grandstand is also very impressive and you get a completely unobstructed view of the circuit and pits, which is quite unusual. Everybody is sat close to the action at that part of the circuit so I just hope they can fill it to capacity on race day. Some of the other grandstands aren’t finished yet, which is why you can see a lot of construction work in the photos, but they are working flat-out and it’s all taking very shape very quickly.The track itself is finished. I walked it in full on Wednesday and everything looks as you would expect. Around the back of the circuit there are some very fast sweeping corners and, from a photographer’s point of view, we’re going to be a bit further away from the action out there, but it looks like a good sequence of turns. All the kerbs are laid and there is no weeping from the tarmac, as far as I’m concerned the track is finished. The only question mark I have is over the pit lane entrance and exit that seem to be a little bit too tight to the racing line for comfort.

 

The view of the pit straight on Wednesday © Sutton Images

In some parts the concrete barriers make it look like Valencia, but it’s a nice mix that draws characteristics from all the other Hermann Tilke-designed venues we’ve seen before. You can also see where they are going to build the city part because they have laid out all the pipes and underground wiring ready to be put in place. They’re due to start that next year, so it will be interesting to see it develop.Overall I would say hats off to the organisers. It’s been difficult for them in recent weeks and they’ve produced what looks like a great circuit in a great part of the world.

Lost In Translation

Mark and Keith Sutton on the grid at the Japanese Grand Prix © Sutton Images
With all the rain on Saturday it was a bizarre weekend in Japan, but one that was certainly lifted by the fans enthusiasm for the sport. The word fanatical doesn’t really do them justice; they’re obsessive autograph hunters and simply can’t get enough of merchandise.

I was talking to one of the guys running a merchandise stall and he said it was his biggest weekend of the year in terms shifting products. A lot of the drivers have their own stands, including Takuma Sato who doesn’t even race in F1 anymore, and the whole area is heaving with people.

But it’s a very polite form of fanaticism and during the autograph signing they all waited patiently in the grandstands, just sitting there waving their flags. The organisers have everything strictly regimented so that the drivers are not swamped by fans and everybody abides by the rules. They tend to let 30 people into the signing area at a time for one driver, while at most other circuits it’s more of a free-for-all.

 

Sebastian Vettel with his slightly-altered “I love DC” t-shirt © Sutton Images

At one point a girl with an “I love DC” (David Coulthard) t-shirt came in and made a b-line for Sebastian Vettel. He gave her a bit of a funny look and joked “Who’s DC?” but he signed his name on the t-shirt anyway, and then above the “I love DC” he wrote “I’m not sure if…” It was great fun and the girl actually gave him at t-shirt, although I’m not sure he knew what to do with it.Vettel’s very good with the fans and has a great sense of humour. He will pretend to be very serious but the break into a smile and joke around. Later in the day a guy came up to him with a paddock pass around his neck and gave him this huge diamond-encrusted watch to sign. Seb sort of looked at it, looked at the guy and then put it straight on his wrist and started to walk off. He quickly came back, broke into a smile and signed the back of it and gave it back.

He then waited for the next person to come to the table, but this guy pulled out a Mercedes car key and asked him to sign it. Again, Seb looked at it, looked at the guy and said “Thank you very much” and walked off as if he’d just been given the car. Eventually he signed the key as well but this guy was clearly a bit of a nutter and just wouldn’t go away. It felt like he was a bit of a stalker, it felt a bit weird.

After that I left the autograph signing and went down to the pit straight where there were a load of box kart racers lined up on the grid. The idea was that the teams got involved and built gravity-powered go-karts to race down the pit straight from spare bits in the garage. In the end they didn’t really have the time and the field was entirely made up of local entrants and one from Bridgestone.

 

The box kart competition attracted a varied field © Sutton Images

But it was still great to watch and there was some crazy stuff there, including people dressed up as ninjas and cuddly dogs. It was a bizarre mixture of people and creations. The Bridgestone one was very clever and eventually won. It had front wheels from an F1 car on the back and rear tyres from a wind-tunnel model on the front.Of course Saturday was a complete washout, but I actually quite enjoyed it because everybody was a lot more relaxed as they knew nothing was going to happen. There was a river running down the middle of the pit lane and some of the teams made little boats to float on it. Sauber made a mini Titanic and Red Bull made one out of empty drinks cans.

Mercedes had a boat with a sail that got wet and destroyed itself, but the best one was just a piece of paper folded into a hammock shape. Eventually the marshals got involved and stuck the chequered flag out at the end of the pit lane for the winner.

 

There were some very keen Red Bull fans at Suzuka © Sutton Images

The best story to come out of Saturday that I heard of was about a guy who put a bet on Jaime Alguersuari to top the timesheets on Saturday morning and won £5,000. Because you can now bet after the session has started, he saw that Alguersuari was heading out more than most and took a gamble on him. I’ll have to remember that one for the future.Next up we’re going to Korea and we’ve just had a few aerial photos through showing the newly-laid track. I think I might have to take my boots with me as it still looks rather muddy in the infield and around the outside of the circuit. The final plans are for a huge complex of buildings in the middle with skyscrapers and a Monaco-style marina. That could definitely still happen, but it’s down to the success of the circuit and the event in the next few years to turn what are basically paddy fields into something that can attract serious money.

 

Mark Sutton is taking his boots to Korea © Korean Grand Prix

I like the look of the layout but the problem for the photographers is that there isn’t going to be much of a background for pictures this year. It’s very bland at the moment and there is no iconic structure that says “This is Korea” like you have in Bahrain, Shanghai and Singapore. I think there are plans for a pagoda style bridge over one of the straights, but that’ll be at a very high-speed part of the circuit and that’s not ideal for photos.Having said that, when we first went to places like Bahrain and Malaysia they were quite basic and now they have expanded with new buildings or put trees in that have grown. Those places are much more interesting now so we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Korea on its debut year. I’ll file a report in my next column and hopefully offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s really like.