BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
For locals and visitors to the Isle of Man, the TT is two glorious weeks of road racing at the start of their summer. For teams and competitors, it’s months of commitment, preparation and planning in the build-up to the highlight of their racing season. But for some of those that help to put the TT on, it’s a year-round cycle of work. No sooner is the last event finished than it’s straight on to the next, continuously working to make the Tourist Trophy happen and – perhaps more importantly – to keep it going, growing and improving. John Barton is one of those hard-working individuals.
Hailing from Dartford in Kent, John has an extensive racing career that spans over 30 years. He’s raced in British Superbikes, British Supersport, European Supermono, World Endurance, and even the occasional World Superbike Championship round. And after making his debut in 1990, he contested all but one TT since – only missing the 2003 edition due to injuries from a tip off at that year’s Scarborough Spring Cup.
Since 1997 he’s called the Isle of Man home (though his accent is still very much that of an Essex ‘geezer’!) and with all that TT and racing experience, plus his extensive knowledge of the Island, he’s been in the role of Rider Liaison Officer since 2008, working alongside Richard ‘Milky’ Quayle.
During a TT fortnight, the pair are the first port of call for competitors on the ground and act as a link between them and the team up in Race Control headed by Clerk of the Course, Gary Thompson. John and Richard relay as much information down to the paddock as they feed back up to Race Control, and discussions range from delays and scheduling, to weather and track conditions, and anything else in-between. It’s as much an exercise in safety as it is in communication:
“That connection between the tower (Race Control) and the ground is vital for a number of reasons. We’ve got to make sure the riders are 100% focussed on the job, so we’re on hand and ready to quickly resolve any niggles or problems that might come up.”
“I think what works so well for Milky and me is that we’ve been there, we’ve done it. We know what is going through [the racers’] minds and what might be bothering them, so we’re on it straight away. I’d like to think that most times we’re able to pick up on things before they actually become a problem!”
However, whilst looking after the best interests of the whole paddock is a large part of the Rider Liaison Officers’ roles, they are far better known to the public for their work with TT newcomers, and that’s a job that extends far beyond the two weeks in June.
A NEWCOMER JOURNEY
Nowadays, riders looking to compete at the Isle of Man TT Races for the first time will typically come via one of two routes:
They may have started their Mountain Course career racing in the Manx Grand Prix – held in August over the same 37.73-mile course and considered as the amateur riders’ alternative to the TT – before graduating to the June event. This allows them to steadily build up their experience and gain vital Mountain Course knowledge away from the spotlight that shines on the TT.
Riders to have taken this route in recent years include Jamie Coward, Dominic Herbertson, and Nathan Harrison. Indeed, notable Manx Grand Prix alumni also include Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop, who now share 37 TT victories between them.
A newcomer's first ever lap of the TT Course will be speed controlled, escorted by the Rider Liaison Officers
Alternatively, and more commonly in recent years, is for riders to come directly to the TT. Competitors taking this route will have a demonstrable talent for racing at a high level, with some arriving to the Isle of Man already with an impressive racing CV such as Peter Hickman, Josh Brookes, and most recently, Glenn Irwin.
But even if you’re a British Champion or have competed on the world stage, when it comes to the TT, you’re still a ‘newcomer’, and this is where the Rider Liaison Officers come in:
“It’s 37-miles like nowhere else in the world. You can’t compare it to anywhere else and so you have to prepare for it in a way that’s totally different, too.”
“A typical short circuit in the UK is going to have 10, 15, maybe 18 corners for instance. At the TT there are well over 200, and then there are all the markers and reference points to go with it.”
“You still have reference points at short circuits, but you’ll probably only have a handful of them for things like braking markers. Because for 95% of the corners on tracks around the UK, you can see what’s coming. You can see the corners, you can see through them to the apex, and you can see out of them. At the TT you need to know with absolute certainty what’s coming up because you don’t get any of that. You’ve got blind approaches, blind corners, late apexes, so there are countless markers like trees and kerbs and posts around the Course that newcomers need to be familiar with to get around safely.”
