Jonny Williamson travelled to the Isle of Man to uncover the innovations and late nights which result in a TT Zero Challenge-winning, electric-powered motorcycle.
Prior to heading off to the internationally-cherished home of the TT races, you could probably fit everything I knew about electric bikes on the back of a postage stamp – with room to spare.
I’d never really considered what was actually involved when attempting to swap-out an internal combustion engine with a battery-powered equivalent; the unexpected difficulties and challenges such a conversion would present.
As petrol or diesel is burned, the weight of reserves drops accordingly, yet the power generated by a tank at 10% is exactly the same as one at full capacity. The exact opposite is true for a battery. A battery is a constant weight regardless of how much charge it contains and the power generated typically tapers off as the charge diminishes.
The battery’s considerable weight also plays a significant part in a bike’s final design, both in terms of its positon on the frame and the fabrication materials employed. Light weight but strong is definitely the name of this game, with aluminium and carbon fibre popular choices.
With continual technological advancements resulting in ever-faster times and higher speeds for the battery-powered bikes, the TT Zero Challenge builds on the Isle of Man TT race which started in 1907 – making it the world’s oldest high-speed motorcycle race.
The challenge was launched in 2010 as a successor to the TTXGP and serves as a test-bed for future clean energy technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries.
The technical criteria requires that each motorcycle must be “powered without the use of carbon-based fuels and have zero toxic/noxious emissions,” and following a handful of practice laps, the challenge culminates in a single-lap, winner-takes-all sprint around a 37.73 mile mountain course.
“TT Zero helps to accelerate and drive innovation,” Team Mugen’s general manager, Colin Whittamore tells me. Having notched up four visits, the team’s broad wealth of experience has fed into annual improvements to performance and aerodynamics, with the current bike weighing almost half as much as its 2012 equivalent.
According to Whittamore, as well as helping electric bikes gain credibility, the innovations and developments which occur in TT Zero will carry through to commercial offerings – similar to what happens in the world of F1. He’s equally confident that electric-powered motorcycles will match the capabilities offered by petrol/diesel bikes within the next decade.
A team with one eye on future commercially-available electric bikes is the Iowa-headquartered Victory Racing. This year’s TT Zero is the first time the Victory-brand – the debut OEM to put its name on an electric-powered motorcycle– has been on the international stage.
Seeing the challenge as a trial for future technologies, Victory’s team manager, Brian Wisemann notes that with every major OEM having an electric programme, “It’s pretty clear many see this as being the future, especially as the price point between battery and gasoline-powered is narrowing.”
Victory’s bike isn’t a completely new design, unlike many of its other competitors. Instead, the team has adapted a bike specifically developed for US race tracks. With a battery capacity double that available to it in 2009, Wisemann says that increasing battery capacity further is absolutely critical.
“You never stop learning and the curve is pretty steep,” he adds. “But the more OEMs that become involved, competition and innovation will increase, and the price point will fall accordingly.”
It’s not just more OEMs heading to the starting line, an increasing number of universities are engaging with the challenge – something the professional teams I spoke with wholeheartedly support. All of them cited how important expanding the starting grid was, but even more crucial is the creation of a rich talent pool for them to source future employees from.
Though the universities don’t have access to the same level of funds and resources, the passion and innovation the young engineers exude is more than equal – if not higher. University of Nottingham is a prime example.
The team’s leader, Dr Marco Degano explained to me that 2015 would be the university’s first foray into TT Zero and the team only started building its bike three months prior. With the entire bike designed around the battery – and the issue of time ever-present – its late delivery pushed production back several weeks, with much of the bike having to be finished inside the race paddock.
With only the forks and wheels coming off-the-shelf, every other major component has been custom-fabricated by the team – a feat the university shares with its 2015 contemporaries, Kingston and Brunel.
Course director for Brunel’s Undergrad Motorsport Engineering Programme, Koen Matthys emphasised how student-led the project was, and the importance of data-gathering.
“In 2015, there is more money in data acquisition than power systems. Data is crucial in better understanding energy management and provides a greater insight into not only electric vehicles, but consumer electronics,” he explained.
All three universities quoted numerous past successes, with graduates going on to be employed at the likes of JLR; Aston Martin; GE; GKN; Triumph; KTM and McLaren.
Kingston has a particularly strong racing pedigree, being the only team to have competed at every TT Zero since 2010.
Its lead student, Ryan Duffy says it’s all about achieving step-improvements year-on-year with an aim of 10%. He notes that, “There’s always going to be a problem in racing, you just have to persevere and never give up.”
That ethos is definitely shared by the manager of the Belgian Team Saroléa Racing, Torsten Robbens. “This is our second year and it certainly never gets any easier,” his apparent frustration at odds with the huge smile on his face.
Having succeeded in its aim to become the first European manufacturer to break 100 mph, Robbens adds, “Battery technology is essentially the same as it was in 2014, so the deciding factor moving forward is increasing motor efficiency.”
The starting grid becoming large enough so that it’s split into different classes is something that all the teams would like to see happen; though equally they attribute the strong inter-team comradery that exists to the small number of currently competing teams.
A question many are asking regards the reception electric motorcycles have garnered by the biking community, the lack of a throaty acceleration tone being top of many people’s list of concerns.
However all of the teams say riders have been quickly won over, with the noise issue fundamentally irrelevant. Most note that similar concerns surrounded the transition from four-stroke to two-stroke; concerns which were quickly overcome.
Team Mugen’s Whittamore enthuses, “Rather than riding a rodeo bull trying to throw you off at every opportunity, an e-bike offers a very smooth ride. It’s very different from what a rider is used to, but with no gears they can just focus on the road ahead. The feedback we’ve received is that they love it.”
SES TT Zero Challenge – 2015 Results:
|Team Mugen/Honda Shinden San||John McGuinness||18:58.743||119.279|
|Team Mugen/Honda Shinden San||Bruce Anstey||19:02.785||118.857|
|Victory/Parker Racing||Lee Johnston||20:16.881||111.620|
|Victory/Parker Racing||Guy Martin||20:37.987||109.717|
|Team Saroléa Racing||Robert Wislon||21:15.256||106.510|
|University of Nottingham||Michael Sweeney||30:56.695||73.156|