Going to a track for the first time is always exciting, but it’s additionally exciting (with a tinge of apprehension) when you head to a brand new circuit that has never been raced on before. I was just at the Inje Speedium circuit in South Korea over the weekend for Round 2 of the Super Taikyu Series with the PETRONAS Syntium Team.
We nearly didn’t make it here as the race was only confirmed like a week or so before. I heard there was supposed to be a Super GT exhibition race of some sort before this Super Taikyu race but that never happened. There was so much uncertainty about whether the track would be ready in time for this Super Taikyu round.
I understand that there was an FIA track inspection done on 24 or 25 April and there was only one change needed – for the shape of the escape zone. The second FIA track inspection was on 7 May and obviously the track must have passed because I was informed of the confirmation of the Super Taikyu race and my flights were all booked.
As the whole Inje Auto Theme Park is a new facility, I was managing my expectations before heading over. While it wasn’t all smooth, the experience was generally alright and for a first time, I think it wasn’t too bad…
This is my second time in Korea – the first time was a family vacation all the way back in 2002 during winter. I can’t remember much of the trip to be honest, except that they serve kimchi at every meal. Joining up at Incheon airport with some of the PETRONAS Syntium Team drivers on Thursday morning, we took a train out to Gimpo Airport and waited a couple of hours for the crew to arrive from Japan. We went in search for breakfast and there was only one eating place at the arrival hall of Gimpo Airport – Dunkin’ Donuts. Totally not diet-friendly at all!
These cute doughnuts look like they should be in my tummy instead of sitting pretty behind the glass, but no I got some chicken caesar wrap instead. Inje is a county in Gangwon Province of South Korea and it has the lowest population density of any South Korean county! The bus journey there was almost four hours, inclusive of a short lunch break along the way where I managed to find healthy food.
That was also the first kimchi I had on this trip. If you didn’t already know, I’m really bad with spicy food and I nearly choked on that first piece of kimchi – too spicy!
I fell asleep for the rest of the journey and my first sight of the track was this:
We were behind the pit building in the car park area where there was a whole row of these containers belonging to the various teams. After some mild confusion with translation across the English, Korean and Japanese languages, we were taken to the hotel to check in. Right up the hill overlooking the track is the Inje Autopia Hotel (left in picture below) & Condo (right).
The rooms are quite big and hey, we were the first guests! That means the first to sleep on the beds and the first to use the toilets! The beds were comfortable but I had slight problems on the first night with the water – first there was no hot water, then they fixed it, but suddenly there was no water (only air came out of the tap!). After the water issue was solved, my air-conditioning died and I was sleeping in like 35 degrees Celsius.
My room was facing the hotel entrance so I didn’t have a view of the track but this is how it looks like from the lobby:
The smell of thinner hung strong in the air as people around us rushed to get everything ready. They were still laying tiles and tarmac!
After we got our bags to the rooms, the rest of Thursday was spent unloading the containers and getting the pit garage set up.
A bus also took us around the track for an orientation. The track is 3.880km long and it flows rather nicely, complete with a decent backdrop. There are a lot of slopes though – up and down, up and down.
The main grandstand along the big straight is ready, but there were other grandstands around still under construction.
The restaurant at the hotel wasn’t ready so we had to take a bus out to the town area for dinner. Thankfully there was breakfast served the next morning, Western buffet style.
There was no track activity planned on Friday for Super Taikyu and the drivers were just itching to get behind the wheel. I thought there could have been practice on Friday instead of just the two-hour morning session on Saturday. No idea why! The Hyundai Genesis Coupes got a practice session on Friday though! It’s a one-make series for the 11 of them, which raced together with Super Taikyu but competed separately.
Once they were done, the track was open to anyone for a track walk. I followed the PETRONAS Syntium Team for the walk and because the terrain is undulating, it turned out to be quite a workout.
I already knew there were a lot of slopes from the orientation that we had on the bus the day before, but walking these slopes is an entire thing altogether. Check out some of the slopes:
One more thing about this track – you can’t give the excuse that you didn’t see the red flag. Look at the tower that usually displays the lap times – it lights up the colour of the flag so big!
When I was packing for this trip, I was afraid the weather would be cold so I packed lots of thick and warm clothing. Alas, the weather here is sunny!
