The Isle of Man: a 32-mile-long wide and 14-mile-wide jewel in the Irish Sea, home of course to the TT Races and Manx Grand Prix, but away from those events this beautiful island is still a motorcycling mecca, a haven, courtesy of its exquisite views, stunning scenery, history, bike-friendly restaurants and cafes, and of course the extraordinary number of top-quality roads and trails to be ridden, many of which are deserted away from TT time.
In this series, Motorcycle Island, we aim to introduce as many of them to you.
Episode two sees Paul Phillips, TT Business Development Manager, join us in the recently revamped Race Control room in the TT tower overlooking the pit lane, paddock and infamous Glencrutchery Road, home to the start and finish line where dreams can be made or dashed.
Paul is a Manxman born and bred, growing up in his parents’ house which sat on the Mountain Course. He’s now in charge of the Sporting, Logistical and Commercial elements of the Isle of Man TT and has been a vital cog in the regeneration of this major sporting event as it enters a new era.
2022 and 2023 have been earmarked as significant landmarks in the rejuvenation of the TT races with new safety measures, revised schedules, and perhaps most significant of all, live broadcasting via a paywall but one that will allow anybody in the world with an internet connection and £14.99 the ability to watch live racing to include the build-up and aftermath. Unless you’ve been in or near that winner’s enclosure, the emotional outpouring from the top three riders has barely been witnessed or experienced before in this unique motorsport event.
The 37.73-mile Mountain Course has not hosted a racing event since the end of the Manx Grand Prix in September 2019, so after the quantity of work Paul and his team have put in over the last two-and-a-half years, they’re itching for TT 2022 to be here.
You must be as excited as some of the racers to get going?
“There was a time where the TT felt so far away from ever being on again, and of course I guess there was a time where there was some uncertainty whether it would ever be on again! All of a sudden it feels like we’re on a conveyor belt that’s moving really, really quickly into doing the first TT in three years, but also a TT that’s almost different in every way compared to the last one we did, with lots more ambition, lots of new initiatives. It feels full on at the moment, if my colleagues and I have our eyes open then we’re working normally, and there’s a lot to do. It feels exciting, to be part of so many new, exciting initiatives and the challenge, and I suppose the fear of failure of doing too much is exciting too.
You’ve drip fed the grand plans over the last year but not every new element of TT 2022 has been planned because of the Pandemic hiatus…
“The COVID break has helped us by gifting us the time to do this work. Without it, I’d have been concerned about where we might have ended up with TT. There’s a lot of change and in some corners, people are resistant to change. But everything that we’re doing comes back from a starting point of ensuring the TT can survive year after year. There were, or are, looming threats to the TT. You could say why change, the TT’s fine, more people are coming, etc? We do a lot of work, a lot of customer analysis and research, we know the cost of everything, and we get to see the information that comes down the line, and the TT is at risk of being left behind in some areas.
If you think of our audience, which is probably one of the biggest threats to the TT, it’s globally quite small. Very small, and it’s got gaps; generational gaps – effectively the TT will die out with its audience, and territorial gaps – it’s invisible in lots of parts of the world. So that’s a big challenge for us.
We’ve done a lot of work around risk management, there are a number of areas where there are risks to the viability of the TT. We’ve had an opportunity to look at infrastructure, our facilities and that kind of stuff, and we’ve got a lot of work going on there.
And then there’s the business model of the TT. It’s not run by a motorcycle club, it’s not run by a sports promotor. It’s run by Government for economic reasons, and for it to exist it’s to offer a return to the Island’s economy. This hasn’t all come out of the pandemic, we were on a course to do some of this already, but the pandemic has allowed us to turbo charge some of our plans and spend some time doing more in depth work and stripping some stuff back to bones, and looking at things, challenging ourselves, asking if we were to do this from scratch how would we do this rather than how have we habitually done this.
How is the TT going to change to become this global sporting event, taking it to the next level?
“At the core, its unchanged. The mountain circuit is virtually unchanged since 1911. It’s still motorcycles racing round, it’s still so accessible, you can watch within reason wherever you want to watch for free, the paddock’s always open, you can access the riders like no other motorsport. In terms of how we produce it, how we create it, how we package it, and we give it to people where they are boots on the ground (people coming to the event) or they’re people seeing it around the world seeing it for the first time, or they’re regular fans. All of that is different.
In terms of attendance, the TT currently attracts in the region of 45,000 people to the Island during the event. That, particularly around the middle, is at a ceiling. The maximum capacity of the Island in terms of visitors is around 32,000 which is where it peaks – and that means the travel and accommodation infrastructure, the road network and the hospital. It will always get more expensive; it’s never going to get any cheaper in terms of fixed costs – setting the course up, insurance, medical cover, all that kind of stuff. And if you’ve got that ceiling in terms of attendance then you’ve got to look at different ways to ensure that the future financial viability runs in line with the future cost increases.
