BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
I’m on the 08:05 easyJet flight from Gatwick to Ronaldsway. It’s the end of October, but I’m still bubbling with the same kind of excitement I always get when I’m heading to the Isle of Man. I’m a very frequent flier and go through my own private routine of checking for the lifejacket under my seat and eyeing the nearest exit before settling down for an hour of shut-eye.
We’re six months out from the 2022 TT races. Six months away from the largest road racing spectacle on the planet filling our senses once again. Coming off the back of the longest racing lay-off on the Island since World War II, to say that we’ve all missed it would be an understatement. That said, I know that the organising team hasn’t wasted any lockdown time; the nut-and-bolt review of the races they’ve previously publicised means there are some huge changes coming for the TT. Some that you’ll see as spectators and some that you’ll barely notice.
I’ve flown in to understand the new SMS (Safety Management System). It’s unlikely as a fan sitting in the hedges you’ll notice much difference, but after spending a couple of days with the team which has put it together, I’ll stick my neck out and say that what you’re about to read is also about future-proofing the oldest motorcycle race in the world. Given modern society’s risk averse approach to, well, absolutely everything, you can imagine that this has taken a mountain of effort.
WHAT IS THE SMS?
The SMS is an undertaking by the TT organisers to do absolutely everything in their power to minimise risk in every area that they possibly can. That’s some mission statement, but don’t worry, you’re not going to read about speed limiters or engine capacity limits; the spectacle is going nowhere.
However, there clearly needs to be a systematic approach in managing the risks associated with the TT – and that also means a systematic approach to change. Change to benefit everyone. Change that relies on data. Change that draws on hard-learned lessons and the toughest of experiences. Leaving things alone for fear of losing the romance or sense of ultimate freedom is no longer an option. In short, if we want the TT to thrive in the future, it needs to buck up its ideas when it comes to safety - and that’s what the organising team are doing. Big time.
Taking the lead on the SMS is Nige Crennell. Nige is a Manxman born and bred, but more important than his roots, is where they spread. Nige enjoyed a full career in the RAF as a Tornado pilot, later becoming a weapons instructor and instructor pilot, which means his working life was full of systems and checks. Unsurprisingly, a significant amount of scrutiny and responsibility is required to deal with the kind of speed and danger that Nige faced every day. It’s easy to see why he’s a natural fit.
Nige’s ‘wingman’ for the SMS is Doctor Gareth Davies. Until very recently, Gareth ran the London Air Ambulance Service. Operating in the capital also meant leading teams in the response to London’s major incidents: The Paddington, Southall and Potters Bar rail disasters; the 7/7 bombings; and the terrorist attacks at Westminster and London Bridge.
Gareth also happens to be the medical lead when it comes to the TT and has championed using helicopters to take the ‘operating theatre’ to injured racers at the side of the road, rather than simply using them as sky ambulances that ferry them to Noble’s Hospital. He’s another Manxman who moved away from his island home to gain a new set of incredible skills – skills that have saved the lives of countless people. There are other members of the team that all play a vital role in the SMS process, but I allow Nige to kick off the story over a welcome coffee.
“Everyone has heard of risk assessments, but I wanted to understand how ours were put together and who was looking at them once they had been created. I set out to proactively look for as many problems as I could - I wanted to identify all the things that could bite us in the arse! Once I understood them, I then applied the same systematic approach to dealing with those risks as I did in my previous career. It’s more than just a box-ticking exercise and it has to be if we want the TT to grow, let alone survive.”
Professional excellence: Manxmen Nige Crennell and Doctor Gareth Davies are just two of the incredibly knowledgeable and skilled individuals instilling a new culture around safety at the TT.
Nige was quick to acknowledge that the two-year hiatus from racing on the Mountain Course gifted him the time and space needed to undertake such a mammoth task. With the TT’s strategic review acting as a catalyst for change, the former RAF man began by looking at the TT’s own ‘chain of command’.