Saturday’s weather was a bit gloomy though – I woke up to some fog out the window.
There was a lot more hype on Saturday as track action would begin and adrenalin would start rushing. Sadly, I could not say the same for the hotel breakfast. Instead of a buffet like that of Friday morning’s, we were just served a bowl of porridge each. That’s certainly not enough for all these men!
I took a few bites grudgingly and then made my way to the track on my own. There is an underground tunnel leading from the hotel directly to the paddock and yes, they were still laying the tiles for the paths.
The media centre was only open on Saturday morning (on Friday evening when I went to peek, there weren’t even any tables and chairs!) so I only got my pass then.
I was really excited to start shooting because this is a new track waiting to be discovered! Unfortunately, there was no media shuttle so I had to explore the track on foot. On a bright note, the photographer vest is PINK – I like!
I was told that I could basically go anywhere around the circuit to shoot and that was exactly what I did – well, until I got whistles blown at me by the marshals. Ha ha!
I was just walking along and trying out different spots.
Practice was two hours long, with two red flag interruptions (hence losing some time there), and I only had time to explore the inside of the track.
I was just walking along, between the barriers and the fence.
Eventually I got spotted by the marshals and I was told that I had to be behind the fence. Sigh! Thank goodness I managed to get some nice shots before I was relegated behind the fence. (After practice ended there was a briefing for photographers and we were all told to stay behind the fence.)
The many slopes may be a pain to walk on (though a pleasure to drive on) but they make for some pretty photos, such as this one of the car coming up over the top of a slope.
The Super Taikyu Series has a huge grid this year of 45 cars, but not all of them came for the Korea round. Less than half of them did actually. The first round of the Series was cancelled due to sudden snowfall on race day and there was no replacement race or any championship points awarded. You could say this round in Korea is the official season opener then!
Five-time Super Taikyu champion PETRONAS Syntium Team were eager to start racing and clocking championship points in aim of their sixth consecutive title. The Super Taikyu Series is an endurance race series but for this round at Inje Speedium, the race format was altered. Two 45-minute sprint races were held instead. This means only one driver per car per race.
Driving for the PETRONAS Syntium Team were Melvin Moh and Dominic Ang for their Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 #1, and Fariqe Hairuman and Jono Lester for their twin car #28.
In the qualifying session for Race 1, Fariqe grabbed pole position with car #28 with a time of 1:35.456 and Melvin was second in car #1 with 1:35.713. It’s been a while since Fariqe has topped qualifying session and he was so pumped up, telling me that if he wins Race 1, he will be the first race winner on record for this new Inje Speedium track!
Jono made it a double pole for the team when he also took pole position for Race 2 with 1:35.048.
It was pretty tight though – Japanese GT driver Kazuki Hoshino of the GTNET Motor Sports Nissan GT-R #81 qualified with the exact same lap time as Jono, but pole went to Jono because he clocked that time first. Dominic was third in qualifying for Race 2.
With pole position secured for both races, the target was nothing less than victory.
Dominic was a little upset with P3, but said he had already tried his best to get what he could out of the car.
Race day atmosphere is always different and you can just feel the nerves, excitement and joy in the air. Fortunately breakfast at the hotel was a rather sumptuous affair so drivers could fuel up properly.
When I got to the track, the drivers were already getting ready to go out for their warm-up session.
I followed the team the whole of last season and I must say this is the most psyched up I’ve ever seen of Fariqe. I don’t recall ever seeing him do any form of physical warm-up before getting into the car.
But there he was doing side shuffles, jogging, stretching and even jumping jacks.
Fariqe really wanted to win the race so badly.
Melvin, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling entirely satisfied with his car set-up but would just try his best to get the most out of the car.
Both the PETRONAS Syntium SLS AMG GT3 cars locked out the front row with the GT-R #81 in P3. However, they had some engine trouble and started from the pit lane. That means some pressure off the PETRONAS Syntium Team!
Those ladies in red you see in the photo above with their backs facing you are the grid girls!
Getting off to a smooth start, Melvin was close to Fariqe for the first 10 laps, before he started to struggle with the car and fell back.