“And then there’s all the jumps and bumps and crests that they need to know, too. And the road surfaces and the cambers, and where they should expect gusts of wind through openings in the hedges. All sorts. There’s a lot of learning to do before you get let on the start line.”
So where do you start with a 200mph memory game?
“At the beginning!” he jokes.
“No, the first thing I will ask people is ‘how do you normally learn a new circuit? How do you go about it?’ Because everybody’s different, and what works for one person might not work with another.”
“You also have to be careful because there is so much to learn and you don’t want to overwhelm a newcomer. You can see when their minds are blown and you need to avoid that because it will only set them back, so you need to learn, go away, process it all, and then come back to it. That’s the same for if you’re watching onboards, driving laps, or even playing the computer game.”
Some pick it up quicker than others, but the process is the same for each and every newcomer. Only when John and Milky are happy that they are up to speed will their entry be accepted and their TT career begin. But even then, their first ever closed roads lap of the Course will be behind either John or Milky, who then keep a careful eye on their progress throughout their debut TT.
HANGING UP THE LEATHERS
2023 marks the start of a new chapter for John, stepping away from competition to take on further responsibilities for ACU Events – Race Organiser of the TT Races – as part of significant reforms to the organisation.
The ACUE have been responsible for the organisation of the Isle of Man TT Races since 2008. Since then, the TT has experienced a significant amount of development and growth across almost every area of the event. Racing speeds, visitor numbers and audience growth have all reached new heights in this time period, but with that has come increased complexity and new pressures to the event’s delivery, and one aspect that has remained relatively unchanged in that time is the structure and human resource of the Race Organiser.
Over the last few years, John has been working his way through the levels of Clerk of the Course certification and, in addition to his work as Rider Liaison Officer at TT 2023, he’ll take up the position of Deputy Clerk of the Course under Thompson and alongside the experienced Lizzie Kinvig, bringing increased resilience and bandwidth to the team in Race Control.
However, it’s John’s appointment into the new role of Head of Infrastructure that will arguably bring the biggest benefits to the Race Organiser:
“Admittedly I’m not normally one for these formal titles. I’ve not had one like this before but, in fairness, it’s pretty accurate here! I’m now in charge of the course build.”
‘Course build’. He says those words with nonchalance, as if preparing 37.73-miles of public highway for use as a racing circuit is a straightforward and everyday task…
Swapping his leathers for the hi-vis, John has taken on greater responsibility with the Race Organsier
THE JOB AT HAND
In order for the TT Course to be used as a race course, it needs to get certified each year by the ACU – the governing body for motorcycle racing in the UK and Isle of Man. A ‘Course Manual’ details everything that needs to be done: the location and number of Recticel barriers, the position of signage detailing restricted and prohibited areas, scaffolding platforms for marshal points, the distribution of firefighting equipment, even the location of Portaloos for the small army of marshals dotted around the TT Course. A place for everything and everything in its place.
For 2023 the course build started 10 weeks before the first bike heads off down Bray Hill, and whilst there are teams of contractors doing the work, it’s on John to make sure those people are in place and that it’s all delivered on time and to the specification set by the ACU. But nothing stays still in racing and there are always things to improve which, in turn, means more work for John:
“We’re constantly increasing the amount of Recticel we have to put around the Course, as well as upgrading the existing stock of equipment we already have. More equipment means more planning and more time to put it all into place.”
Understandably, the Course Manual is a highly-detailed and sizeable document, but there are certain things it can’t account for. The kind of things that happen when a race course is used by tens of thousands of car, buses and HGVs every day for 365 days of the year, and is lined by trees, bushes and walls…
That means that year-round, John has monthly inspections of the Course to identify issues and to grade them in order to prioritise any works that are required. He then works closely with the Isle of Man Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture to make it all happen.
