Electric motorcycles have come a long way in a very short period of time, at least judging by TTXGP lap times.
Readers that have kept up with MotoUSA’s electric racing saga know that the previous installment (Part 4) of the Brammo EV project brought things right up to Round 2 of the TTXGP North American Series at Laguna Seca in late July. This was a rather important moment, as one look at the entry sheet and it was easy to see that this combined TTXGP/FIM E-Power event had all the makings to potentially be the biggest and most competitive electric motorcycle race in the sport’s history.
Not since the highly-publicized debut of two-wheel EV racing as we know it at the Isle of Man TT in 2009 had there been this much buzz and genuine interest from the general public. For that matter, only that widely hyped inaugural race has had as many entrants on the grid as the 12 that had pre-registered for Laguna Seca, while these teams’ depth of ability would without question be at an entirely new level; a level that turned out to be so high it caught even those involved thoroughly off guard (more on that to come…).
Considering every machine which lined up on the dry lakebed was of the completely bespoke, prototype variety, it only further shows how far the newest genre of road racing has come in a very short time. No more generic Suzuki GSX-R750s with the engine swapped out for a homemade battery pack/universal electric motor setup. Not even close. With the exception of two of the smaller bikes utilizing the core frame units from an older 125cc GP racer, every other bike in the field was built from the ground up to be one thing and one thing only: a completely-electric-powered Superbike. A quick trip around the small paddock set aside for the EVs and one couldn’t help but be impressed by some seriously trick machines, several backed by rather large sums of money and ridden by seasoned professionals. Not surprisingly, the result was quite a lot of fan interest (well, it was either that or the four smokin’ hot models Brammo hired to ‘represent’ the brand; thank you marketing department!).
Okay, let’s get our minds out of the gutter and back on track. For those who aren’t caught up with our Brammo racing saga, the highly-truncated version goes something like this: The Brammo crew spent more than a year of social life-killing overtime to design and build the initial Brammo Empulse RR platform. With the exception of a couple early tests, yours truly worked with the Brammo squad to test and develop the one-off racer into something that could competitively complete nine laps. A year after the project’s
It’s been a long road from concept to TTXGP winning racebike – with the Brammo crew and rider Atlas refining the bike through multiple tests.
inception, we took the Empulse RR to a pair of race wins, pole position and a new track record during May’s TTXGP contest at Infineon Raceway. There was a “but” to follow these results, however, as due to time constraints, several of last year’s big teams, including the 2010 champion, didn’t make the race at Infineon. This left many to wonder just where everyone in the rapidly evolving EV world actually stacked up. So, while it took those ‘other guys’ over half the season to be ready, the Laguna Seca round would finally be the first time all the EV heavyweights faced off on equal terms.
Included in this group was last year’s Laguna Seca winner, Michael Czysz on his uber-money EP-1C, which had just returned after winning the 2011 Isle of Man TT EV race. Last year’s TTXGP Champion, Michael Barnes, also returned to Laguna on a totally-redesigned Lightning Motors machine. But the biggest hype followed EV newcomer Steve Rapp, who paired up with Mission Motors R, on a bike that has been nearly three years in the making. Until it actually ran on track in the presence of human witnesses about a month prior, the Mission machine had become more of an urban legend than anything else. All kinds of crazy performance claims had been made on various websites and online forums, though all anyone had seen was a grainy YouTube video of a phantom motor running on a dyno.
That is, until we tested with them head-to-head at the Laguna Seca ReFuel event (full details in Part 4) about a month prior to the big race. At which time we were both quite evenly matched, running within half-a-second of each other nearly all day long. Considering both the Brammo and Mission were already under last year’s lap record at said test, going into the event at Laguna we had a rather optimistic outlook, to say the least. Our computer projections (which I have typically ran within a few tenths of) put us nearly four seconds under last year’s lap record on a consistent basis. Four seconds? That’s massive in the world of motorcycle road racing, no matter the size of bike or its source of propulsion. So we were justifiably confident enough that we planned on running at the front; top-three at the worst.