In 2023 we’ll adjust the schedule quite considerably and that is certainly aimed at dealing with that, in terms of flattening out that curve in the middle of the TT where we reach that 32,000 so maybe try to move some people out of that, and also offer the opportunity to turn over the accommodation stock. But again, nobody should think that we’re going to jump to 60,000 people attending the TT all of a sudden! We’re a small land mass with a certain amount of infrastructure.
In terms of what we can do with the audience more generally – and the TT is not the only sporting event with a venue capacity, any stadium sport, for instance - is create more fans. The TT has been online with social media channels and highlights coverage of the racing, successfully in the UK, and dotted around the world - America, Australia, Pan Europe, but with huge gaps with limited coverage. The potential is… the TT is so spectacular, the people that take part in it are generally very interesting and very accessible, the venue is beautiful, and it has so much history. All those things packaged together mean that we have a real opportunity to give that to more people, and to get more people interested in the TT.
I’m really passionate about this, I grew up with the TT. My mum and dad owned a house on Sulby Straight and my bedroom overlooked the circuit, and when I was a kid, the TT was just the most important thing in the world. And as I’ve grown up with it and have been lucky enough to start work with it, I still think it’s fabulous. And I think everybody else should know about it and think it’s fabulous. And it’s our job to try and introduce more and more people to the TT. Many of those people might not ever come to the Island but that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to its future success, and the TT is much like any other product – the size of your audience will match the success that you generate. It’s absolutely critical if we want there to be a TT in 10 years’ time, or 20 years’ time that we start to engage new audiences, and younger audiences. And that’s the biggest risk to the whole thing, we were about to go into audience decline.
What’s the biggest potential with the live broadcast?
“There was limited access. We talk about the TT being the most accessible motorsport in the world, and if you’re here on the Isle of Man, it is. You can go anywhere. You can almost go in the Honda awning and see the bikes being worked on, which is really unusual. You can move around the Island, you can almost watch anywhere you want. But actually, outside of the live experience, it’s completely inaccessible. There’s hardly any access to it, and what I mean is access to coverage of it. Whereas now, in a few months’ time, anybody with an internet connection anywhere in the world will be able to watch every second of it from the moment it starts on the Sunday afternoon with the first qualifying session to the last seconds when we’re in the winner’s enclosure or on the podium at the Senior. There’s going to be over 40 hours of scheduled coverage, and then on top of that with behind-the-scenes documentary making to give more people ore access than they’ve ever had before, and we can really tick the ‘most accessible motorsport event in the world’ box.
In 2018 we did some testing with the type of equipment we’re going to use, not specifically to get to this point but with one eye on hopefully at some stage. That was some cameras, some heli, just filming and not produced. Just testing the kit. I’ve watched the start of the Senior TT from 2018 from pre-race and then some of the race, and it’s completely different. I’m excited to see what it’s like when it is produced with on-screen graphics, presenting talent, properly edited, and proper commentary. If you take the Senior TT, it’s a two-hour race and it’s broadcast in a one-hour highlights show on commercial television, so we take out 15 minutes of adverts so we’re down to 45-minuites, then we have some magazine stuff and it’s now down to 30-minuites of coverage. Whereas a two-hour race will end up with four-hours of coverage, and it’ll eb everything. Watching that all play out on the grid, we’ll see everything going on there, the atmosphere and the conversations and so much more.
And from that same race, I’ve watched the moment from when Peter Hickman crosses the line until the end of the podium and the whole finish. The winner’s enclosure, as a good example, I’ve witnessed some really special things down there, and I don’t think there’s a winner’s enclosure in any form of motorsport that has the same level of energy and emotion as ours does. There’s all the normal kind of celebrations but there’s often a sense of relief in there, survival… it means so much. There’s no back slapping and handshaking, it’s real euphoria. And again, in the TV show we aren’t able to portray that because there isn’t enough time, it’s normally quite staged interviews against a backdrops, whereas watching that play out when we do it live will be fantastic and I’m looking forward to people seeing that.
Rider’s emotions having crossed the finish line…
“It’s a real human thing, and it really is all about emotion, and I think as viewers of sport or any kind of entertainment that’s what we like, and that’s what resonates with us. And that’s what the TT can be so successful as it expands with this broadcast proposition. The bikes aren’t really the story, it’s the people, it’s the human element. And it’s the characters involved in TT do have the potential to get a much bigger audience for themselves, and the event.
And what about the other changes. We’re here in Race Control, what’s going on here… you can barely see out of the window for all the screens?
“This is where the Clerk of the Course and his team and the emergency services effectively coordinate the event from. You’ve got the controllers who control the twelves sectors of the course, you’ve got the emergency services coordinating not just what happens to run the race itself but also the rest of the Island running when the main arterial route around the Island is closed. You’ve got the medical team that’s coordinated from here, the air med, etc. Then you have access to all sorts of information whether that’s where riders are in sectors – there’s a new GPS system being trialled at this year’s TT and if the trial is successful, it will be mandated in the future, so we’ll have GPS access to everything that’s moving. It’s not been designed for public access, so that’s TBC, there are considerations that need to be thought through. It was designed for this room ultimately.
