Friday, February 26, 2010

2010 TTXGP: How will racing electric motorcycles fare?

The San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed for electric motorcycles: Mission Motorcycles, manufacturer of high performance sports bikes, is in San Francisco; Zero Motorcycles, manufacturer of off-road and on-road bikes, is near San Jose; and Electric Motorsport, manufacturer of street bikes, is in Oakland. Each has branded itself as race-competitive, and each has sought to take advantage of the considerable local market for electric motorcycles and the local interest in racing. Given this background, the upcoming inaugural TTXGP at Infineon on May 15 and 16 is going to be the focus of lots of local attention, and can be expected to bring out a new crowd of EV enthusiasts as well as race enthusiasts.

Speaking personally, while I’ve attended races at Sears Point – still can’t get myself to call it Infineon – for 25 years, and follow most every kind of motorsport, I am still most keenly interested in motorcycle racing. Given my passion for EVs, and the success of the recent Isle of Man TTXGP event, I am really eager to see what kind of show the electric bikes can put on for the crowd. I am also curious to see the crowd reaction: certainly the quiet of the bikes will be disarming to some, but their actual performance is what I expect to catch the most attention.

While EVs don’t yet have the power density to take on ICEs in unlimited competition, they are coming closer all the time. Perhaps this is best exemplified in drag racing, where the electric motorcycle record, 7.864, is only a second off the fastest-ever Pro Stock drag-racing motorcycle. Even better, the electric bikes are demonstrating a pretty steep improvement curve when Pro Stocks can only eke out incremental improvement. Advancements in available equipment is a regular occurrence in electric racing, and more purpose-built racing equipment is constantly being developed as the market for such equipment is becoming more apparent.

Similarly, road-racing electric bikes can be expected to catch up with the lower classes of ICE road-race bikes in short order. Although the Isle of Man TTXGP race saw a best electric bike lap pace (87.43 mph) that ranked only with the ultralight 50cc bikes, that is probably not representative of a fair comparison. The Isle of Man course rewards riders who maintain a consistent flowing speed, at which the light bikes can excel; by contrast, most race-courses – and real world situations – reward corner-exit acceleration, at which the electric bikes excel.

On a course like Infineon, which has a hill and 12 turns including 2 very slow corners and is not considered a flowing high-speed track, the electric bikes may prove reasonably competitive.
The 2.2 mile track’s motorcycle record stands at 83.34 mph / 1 minute 35.89 seconds. If Mission, possibly the most powerful bike likely to enter the TTXGP, can get their bike to work right (they had an electronic engineering problem at Isle of Man that slowed them down), with their experienced home-track rider Tom Montano they might be able to approach the 2009 Supersport (600cc) qualifying lap time of 141:37 (based on the notion that their bike puts out perhaps half the horsepower but twice the torque of a race 600cc). Other very promising bikes certainly must include Isle Of Man Pro Class winner Agni’s production partner Mavizen; Isle of Man Open Class winner Electric Motorsport; Zero; custom manufacturer Roehr (Illinois); Chip Yate’s Swigz Pro Racing (southern Cal.); Brammo (Oregon); and possibly Motoczysz (Oregon).

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the crowd to (relatively) silent racing. Will the crowd quiet itself to hear the whine of the motors, the squeal of the tires, and the scrape of the knee-pucks? Of course, the visceral sound, and feel, of the exhausts of high-performance engines is indeed a real part of the thrill of racing. Also, experienced fans listen for up-shifting and down-shifting to see who got their gearing right, who’s pushing the braking makers, and who’s in over their heads: and the riders rely upon that feedback more than the fans. It will certainly be more subtle to try to listen for the nuances of nicely dialed-in regen.

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