“We recognised that unless we get the event management structure right, we’d never be able to iron out all the smaller issues. First, we sought clarity between the roles and responsibilities undertaken by the race organiser (ACU Events Ltd) and the governing body (ACU). After review of that structure, the ACU then appointed new staff who, in turn, created a bespoke safety compliance piece for us. Remember this isn’t like running races at Mallory Park or some other short circuit - it takes a unique approach to safety at an event like ours.”
Nige talks with the kind of clarity and conviction that I haven’t heard since I left the army in 2005. For me, his approach has a sense of ripping off the Band-Aid. Where some people take their time and slowly pick at the edges for fear of a little bit of initial discomfort, others simply grab hold of the whole thing and pull hard. Nige gestures out of the window from the Grandstand and describes to me how he pulled the Band-Aid off pit lane - and what changes are to come. I also spot the empty space that the scoreboard used to occupy. He talks me through the process of replacing that, and why that work was undertaken.
They are undoubtedly two of the things that most of us will notice, but there are dozens more that the majority of fans won’t. As I stand in race control having them pointed out to me, I can see that the amount of work that has gone into the SMS is mind-boggling. I jump in the car for the short drive over to Nobles Hospital for a chat with Doctor Davies and ask him how he thinks this shift in culture is going.
“We’re now grappling with the big issues, finding real clarity between the inherent risks and the unnecessary risks, and removing the latter. That’s been the absolute focus. Historically the view has always been that racing the TT is risky, and because that’s part of the attraction, you’ll only ruin it if you try and deal with that risk. What we’ve managed to do with the SMS is quickly convince people that there are risks that need to be dealt with and that these don’t actually tamper with the spectacle, nor the DNA, of the event.
“It’s been a real journey for many of us, but I’ve been fortunate in that my previous job meant landing helicopters in the middle of London to save lives. You can’t just do that kind of thing out of the blue, so I was quite used to operating in risk-rich environments on a daily basis. Nigel has been on a similar journey – there’s an amazing synergy between medicine and aviation when it comes to systems and checks.
“The SMS is the kind of thing that we apply here in hospitals every single day, so my role has been to support the team with the concept and help other people understand it. That means untangling lots of issues to really understand who is carrying what risk and who is ultimately responsible. One of the things I like most about the process is that we can’t go back on it now. That means the TT is already safer than it was. It’s a very powerful project that will take the event to another level completely.”
“We’re now grappling with the big issues, finding real clarity between the inherent risks and the unnecessary risks, and removing the latter.”
Gareth outlines his respect for the way that F1 critiques and analyses accidents, looking for every possible way to learn from incidents and near misses – rather than just calling them ‘racing accidents’ and making sure the show goes on. The elephant in the room for me is the Steve Mercer incident that happened in 2018. An avoidable incident that should be viewed in a completely different way from a crash that happens during a race, like the accident that saw Dan Kneen lose his life only minutes before. As a fully paid-up TT fanboy, it’s hard for me to even write those two names without thinking about the darker side of the TT. Thankfully Gareth is made of stronger stuff and, with Nige’s help, is determined to separate the inherent from the unnecessary in order to make sure that the unnecessary never happens again.
“There will always be racing accidents. A rider losing control of a bike, when he’s in peak physical condition, riding the best bike possible, is the residual risk we have to deal with. It’s what forms part of the attraction of any form of motorsport. Our job is to make sure that when we analyse those accidents, we can confirm that the rider was wearing the best kit for the job, was in the best possible position to do their job, and that their bike was spot on. We’ve only had a primordial version of this review process up till now.
“We discovered some real surprises. Scrutineering was just one example that caught my attention. It was amazing how something as innocuous as a verbal interaction between a scrutineer and a rider over a misplaced sticker could result in a rider going out on track in an altered mental state. A small kerfuffle of a conversation that would have no impact whatsoever if you were at a short circuit, perhaps, but here it’s different. It’s two different kinds of people doing two different kinds of jobs, but only one of them is going down Bray Hill at 160mph.
“It’s our job to educate everyone on how these kinds of things can have an impact, because by doing them differently we could strike another unnecessary risk from the list. If we can be grateful to COVID for nothing else, it should be that it gave us an opportunity to shine a light on all the tiny things that contribute to the overall risk at the TT.”
“The TT is already safer than it was. It’s a very powerful project that will take the event to another level completely.”
SHINING A LIGHT
Gareth shines that light into my eyes for a brief moment when we discuss the impact the media can have on riders. He wonders if someone who does my job in asking a racer a really probing – and potentially nasty question – two minutes before they set off is a fair and decent thing to do? Obviously, the answer to that is no, but until there’s an education by way of a briefing for journalists in attendance, this small thing could be the catalyst to something huge.
There’s something we can all do, including me. I start by getting out of the way and heading back to Nige at the Grandstand, who picks up on the theme of questions.
“I asked myself what could stop this event continuing and then looked at each element of the SMS in turn. The management structure came under close scrutiny. We also examined the ways we identify problems and how we go on to fix them. We needed to understand who is able to help us in assessing how we do things correctly, and to make sure that whatever we do we get talking to each other right across the organisation.
“In doing this we were able to identify and understand all of the risks and how to best mitigate them. That has allowed us to plan the necessary changes required and, as part of my role within the Isle of Man Government, to try and find the funding to make those changes. Ultimately, we are striving to improve standards and to work with the Governing Body (ACU) to raise those standards wherever we can.
“Our collective aim is to reduce the level of risk that is associated with the event to ensure it remains acceptable. We will do all we can for TT2022, but this is a process of continual improvement and we then keep going after TT2022 to learn more lessons and keep improving.”
There’s that clarity and conviction again. Plenty of people immersed in the world of road racing shy away from talking about the event’s survival, but the former Tornado pilot is determined to face the subject head-on and with a refreshing openness.
Indeed, Nige’s awareness of the shifting attitudes echoes those of Professor Sid Watkins, the legendary head of F1’s on-track medical team. In 1994, during the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix that claimed the life of his good friend, Ayrton Senna, Watkins expressed the view that Formula 1 was coming to the end of an era. Noting the sociological changes occurring in the world, he felt the sport was close to being no longer acceptable.
Senna’s death proved a tipping point and F1 has moved through the gears since, constantly revisiting regulations and introducing such safety initiatives as the HALO system and the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device. Both have saved lives and F1 is still enjoying its lofty position at the top of the motorsport tree nearly three decades after Watkins’ prophecy. That sort of future-proofing is exactly what Nige is looking for.
“For the TT to be sustainable in the long term we have to be able to manage effectively the risks associated with the event and protect against reputational damage. This isn’t about making sure that everyone is wearing the right kind of hi-vis jacket. It’s about clearly defining roles and responsibilities. We want to be confident that everyone involved is doing their job to the best of their ability and has all of the tools and training required to do so. That’s when we can be truly confident in letting the guys and girls go out and race on the Mountain Course.”
No set destination: Gareth and Nige describe the SMS as a process of continual improvement.
Nigel and Gareth share the view that the SMS doesn’t have a designated end point, rather it’s a ‘forever journey’ with no set destination. Their approach reminds me of that story about the painters and the Golden Gate bridge; by the time they get to the end it’s time to go back to the beginning and start again. There’s clearly more to understand about the scope of the SMS and I’m already looking forward to hearing more, but for now Doctor Davies wraps things up nicely.
“It’s been an incredible process and one I’m proud to be part of. There’ll be some mourning for some of the more outdated and makeshift elements of the TT, but you can’t apply professional excellence without making changes – and that’s the business we’re in. There’ll be a new generation of TT fan who will embrace what we’re doing and will support it wholeheartedly. I’ll be proud to hand over this new version of the TT to the next custodians, which is all we are.”
Before I know it, I’m back at Ronaldsway airport. I’m nearly 42 years old and don’t mind admitting that I still wave goodbye to the Island as I walk through the doors. There’s something about this place that only a certain kind of person gets. Settling down on the plane, I buckle my seat and give the flight attendant my full attention during the safety briefing. Just because nothing happened the last time I flew, or the time before that, or all the other times before that, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen this time.
Want to know more about the SMS and what it means for the TT? Hit the link below for a list of the most eye-catching safety initiatives you will (and won’t) see at TT 2022.