‘You’ve got a problem with...’
The phrase strikes a note of gloom for any motorcycle racer because it means his (or her) bike has failed the all important technical inspection – generally known as scrutineering – which all bikes have to go through before every race or practice.
It means a frantic scramble to rectify a last-minute fault and, if all efforts fail, no practice or, worse, no race.
Scrutineering is routine at race circuits around the British Isles and it’s routine at road races including the S100, the Manx Grand Prix and, topically the TT. In fact for a road race circuit, with bikes battered by the pot holes bumps and jumps not evident at normal traffic speeds, it’s even more important. Not to mention the greater distances involved. The average club race will be well under 20 miles but just two practice laps of the TT course is a little under 80; a race is 150 miles or more: one and a half hours’ high speed pounding of frames, bodywork.
Nuts and bolts have to be lock wired – secured with thin wire so they can’t loosen – in particular those securing major components like brake callipers and oil drain plugs. It goes without saying an oil spillage could spell disaster not just for the rider involved, but for anyone following too. Technical requirements for the TT and the MGP are more stringent than for many circuit races.
The accepted mantra is, anything that could potentially work loose and fall off probably will, particularly around the Mountain Course.
Like so many aspects of motor sport in the Isle of Man, there is huge reliance on volunteers. Like the 500-odd marshals around the course, the scrutineers are all unpaid volunteers who are on duty every practice and race day, ensuring bikes are safe before going out on the course. They also patrol the pits giving a quick visual check for problems during pit stops and can stop a rider from returning to the course mid race if there’s a problem.
There’s also a clever rotation system in place so a different scrutineer checks the bike each time to minimise the chance of a minor fault being missed.
About 10 green new recruits, me included, turned up at the Grandstand on a cold and wet February day earlier this year to be inducted in the black art of the motorcycle scrutineer.
TT chief scrutineer Willy Clucas, along with fellow scrutineer John Ridout were the men in charge of an intensive day, which included a power point presentation, a practical test checking an actual bike, two exams and a noise meter demonstration.
Many race tracks have noise restrictions and random noise testing is routinely carried out as well as random breath testing of riders to enforce a strict zero alcohol policy.
Inspection isn’t just limited to the bikes. Basic protective kit is also examined: helmet, boots, leathers and gloves, for fit, condition and damage. A selection of battered helmets, boots, gloves and leathers was duly passed around, some shredded and some almost undetectably damaged. The helmet’s date stamp should also be examined and a rider should wear it so fit can be checked.
‘A big problem is sometimes a ‘new’ helmet can already be several years old having sat on the shop shelf unsold. And it’s no good a rider producing someone else’s helmet that doesn’t fit,’ Mr Clucas said.
Checking all the bikes for potentially life threatening faults to safeguard both riders and spectators is a tall undertaking too.
During TT 2010 in just the first three days of practice, Mr Clucas told us they checked 234 machines.
For MGP the figure is even higher. In seven days in 2010 1,768 checks were carried out. For the Manx two-day trial in 2010 517 bikes were checked.
Ultimately a rider is responsible for his own safety, but no-one is exempt from human error.
‘Even the top teams can make mistakes,’ Mr Clucas said, adding: ‘I’m not going to name any names, but we do come across things occasionally.’
Finally we settled down to do the exam, armed with a copy of the technical regulations. Meanwhile, one by one we were taken to the scrutineering bay next door to give the once over to a specially doctored bike set up with a number of faults while a chap stood over us armed with a clip board ticking off points.
A couple of months later, with some relief, I found out I’d passed the course.
Whether I do any scrutineering remains to be seen. But I know next time I take my own bike to be inspected I will remind myself of the time, effort, dedication, skipped mealtimes and sore knees sacrificed in my interest.
Though I still can’t promise not to swear (inwardly) if my bike fails.
• As well as being a reporter with Isle of Man Newspapers, John Turner races in the Manx Grand Prix