EXCLUSIVE Stuart Higgs (BSB Race Director) - Q&A
29 October 2013
By Christian Tiburtius
An exclusive interview with MCE British Superbike Championship series and race director Stuart Higgs…
Hi Stuart, what's your background?
I've been active around motorcycle racing literally my whole life. My father in particular was a big part of racing here [at Brands Hatch] in the late '60s and early '70s running the marshals and that sort of thing so I was always there from a very early age. I was always looking and listening when it came to the organisational side of things even though it was very different then and you could say rudimentary.
I never rode a race, it never occurred to me, I got so involved in the organisational side of things. It's one of those things I've grown into. Part of the job I do now I was essentially doing as a volunteer back in the early 1990s on the sporting organising side and it wasn't really until the year 2001 that I became professionally employed in motorsport. At that point I moved into car and bike racing retaining my BSB responsibilities and then developing more and more into the commercial side of things from 2004 when Dorna became the promoter of BSB. I was looking after the sporting side and working closely with Dorna in the UK.
At the end of 2007 the commercial rights transferred from Dorna to Motorsport Vision and that's where we are today. So much of my role has been the same since the early 1990s but they've just increased every year.
It's a very interesting job and if I stop and think about it as we get to the end of the season you feel as if you're on a huge pressure ride from the start of the season and you get the most incredible comedown after Sunday night. It's like flying an airplane; you're just watching all the instruments and all the facets of the championship, the commercial side and the operational side.
So you run the whole series, everything?
Absolutely, so from the day I report to my CEO Jonathan Palmer before the beginning of the season I do it all.
It's a very small dynamic organisation I report directly to Jonathan, Jonathan is the head of the business and the head of MSV. MSV are the commercial and organisational rights holders of BSB. If you look at some of the other championships in the world, say MotoGP, they have Dorna, the FIM and IRTA and they're all separate entities but at BSB these are all combined in MSV. So it's very, very small but incredibly wide reaching in its roles and responsibilities.
We deal with sporting safety and the operational side of things at the event itself, and then pre-event it's the management of the commercial side - TV broadcast, sponsorship, teams, media and the whole thing really.
I'm very busy and I'm sometimes slightly worried that I'll look back in 20 years' time and think that I've missed key moments in my children's lives. It's one of those jobs which is never advertised and as I've grown into it and as the championship has got bigger so have my tasks and responsibilities. It's incredibly rewarding though knowing that you were there from the start. There was a dream by the late Robert Fearnall [Donington manager] to make BSB as successful as British Touring Cars was at the time with packed crowds and many manufacturers.
Everyone knew that BSB had the potential but it was just realising that. Since that time in '95 I've been the enabler putting it all together and sometimes doing things which were considered revolutionary. Up until then, if you had a race at Brands Hatch, the local Brands Hatch club would run it and likewise with other tracks and between the circuits nobody really spoke to each other and standards were all over the place with even basic things like flag protocols not being standard.
One of the big things we did at the end of '95 was to create the MCRCB which was a new governing body for the British championship and Racesafe which is the marshalling organisation. From a career point of view, I'd say that's joint second in my career highlights.
So MSV, the series and Racesafe are essentially the same body?
They're all close knit because we all feed off one another. You need them all working together. But they are all independent.
In which case, why are they separate?
Basically there's a core of people and functions within the marshalling side of things and MSV are very much a sporting and commercial organisation so it's just convenient for function. So in terms of the people there are probably only three or four people employed all year in the entire championship across all organisations.
and who are those three?
That would me, my PA and someone to look after the PR side of things. The events teams are borderline between volunteers and contractors who are hugely passionate.
That passion is crucial to the success of the series where having the continuity of having the same people doing the same tasks throughout the year makes things easy from a race direction point of view. The guy on turn one at Silverstone will be the same guy who's at turn one here [Brands Hatch].
Is it the operational management you enjoy most?
Every part of the job has different pressures and different levels of rewards. From a business perspective, chasing and doing deals is a nice feeling. Planning an event from start to finish is also a nice feeling.
But for me the moments between 12 and 6 O'clock on a Sunday in here with the live broadcast and screens is central. It's like being the conductor of a huge orchestra. An event's a living thing, incidents, weather, events on the track, they all contribute to that.
It's excitement and pressure because all events are unpredictable and having to be mentally alert for such a long amount of time means that by the end of the day you're absolutely shattered, but the next day you 'Ctrl/Alt/Delete' your brain and get on with the next thing. It's full on constantly.
What are the hours for Sunday for example?
We'll arrive at 7am and as it's the final round we may leave at 3am in the morning, but that's probably because there'll be a celebration or two to go to.
To give you an idea of the level of planning, there's the normal punter's timetable:
09.00 – 09.20 Monster Energy Motostar Free Practice 1
09.30 – 10.00 Motorpoint British Supersport Free Practice 1
and here's mine:
07.40 – 08.00 Radios available from briefing room.