The next car in third was quite some way off, so the main competition was really between these two. Melvin spun in the last corner while trying to overtake a backmarker, thus widening the gap from Fariqe. At one point, Fariqe was almost 30 seconds from Melvin.
Having secured a comfortable lead, Fariqe cruised to victory in the closing laps and Melvin closed in on him. What a perfect photo finish it made! Melvin was just 0.2 seconds behind Fariqe at the end of 29 laps.
It didn’t worry Fariqe one bit and he was all smiles when he came out of the car after the race.
This win is very significant for the team as they now have two Malaysian drivers winning Super Taikyu in Korea 13 years apart. Back in 2000 under the name of Team PETRONAS, the team won the Asian class and finished seventh overall in the Korean Inter-Tec 2000 Touring Car Race held in Pusan, Korea; an invitational Super Taikyu race. The late Malaysian Hairol Azmi Buntat and multiple South African touring car champion Michael Briggs raced in this 150km 50-lap endurance race with a factory-built 230bhp 1,600cc Nismo Nissan Pulsar ZIR that was used for the first time in Korea then.
In fact, this is the team’s third time racing in Korea, having scored a victory on every outing. In 2005 under the name Team PETRONAS Syntium Proton, Fariqe beat German driver Franz Engstler and won Race 2 in a Proton Impian for the Asian Touring Car Championship that was held at the Taebaek Circuit.
This win from Fariqe goes into the history books as the first race victory at Inje Speedium. It is also the team’s first win at this track and the SLS AMG GT3’s first win in Korea.
Now that Fariqe had set the pace (and the mood) by winning the first race, Jono was even more motivated to make it a double celebration.
The GT-R #81 was fixed and sitting in the front row on the grid next to Jono, between both the SLS AMG GT3 cars. Dominic would have to try and find his way around the GT-R to make it a 1-2 finish for the team again.
The grid opened an hour before the race start as there was an official opening ceremony with important guests and the singing of the national anthem. With a lot of time left to kill before we had to clear the grid, I was just hanging out with the PETRONAS Syntium Team drivers.
They mean business when they are in the car, but are a great bunch of fun out of the car.
Finally it was time to race and Jono was all ready to rumble. Hoshino in the GT-R #81 attacked Jono aggressively when the lights turned green, but Jono defended well , causing the GT-R to go wide. This gave Dominic the chance to squeeze past and he did, but he lost that position as quickly as he got it.
The circuit was slippery during this race as track temperature was quite hot, so the first few laps were quite hairy. Jono just focused on pulling ahead and he settled into a solid lead, while Dominic spent the rest of the race chasing Hoshino and battling him for second place. In the last 10 laps, Dominic saw the GT-R struggling and was hot on its heels trying to overtake.
Jono eventually crossed the finish line first, 17.353 seconds clear of the GT-R.
He also set the fastest lap time of 1:35.723, which would stand as the fastest lap record for the track till someone from some other race beats it.
Dominic managed to close in on the GT-R a few times but just couldn’t overtake, hence having to settle for the last spot on the podium.
Dominic came out of the car looking rather disappointed…
Still, it was a good result for the team.
With the two wins from car #28, PETRONAS Syntium Team scored maximum championship points to take the top of the leaderboard.
The Super Taikyu Series will take a month’s break and return to Japan for the next round at Twin Ring Motegi on 20 and 21 July.
Inje Speedium hasn’t been perfect but it has been fairly kind to me. I stayed at the track till late after the race to finish working on my photos and I was worried the underground tunnel wouldn’t have any light. Luckily, it was completed and I could walk back safely.
New tracks are great and though I don’t have my name officially recorded in some books somewhere, I was still part of history-making at the first ever race to be held here at Inje Speedium!
Look at how fresh the asphalt is:
I had the chance to meet Alan Wilson, the designer of the track and I chatted with him for a bit. (I will write about this interview in a separate post!)
I don’t know when I will be back in Korea again for racing, but I do know that I want to come back again – not to Inje, but to Seoul. I will remember that the food here is mostly spicy! See the Korean-type bento boxes that we had for lunch over the three days:
Goodbye Inje Speedium – thanks for giving us your first!
View more Super Taikyu 2013 Round 2: Inje Speedium, Korea photos here.