Motorcycles with Mat Oxley: November 2017

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Why an electric motorbike could beat its fossil-fuel counterparts around the Isle of Man… and really ought to sound like Led Zeppelin

It had to happen: MotoGP will have an electrically powered support series from 2019. Electric motorcycle racing isn’t new, but has never really caught on. The FIM organised a world championship in 2013, but the response was anything but electric and the series was quietly dropped. Motorcyclists, it would seem, like race bikes to be noisy.

Nevertheless, Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of MotoGP rights-holder Dorna, seems determined to go ahead. “It is the right time to have an electric support class,” he says. “Now we are talking with different electric bike makers and then we will see. We have had a lot of interest. Our aim is to start the series the year after next, with races at five MotoGP rounds.”

Surprisingly, Dorna is planning a one-make series, which removes most of the racing-improves-the-breed benefit of such a project. To those suspecting a greenwash, Ezpeleta says there aren’t enough companies making fast electric bikes to form a competitive open grid. And he’s right.

Just one company is at the cutting edge of this technology. Mugen Motorsports has utterly dominated the world’s only high-profile electric race – the Isle of Man’s TT Zero – for the past four years. Last June Bruce Anstey rode a Mugen Shinden Roku to TT Zero victory at 117.7mph, comfortably ahead of team-mate Guy Martin. The third-placed finisher came in 90sec behind Anstey.

Mugen effectively goes racing against itself at the TT, but the company’s engineers have made dramatic improvements to the race speed, which started out at 87.4mph in 2009. If petrol-powered superbikes had improved at the same rate, the outright TT lap record would now be nudging 190mph.

The latest Shinden Roku produces 120kW, an impressive 160 horsepower, from its oil-cooled, three-phase, brushless motor. Batteries are heavy, however, so the bike weighs 250 kilos, 70 more than a superbike. Mugen believes that a 125mph TT lap should be possible in the next few years, as motor and battery performance improve further, but they would prefer some competition to speed things up.

“There needs to be a stronger depth of field to push it on,” says Mugen Europe’s Colin Whittamore. “Mugen is a relatively small company with fewer than 250 employees worldwide, and the Shinden programme is internally funded, so while we can do a good job with what’s available to us, what we really need to fuel development are at least a couple of major manufacturers who can commit the level of finance and resources necessary to take EV bikes to the next level.”

So far there are no takers, with the Japanese industry in no rush to go electric. Most new projects are American, but several have already gone bust. Thus Mugen continues alone.

“We have made remarkable progress,” adds Whittamore. “Year on year we have moved into uncharted territory, and when you are doing something nobody else has done, then you deal with each technical issue as you encounter it. Over the years we have dealt with cooling the battery, the motor and the inverter, which are all separate systems, and battery management. When we started our TT Zero project in 2012 it took a full eight hours to charge the batteries. Now we can recharge the batteries and condition and balance the cells in about 90 minutes.

“The battery is the common limiting factor. However, the issue isn’t always ultimate battery capacity, but more the rate of discharge and heat management. The faster you pull/push energy out of/into a battery the more heat is generated, which is why your mobile phone gets hot when it’s working hard. Managing the heat is as much a consideration as battery capacity. We carry enough capacity to go faster, but currently we are restricted by battery temperature.”

Whittamore doesn’t expect the breakthrough to come from Mugen, but from within the electric motor and battery industry.

“I think there will be a ‘eureka’ moment when a boffin will come up with the next generation of battery, for want of a better word. Think back to the early mobile phones and their ‘satchel’ batteries, or even the effect that going from NiCad to lithium batteries has had on power tools. They took a huge leap when technology allowed them to blossom.

“If all things were equal, if the technologies were available to make it so, an electric bike would almost certainly lap quicker than a petrol bike. Electric motors provide instant and constant torque, the power delivery is totally linear and there’s no need for gearchanges that unsettle the bike, so the rider can concentrate more fully on riding the optimum line and maintaining corner speed. Also, EV makes a lot of sense when there are issues with noise and emissions, which nowadays affect most circuits, motocross tracks, karting venues and so on.”

Reduced noise is certainly a benefit, despite the disapproval of petrol-head race fans, but the jury (although not the government) is still out on the overall pros and cons of electric vehicles. Reduced emissions in cities is another positive, but not so much if the energy is created elsewhere by dirty/non-renewable means. And no one seems to be certain if electric vehicles are better for the environment over their full life cycle.

Dorna could easily fix the noiselessness issue: require all bikes to play a bassline, ideally something like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner