Switching gears: how electric bikes have proved their mettle at the Isle of Man TT
For over a century, the Isle of Man TT has been Europe’s premier motorcycle racing event. Reputations have been made and shattered on the island’s famously challenging Mountain Course. In 2010, a new type of bike arrived on the grid — without and fuel tank and with a lot to prove.
The zero emissions bikes in the TT Zero race have evolved rapidly since, and our editor travelled to the Isle of Man to see just how far electric motorcycles have come — and how far they’ll have to go to rival their fossil-fuelled counterparts.
Every year, as spring gives way to summer, hundreds of motorcycles — and their riders — rumble onto the Isle of Man to compete in the most dangerous (and prestigious) race of its kind, The Isle of Man TT.
Some are racing to win, others simply want to complete a single 37.73-mile lap around the terrifying and exhilarating Snaefell Mountain Course. However, there is one thread which unites all of the TT competitors: they are here to build a legacy for their teams, and for themselves.
Since it was introduced in 2010, the TT Zero race, which exclusively features electric motorbikes, has been especially eager to gain legitimacy among its fossil-fuelled counterparts. In the absence of a petrol bike’s deafening roar, electric motorcycles have had to prove that they are equally powerful and competitive.
“When the electric bikes first started they were a bit of a joke to the ‘petrolheads’” said Adrian Moore, the Development Manager for Manufacturing and Inward Investment at the Isle of Man Government. “They aren’t a joke anymore.”
This year, eight teams set out to race the Mountain Course on zero-emissions bikes. Four of them — Mugen, Saroléa, TMR and Victory — are independent motorsport teams looking to put their products to the test on the Isle’s challenging roads. The other five are university teams — Nottingham, Brunel, Bath and Kingston — out to find a high-octane application for their technical knowledge.
On 6 June, two days before the race, the teams were preparing to carry out their final qualifying lap. Though some were more confident than others, the camaraderie among the competitors was evident. Collectively, they weren’t seeking a trophy and bragging rights, but an expanded knowledge of how to best engineer an electric motorbike.
Japan’s Mugen Motorsports, which was co-founded by Hirotoshi Honda, son of Honda founder Soichiro, arrived on the Isle of Man this year as reigning champion. It shattered lap records in the two consecutive years prior, and was hoping to replicate its success a third time with a new bike custom-built for the occasion.
“In theory, we could have got last year’s bike, brought it here, polished it up and probably still been competitive,” explains Colin Whittamore, General Manager of Mugen Europe. “But in practice, we effectively threw that one away and built another one.”
However, a new and improved motorcycle isn’t necessarily an imperfect one. There is still some development to be done before electric bikes are wholly practical racing vehicles, particularly where their batteries are concerned.
“Our technical challenge now is to keep the temperature of the battery pack down,” says Whittamore. “That will restrict how fast we go this week: battery temperature will be our ceiling.”
The majority of electric motorbikes are powered by lithium ion batteries, the same variety of rechargeable cell used widely in mobile phones. For TT racing purposes, a bike must carry enough battery power on board to comfortably see it around the Mountain Course without weighing it down. This year, Belgium’s Team Saroléa found themselves negotiating the fine balance between keeping their bikes lightweight and ensuring they perform on the racecourse.
“It’s really about finding the sweet spot between how much battery you put in the bike, how much it weight it can handle,” says Bjorn Robbens, who co-owns Saroléa with his twin brother Torsten. “Weight is the key enemy to any electric vehicle, I think.”
Saroléa has an added incentive for achieving results at the TT — it is aiming to capitalise on the visibility of the brand by setting up commercial motorcycle production facilities on the island. The company was first established in Belgium in the 1870s, and was defunct by 1963. In 2008, the Robbens brothers revived the brand and in 2014 they entered their first Isle of Man TT, with the intention of eventually producing ‘road-legal’ versions of their high-performance racing bikes
“[The TT] has been a tremendous push for us,” says Robbens. “The bike was really built for this track. So building it here, selling it here, just makes sense.”
“We already have the brand and a legacy. If you can take the Isle of Man and the TT along with that, it will really increase the speed with which we can go to the market.”
The Isle of Man’s Department of Economic Development is equally interested in attracting cutting-edge, sustainable businesses to its shores. With a longstanding aerospace engineering industry, the island is hoping to further diversify its economy and expand its highly skilled workforce. And its status as a British Crown Dependency means that businesses will enjoy the benefits of its lower tax economy and greater political autonomy.
While the TT is an undoubted point of pride, and revenue, for the Isle of Man, the TT Zero is particularly significant as the island seeks to build a reputation for innovation.
“We’ve got clusters of very highly technical engineers here across the Isle of Man,” says Adrian Moore, explaining why companies like Saroléa are, and should be, drawn to the island. “There’s an instant supply chain for them. It is a very exciting time here for manufacturing.”
Bringing the classroom to the racecourse
The TT Zero’s five university entrants arrived on the Isle of Man ready to absorb, and exchange, some of the engineering knowledge that has accumulated at the TT. And, much like their non-student counterparts, they were also hoping to make a name for themselves on the Mountain Course.
“The tem is mainly researchers and students from the university,” says Professor Pat Wheeler of the University of Nottingham. “There is nobody employed to do it: it’s all evenings and late nights and early mornings.”
Though motorcycle engineering is not the sole pursuit of the technicians on Nottingham’s team, their goals were far from modest:
“We’d love to be up there with Victory and Mugen,” Wheeler says, naming the race’s two major motorsport companies as the entrants to beat. “The goal coming into this was to be competitive and see what happens.”
Crossing the finish line
Just five of the eight teams that intended to test their mettle in the TT Zero ultimately competed in the race on 8 June. Technical problems plagued the three non-starters, including Saroléa, who later released a statement reporting issues with the throttle on both of its bikes. In the interest of their riders’ safety, the Robbens made the difficult decision not to enter the race.
In true TT form, there were surprises at the podium once all was said and done. Mugen walked away with first-place honours once again, though rider Bruce Anstey failed to exceed last year’s record lap time of 119.27mph. Victory Motorcycles’ Brammo Power bike came in second, with a lap time of 115mph. The University of Nottingham managed to steal a surprise spot in the top three after Mugen’s second bike cut out with TT legend John McGuinness behind the wheel. Brunel University finished last — posting a lap time of 94.628mph.
If anything, this year’s TT Zero showed that there is not yet a clear winner in the race to build the ideal electric motorcycle, but each of the entrants will eagerly take on the challenge.
“We want to win the race,” Mugen’s Whittamore says. “We want to set some records, but we also need to expand our knowledge.”
Originally published in July 2016's issue of Energy Digital.
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