08.05 IO briefing – Briefing room
08.35 All marshals/officials, medical staff and vehicles in position
08.45 Track and medical inspection
08.50 Circuit closing lap
09.00 Start of Motostar free practice 1
09.20 Finish of Motostar free practice 1
09.30 Start of Supersport free practice 1
10.00 Finish of Supersport free practice 1
10.07 Start of 3 minutes countdown to Superbike session
It goes minute by minute right from the start of the day until the end and if it says that something will happen at 10:07 then it will because of the live TV feed. The television element is very important to how the event is run and we'll be announcing tomorrow that we're extending our Eurosport coverage to 2020 which is unprecedented continuity for BSB. We'll also be announcing several significant international deals including with Discovery in the USA.
Discovery is 50 odd million free to air viewers in the USA and we've also got pan Africa and Asia pacific deals.
Without making the wrong analogy, it's like premier league football. It takes place in a very small geographical area but is beamed far and wide. BSB is most definitely growing. Because we operate in a small area, the costs are manageable, we don't have to freight things to Qatar, but the broadcast signal can be exported easily.
We've also had our little foray into continental Europe and that's been very successful.
Is going to Assen dipping a toe into a possible European Superbike series?
Everyone does get a little carried away with that, we've got great tracks in Britain and this is the heart of the championship but when you get the opportunity on a mutual basis to explore other circuits you take them. Assen is a very traditional part of the British series right from the Fogarty Superbike era and there was a mass migration to Assen in September.
This is another thing about the calendar, it's really important to try and keep fixed dates so that people know that if it's Easter it's Brands and if it's August Bank Holiday it's Cadwell Park and so forth. So subconsciously when you're planning weddings or birthdays you can always work around the BSB calendar.
Are you in discussion with any other continental circuits?
The discussions are always ongoing as you'd expect but that has to happen very carefully and the value to the championship has to be clear. The last thing we want to do is to drag everyone kicking and screaming to a place that isn't appropriate. We feel that Assen is the oldest circuit in the GP calendar, has a tremendous affinity with British crowds and if you did a survey of a BSB crowd you'd find that a large proportion of them had been to a bike race at Assen. It's one of those things you've got on your bucket list.
When we went to Assen it certainly didn't feel as if we were small fish in a big pond. The racing, crowd and event were fantastic. It was a bold move but I think we pulled it off. When you've got your entire paddock community on two boats the atmosphere is fantastic. We're a close bunch of people and there are no taboo subjects so people can be honest to me and I'm honest back.
When it comes to policy decisions for the championship, how are they arrived at?
MSV took the lead on that, when we took over the rights we wanted to make sure that the two other stakeholders, namely the manufacturers and the teams, were also involved in deciding the championship direction.
Often the teams or manufacturers might have different agendas, in WSBK you mainly just have manufacturers but the model for BSB is more team based with either importer or private financial input.
We crafted the idea of a Showdown [points system] with the manufacturers and teams really just coming off the back of a fairly average 2009 season. If you take a championship which runs in the traditional linear format it'll probably be down to two or three guys by the middle of the season, maybe two guys before the end and then one wins it with races to spare. We felt that we had to stand out from the crowd.
This is what's distinctive about BSB, we don't just compare ourselves with motor sport. We look at other sports like tennis, golf, cricket, rugby. We can't change the disciplines but we can change the format. Look at football, you have a league competition and knockout cup competition. Look at cricket, test matches, one days or even 20:20. If you'd suggested 20:20 cricket ten years ago you'd have been shot at Lords cricket ground.
Every sport has slightly different ways of presenting itself. The showdown format was also suggested by what happens in NASCAR, it's called the Chase and that still gets hotly discussed ten years on.
Essentially we're in the business of going round and around in circles, that's the discipline, but what can we do to make BSB distinctive so that people can say 'Ah yes, that's the series where people do that'.
Also we wanted to give any participant a realistic horizon, the best possible hope they can have. If you look at a standard season, teams may think that if they get into the top ten they'll be doing well but if you say you're going to draw a line at sixth place at the end of the season, maybe 12 out of 16 teams may think they can make it. It's a realistic target and will motivate them. It's good for sponsors and for rider motivation. In a linear competition, by halfway many participants will already be demotivated and with the shootout it's almost like a relaunch.
It's controversial and it's not just like it or lump it, it's for a genuine reason; to keep it lively and interesting. It's the same with the qualifying where the first race sets the grid for the second. These things make BSB distinctive.
The teams were also behind and involved in the decision to change the technical regulations. At the end of 2009 we were running full blown FIM World Superbike spec thinking 'Jesus, we're just going to run this series into the ground' Less and less teams could afford it. Airwaves Yamaha team at the time were flying data guys over with laptops just to start the motorbike, it was crazy. Together we crafted the Evo rules.
They said that going to a control ECU could never happen in a major bike series. It works in every four wheel series but in motorcycles there was a great fear of the unknown.