Only problem is that this is motorcycle racing and planning ahead or making future predictions of any kind usually proves to be about as reliable as the Nigerian Prince that emailed my grandma about millions of dollars he needs to give away once he gets a bank account number…
Turned out the road-block in Brammo’s path to EV glory was with those elusive Mission folks. And, wow, what a speed bump it was. In less than a month’s time, Mission had found an astronomical 10-plus seconds of added pace around 2.23 miles of track. And, no, this isn’t April 1st and that’s not a typo; Mission really did shave nearly 20% off their previous best lap time around on a track with a mere 11 corners.
By five minutes into the first practice of the weekend on Friday afternoon it was quite apparent that the race for the rest of the field was now for second. And it was only worse for us. With Czysz bringing his million-dollar, carbon-framed machine gun to the EV knife fight, and Lightning revealing a bike that would later go 218 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, our goal had quickly gone from winning to fourth at best.
Back to the competition, further deepening the field were the European TTXGP Series’ top two contenders: CRP and Munch Racing. CRP are the 2010 TTXGP Euro Series Champions and current points leader. Munch, however, actually topped CRP in the combined, one-race TTXGP World Finale in Spain to be crowned 2010 TTXGP World Champions, and sits a close second to CRP in the ’11 TTXGP Eu standings.
Rider-wise, Italian EV powerhouse CRP (who are said to be unveiling a road-going version of its e1.4 race bike this November at the EICMA show) brought over their main rider, Alessandro Brannetti, while putting local NorCal fast girl Shelina Moreda on the second of the team’s machines. Brannetti has an impressive racing background that features several seasons of regular rides in 125cc, 250cc and Moto2 Grand Prix racing, as well as contesting the entire 2010 TTXGP Eu Championship for CRP. As for the Munch Racing team, last year’s TTXGP world champs, riding duties would be handled by their full-time guy, Matthias Himmelmann. Munch and Himmelmann, both traveling to the U.S. from Germany, had also come over and contested last year’s race. And while their bike was supposedly quite primitive this time last year, at least they wouldn’t be coming into the event totally blind.
Less Talk, More Action
Unsurprisingly, both Brannetti and Himmelmann were up to speed quickly and delusions of a home-track advantage quickly floated out the window. A glance at the timesheets after the opening practice had all three of us within a second of each other. Yet an even more a tell-tale sign of how evenly matched these three bikes were power-wise, while Rapp was 23 mph quicker than us through the speed-trap entering Turn 1, and Barnes was near-enough-it-makes-
While the front three bikes were in a different class, the Brammo Empulse RR was in a dead heat with two TTXGP champions for the battle over fourth.
no-difference 30 mph faster (Czysz was floating right at the 20 mph-advantage mark as well), Munch Racing was a mere single mph up on us throughout the session and we were roughly 4-6 mph up on Brannetti on the first of the CRP machines, though they weren’t running at full power so the gap was likely to be even less.
We took a bit of a gamble in the opening session to try and make our prima donna of a rider (wait…that’s me) more comfortable by using a wider rear tire (up from a 160-series to a 180-series in search of a larger contact patch at full-lean). Problem was that with the larger tire we weren’t able to run the optimum gearing due to clearance issues. Closest we could get was two-teeth smaller out back, which would reduce acceleration but gain some top speed; how much of a trade-off these would be we didn’t know. Add to that the fact that the 180 tire is slightly heavier and we had to go up to a 5.5-inch rear wheel (from a 4.5-inch) and the acceleration would be further depleted. But if both of these losses are nominal and the confidence I gain with the bigger contact patch has me accelerating earlier and harder off of every corner, then the big tire’s advantages will easily out weigh the losses.
But this wasn’t the case and I’ll admit, I was wrong. While most of the team members and all the computer models pointed straight at the ideal-gearing and 160-size tire combination, I had to try it for myself to know for sure. This would normally be no big deal, but as we only got 30-minutes of track time each day, I basically wasted the entire first day to please my curiosity. It’s always better to know than to continually wonder, though, so heading into qualifying Saturday afternoon we were confident that we had a lot more in the tank than the 1:44 that we posted in the opening session.