There’s a CCTV system being developed in the short term, they’re going to have access to raw feed in live from the live broadcast so they can see more of the course and communicate with the travelling marshals and all of the marshals from here.
Will the winner’s enclosure remain?
“It has had a load of work done on it, as boring as it looks but new fencing and there’s a new infrastructure going in there. There’s a lot of work planned on this site, more than I’ve ever known, between now and TT. A lot of that is quite dull – brand and brightness stuff; fixing stuff, painting stuff and making it look as nice as possible for when our visitors come. And there’s a lot of boring stuff in the ground that nobody ever sees but is really important – refurbishment of the facilities like the toilets and the shower blocks, we’ve made quite a big investment in facilities for people with disabilities. We’ve got our mobile medical centre coming to the Island soon which gives this site, a site that houses thousands and thousands of people for a couple of weeks a mini hospital. Things like drug and alcohol testing, medical examinations, access to prescriptions.
Pit lane’s undergoing a lot of work – it looks a bit average at the moment – but it’ll come together. There are now only 60 pit boxes, so effectively there’s been more added but previously there was two per stanchion, so each pit box is twice as big as it was previously to give the pit crews more working space, they’re up from three to four so there’s a fourth person in charge of fire safety. A bit like World Endurance pit stops. New handrails on all the stanchions so when people are filling the fuel bowsers.
Also, which is completed now, is the parc fermé which is effectively twice as big now, which is fantastic. And that fixes a lot of different issues; it gives more operating space and with less competitors in the event, it also means the sidecars in qualifying can move into parc fermé rather than the pit lane as a parc fermé. What that means is that the pit lane will always be open for testing right throughout qualifying, and then when a qualifying session is live… previously when a bike was to come out of parc fermé and access the track again, it used to come up a small ramp and join the course through a small little gap which was far from ideal. Now the bikes will move down pit lane and access at the end of pit lane like they would during a race. It was a real safety risk that was addressed by making a bigger parc fermé.
One of the big things that’s come of out of having this time is the introduction of a Safety Management System which is a proper systematic approach to risk management. A much more proactive position when we look at risk rather than what has perhaps been more reactive. Processes are continually getting challenged, how could they be done better whether that’s using investment or using tech.
There’s a missing scoreboard here…
"The scoreboard came down; it was condemned effectively. A replacement will be there for ’23 but for ’22 there’ll be video walls accessing the live timings and some video feeds. The process for the new one, the build will go ahead after the Manx Grand Prix later this year and be ready by the spring of next year. It’s pretty traditional, a mix of tradition and modern technology. And the scouts will still be involved. It’ll be the same size and it’ll occupy the same space. It won’t be a small job, especially funding it. People often oversimplify these things – it’s not a small job putting it back. Funding it has not been a small job, and then the planning process, procurement and the build can’t start until after the Manx Grand Prix.
Mountain Course development
Today marks the start of the prep – the mountain road is shut now for a big road reconstruction at Stella Maris, and prep of the mountain section. There’s a big piece of work going on at the 11th milestone, and then lots of other smaller pieces. It’s fair to say that the course prep has started earlier, a good month earlier, there’s more being done than a normal year, because there hasn’t been the normal remedial work over the last few years. There’s no concern that the course will be in tip-top shape by the end of May. It’ll transform now and all of a sudden, it’ll turn from being a bit wintery and by the middle of May it’ll look like the TT course that people will remember.
It is exciting to think of it coming back. It’s so important to the Isle of Man, I think the importance of it has been wildly felt while it’s not been here - absence makes the heart grow fonder. The economic impact of it not being there for the hospitality sector, and the tourism sector. I’ve had conversations with people in the hospitality sector who describe the TT as like a thirteenth month in the year in terms of takings and there are lot of businesses and the wider community who rely on it, like the sports clubs who turn their facilities into campsites and local churches who run tea and cake stalls, and viewing, that income has been gone. I think that’s why we’ve seen so much support to bring the TT back, and to bring it back better and stronger than before and to be able to meet some of the challenges it was facing over the next few years, and I’d be really optimistic and excited about its future at the moment.
The TT can be so many things, it can be accessible to the real hardcore fans who don’t want any sort of commercialisation and who want to sit on the hedge and enjoy it in its rawest form. All that can always happen. The new fans maybe have different expectations and who are used to going to different types of sporting events, and we can deliver for them as well. And for the local community, and what they want out of it… I was driving home recently and the chap who is charge of the Football Association was on the local radio was talking about the need for the TT to return because of the big gap in funding where they have to pay for facilities and kids football training. People wouldn’t think that the TT plays that role but almost every football club on the Isle of Man runs a lucrative campsite during the Isle of Man. TT benefits because it’s bed nights for visitors and the sports club benefits because they money to pay for facilities and equipment.