Motec have done a fantastic job and I think that making a unit that works with so many different bikes was difficult but they've done a great job. They're very understated people and deserve more credit than they got. The proof of the pudding though is that five manufacturers are in the top five.
What's great at the moment too is the breakthrough for Ducati and we're just hoping that it wasn't a false dawn. I think that we've got the rules for the 'fours' [cylinders] nailed but twins are very important to the championship and we're still working on that.
You often mention football, is that on your mind?
Not especially but you can't ignore that every other sport has always taken a look at itself and acknowledged that it needs to do different things to keep itself fresh.
It's making the basic format of racing more unpredictable and making sure that more riders have a chance at the end.
I'm happy with the situation as it is and can't really see ourselves going back. You can't really imagine going to a tennis match where the two players just have a knock about because one has already won it the day before.
How does the series make money, does television pay for coverage?
It's not as simple as that by any means and unfortunately domestic motorsport is very low in the pecking order when you see the rights fees that are paid in other sports, particularly those with balls!
At MSV we're responsible for the very high costs of HD TV production facilities and together with Eurosport look after the distribution.
Income for the championship is largely derived from outside sponsorship such as MCE Insurance and other commercial partners. The circuits also pay a sanction fee which is essentially the cost of the championship divided by the twelve circuits. The gate revenues are retained by the circuits.
Some of the support classes pay race entry fees but the Superbike ones don't.
Our principle has always been that the biggest platform we have is the championship itself and the events and broadcasts, we have to make it attractive to watch and take part in. The teams have a great thing to sell to sponsors which is their position in a series that has gone from being patchily covered on television to having over 300 hours, 70 of which are live and we'll be extending coverage to include qualifying on Saturday.
That's why we work closely with the teams, gone are the days when you approach a company and they just put their logo on you bike for a fee. You'd be more likely to have sponsorship on multiple levels where you have a relationship with the sponsor where they might promote their product in a racing environment and invite marketing staff to attend races or hospitality. That's also backed up online and with social media and in many cases on-site rights, sampling etc.
Are you also fully responsible for the support series such as Motostar and Supersport?
Does the championship make money?
The championship actually costs several million pounds to run when you consider direct and indirect costs and liabilities. Our job is obviously to maximise the discrepancy between that and the income.
The previous two entities running BSB were Octagon/British Motorsport Promoters and then Dorna and they were losing heavily each year. There's a big perception that we're just rolling in it but I've got to emphasise that this is a small lean organisation which is working its proverbial nuts off.
We certainly don't sit down at the end of the year and have a big divvy up, it doesn't work like that because investment and liabilities are ongoing when it comes to safety and promotion. There are also unforeseen situations. Since July for example the Brands Hatch GP circuit surface has degraded and we needed to resurface two corners at short notice so there are many ongoing factors.
We also work with teams where they may come to us and get advice about finalising a deal with a sponsor. That's where our role will increase.
When Swan were a championship sponsor I remember getting a call from Shaun [Muir] on Boxing Day 2009 telling me that they'd lost their Hydrex backing and then being on the phone to the CEO of Swan the same day trying to put together a deal for Shaun and Swan. That's how closely the relationship works.
When you have a star rider such as Guintoli or Hopper, does MSV ever contribute to their salary for the sake of the championship?
If there's a promotional factor that can work for the benefit of the championship then that's the kind of partnership we work with but on sensible commercial terms with a sponsor.
How are decisions reached regarding incidents on track?
It depends on the incident, a jump start is easy to determine with CCTV and you just get an automatic ride through and that decision would be made by me.
If it's something more subjective like a coming together then we'll need to accumulate information to determine cause and you can't do that in five minutes. We'll prepare the information and the riders will appear with their team representative. So for example at Assen there would have been me, the two riders and the two team representatives. They give their account and we discuss the differences between the accounts.
We'll then look at the VT footage from the various angles. We've now also got recorded onboard footage from the bikes and the best seat in the house for the Alex and Shakey crash was actually the onboard camera from James Ellison's bike. Finally we have a lock down area in the ECU which can't be tampered with and that will give us information about throttle openings, brake use, GPS position on the track and so forth.
In Alex and Shakey's case, the offence was causing a collision, the responsibility was placed on Alex's shoulders and we felt that lap four of a race on a 130mph corner was a serious offence and that's why he had the race result docked.
Taking the more recent incident with Alastair Seeley and Jason O'Halloran, that was at the end of the race on a 30mph corner that allowed many different lines. There was lighter contact as well but the situation was different which is why the sanction was different.
At the end of the process the parties have 30 minutes in which they can appeal but that wouldn't necessarily be heard then.
Does the series kind of feel like your baby?
I feel an enormous amount of pride when I consider how it's developed since its re-birth in 1996. I'm very lucky to have a boss like Jonathan Palmer who apart from being a very astute businessman is incredibly motivated and we have a great relationship. If you remember at the end of 2003 when a lot of tracks were borderline derelict, these are very nice places to come now.
I am very close to the series though, during a race I'm always here, I don't move, this is mission control.