“I’m lucky enough to be working with a great group of people across the DOI and DEFA. Making the various organisations work together in the best possible way is a big part of my job. There’s a lot of planning that has to be done before the work even starts, especially when we need road closures to get stuff done.”
"The TT’s the biggest thing in the world for me, but the other departments obviously have their own priorities and local residents also want to live their lives with as little disruption as possible, so we make sure we get everyone working together on this.”
“There’s a number of improvements to the road surface this year – Greeba Castle, Sulby Straight, the Waterworks, and then Casey’s, the 32nd Milestone and Windy Corner up on the Mountain, but the most noticeable thing this year is probably through Glen Helen.”
“We’ve got about 1,000 trees around the Course that are diseased and dead, so they need to come down before they fall down on to the Course. The last thing we need is McGuinness coming round the corner to some great big elm tree in the road! For this year we’ve taken a large number down through Glen Helen, and it’s remarkable how different it looks now as you’re going through there.”
But it’s not all about trees, roadworks and barriers for John. Far from it.
A new Safety Management System introduced during the COVID-enforced break has set the Race Organiser the task of doing absolutely everything in their power to minimise risk in every area that they possibly can. That’s not about speed limiters or engine limits; the spectacle of the TT isn’t going anywhere. It’s about a systematic approach to the risks associated with the TT that is driven by data and feedback, and for the benefit of everyone concerned.
As Head of Infrastructure, John is responsible for pushing things forward and striving to improve safety standards on and around the TT Mountain Course.
Last year saw the introduction of a new digital red flag system at 28 positions around the Course which received unanimous praise from throughout the paddock. As a result, John is deploying a further 7 units for 2023, and expanding their scope to also ‘black flag’ any faulty machines.
“It doesn’t happen too often, but there are times where [Race Control] will be informed about a bike going round with a mechanical issue. In those situations, time is of the essence and we have to act quickly for both that rider and all the others out on the Course.”
Introduced in 2022, the Digital Flag System is being expanded for 2023 under John's management
“At the moment, [Race Control] will get a report in from the marshals about a bike with an issue, we’ll confirm the details, and then we’ll radio ahead to the next sector to get that bike pulled in and checked. It doesn’t take long for that process to happen, but the guys are covering distances so fast these days.”
“For instance, if we get reports of a bike at Crosby with an issue we’ll look to pull them in at Ballacraine, about 3 miles further down the road. But they’ll cover that distance in less than a minute and so we might not get the message through in time to flag them down, or the riders might even miss the signal. It might be a couple more miles down the road at Glen Helen when we can next intervene safely.”
“It’s a little over 2 minutes, but that’s potentially 5-miles of road that’s contaminated. So for this year we’re also going to use the digital flag system to issue black flags. Our marshals will still be out there as the frontline, reporting the issues and flagging riders down, but the technology will supplement their work.”
While it’s an evolutionary step for the digital flag system, there’s a revolutionary change being overseen by John at this year’s TT – the introduction of GPS tracking for competitors.
GPS technology is nothing new but – as with many things – the TT Course throws up its own set of challenges. High speeds, lean angles, bumps, tree cover, and coverage black spots thanks to the lay of the Manx land are just some of the challenges the GPS tracking faces, but after a rigorous testing programme over the past few years, the system is now mandatory for all machines taking to the TT Mountain Course and it’s John’s job to oversee its implementation and delivery.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d be lying if I said I knew everything about the technology inside the boxes! But I do understand how much of a difference it’s going to make in running an event safely and managing any incidents that might occur, and so I’m very proud to be taking it on and to work with the riders to make sure it’s a success.”
His new roles and responsibilities may have put an end to John’s racing career at the TT, but don’t feel too sorry for him just yet... He’ll still get his TT fix when he leads the newcomers around for their first ever taste of the Mountain Course, the course he’s helped put together.