The gearing was a huge help, and despite still not being in love with the way the 160-tire behaved at full-lean, we instantly dropped nearly two full seconds and within the first three laps of qualifying a high-1:42 popped up on my dash. ‘Oh yeah,’ I thought as I pulled into the pits. ‘We’ve got fourth in the bag, no way they could…’ Wrong again. A look at the leader-board and I was sitting fifth, with Munch fourth and Brannetti sixth. As I was only a few tenths behind Himmelmann, I went back out as time ran down on the 30-minute session to try for fourth. As I did not know at the time we would be running MotoGP style three-person rows on the grid, at the time I thought I was making a push for the front row
Munch stayed in the pits, but Brannetti on the CRP quickly joined me on track as well, the same idea undoubtedly going through his mind. We both had time for one more flying lap. One of the things about setting a fast time on the EV machines is following the first one to two laps they begin to lose power. And it typically takes me five to six laps to get up to qualifying pace, so by this time the bike is typically 3-5 mph down on its trap speeds from the opening laps.
As this was my second run without a charge, we were starting out a few mph down on power. Even with this minor disadvantage, Brannetti and I both found additional speed and set new personal best lap times in our last-lap dashes for glory. But suddenly feeling a lot like High School Prom, despite putting in valiant efforts and getting really, really close neither of us did quite enough bring those visions of glory home.
We ended up fifth with a best time of 1’42.127, some six-hundredths of a second back from Munch Racing’s 1’42.051, while only a tick over a tenth of a second behind us was Brannetti in sixth, his quickest lap on the CRP e1.4 a 1’42.392. Could it get any closer? You wouldn’t think so, but at that point the race was still a day away, and I don’t think any of us had an idea of what was to come… Behind Brannetti there was a several second gap back to our championship rival Thad Wolff in seventh, with Moreda on the second CRP bike in eighth as she continued to learn all the crazy nuances of racing an electric bike for the first time.
In front of us three the TTXGP grid settled into order. Czysz found some speed in qualifying to the tune of nearly three seconds, which was roughly how much quicker his 1’39.272 was in front of Munch. Barnes on the all-motor Lightning sat second at a 1:37.505. And the lap that blew everyone away, finally living up to all the hype and then some? Rapp piloted the Mission R to a blindingly fast 1:31.376, a massive six seconds faster than second-place qualifier Barnes and the Lightning boys.
I must say that purely as a racer, lining up with such a massive disadvantage and racing against Rapp and that missile of a machine couldn’t be any more frustrating. But for them to lay down such an utterly awesome lap time and show just what EV motorcycles, fueled by a bunch of computer geeks mainlining Red Bull (only kidding fellas, you know I like you guys) for three-straight years, are capable of is extremely awesome. And to do so in front of the “Who’s Who” of the worldwide road racing industry during a MotoGP weekend couldn’t have been more perfect. Oh yeah, not to mention the hundred-thousand-plus fans that just happened to be there. As a fan of EV racing myself, their achievement was so massive I couldn’t help but swallow my ego for a minute and be stoked for them. Not to mention it gives us a new and rather exciting benchmark to shoot for with version 2.0 of the Empluse RR racer (the planning and design of which you can bet is already well underway)….
But like I said, I’m still a racer, so enough Mission Motor ego stroking and let’s get back to the good stuff!
Racing rarely pans out the same as qualifying; that’s why it’s called racing and that’s why we line up week-in and week-out to do it over and over again. A quick glance at the qualifying sheets showed that Rapp should check out by a country mile, followed by a distant Barnes, then another decent-sized gap to Czysz. Then, finally, a few seconds back should be one extremely close race for fourth. Strangely enough, this is almost exactly how things panned out; although far more entertaining and eventful than this sounds.
Atlas tussles with European rivals Alessandro Brannetti and Matthias Himmelmann on the Laguna Corkscrew.
So, for a better idea of what all transpired en route to the race finish, here is a firsthand look at the biggest closed circuit event in EV racing’s history. There’s no better place to start than, well…at the start!
After some time spent doing the photo/television/umbrella girls thing on the grid, we were swept up and were off for the warm-up lap with the quickness. This brain-swirling warm-up lap also marked the first time all weekend I was able to compare the Empluse RR with the MotoCzysz and Lightning machines on-track and at least somewhat at speed. There wasn’t much to compare, however, as the first straight bit of track we hit saw them disappear into the distance like it was midnight and the flux capacitor had just lit up and shoved Marty McFly back to the future. With Rapp in an entirely different league from them even, the realization that the o