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 only shot we had at a podium would be a DNF from one of those three became quickly obvious.
This left me to realistically focus on trying to keep the pair of reigning European champions, Munch and CRP at bay. With all three of our machines matched up about as equally as possible, top speed differences of 1-2 mph and less than a quarter-second per lap separating the three of us in qualifying, my pre-race prediction was pretty simple: Unless someone falls or breaks, getting away from the group would be about as likely as getting set-up on a blind date with Giselle Bundchen. Stranger things have happened though (okay, maybe they haven’t). Anyhow, as the red lights went out and the green flag dropped, Himmelmann on the Munch machine to our right and CRP’s Brannetti on my left, it came as little surprise that the three of us were instantly bunched together.
While together as a trio, the chaos that is Turn 1 and 2 at the start of any hotly contested motorcycle race unsurprisingly shuffled up our order from qualifying. Getting off the line quite well, we jumped up to the back fender of Czysz in third after the first 100 meters. But just as I had began to mentally pat myself on the back for getting a good start, Himmelmann drove past us on the power and around the outside as we crested the hill into Turn 1.
After pulling back in behind Munch’s rear wheel over Turn 1 and into the first heavy braking area that is Turn 2, my brain quickly came to the conclusion that going straight back at him with some banzai out-braking move would more than likely end in tears. Little did I know that in those few milliseconds I was a prophet that could see the future. Not half-a-second later, as expected, Brannetti and the nimble little CRP machine out-braked the pair of us into Turn 2 from way back in left field, running wide and barely gathering it back up mid-corner. Had I decided to try and retake fourth right when I had, there’s no question I would have pulled out right into the crazy little Italian’s path and… don’t even want to go there!
Thankfully, I didn’t. And, thankfully, Brannetti was able to get the CRP gathered back up, even holding a tight enough line to keep Himmelmann and I behind as we exited Turn 2 and the race settled down slightly. For a few seconds it looked as if our predicted three-way battle would be down
Steve Atlas tipping it into the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca during the penultimate round of the 2011 TTXGP North American Championship.
to two before it even began. Little other fireworks happened the rest of that lap, Rapp crossing the line to complete Lap 1 several seconds out front of Barnes in second with Czysz another two seconds back in third. Brannetti stayed quite close to Czysz for the opening two laps, at one point even out-braking him into the final corner. But once Czysz was able to link a few open straights together with a couple mistake-free corners he rode a big wave of killowatt-hours off into the distance.
At this point fourth-place Brannetti had used the CRP e1.4 effectively enough to gain roughly a second or second-and-a-half gap over Himmelmann and Munch in fifth. For some reason it felt as if it was taking me a couple laps to get into the groove and up to speed; it was everything I had in me to keep the German within a couple seconds, the gap even growing slightly as we began Lap 3. At this point the red mist descended, knowing full well that unless that gap started coming down, and coming down quickly, my shot at beating these guys would be long gone. To go from our initial predictions of battling for the lead to falling back into a distant sixth was simply unacceptable. Thankfully, I tend to excel under pressure, as my ability to hyper-focus increases, which usually corresponds with a reduction in lap times.
It wasn’t until completing Lap 3 that I finally took a moment to glance at my MoTec dash long enough to comprehend my lap times, which rather quickly revealed just why everything seemed like harder work. It read 1:40.8 as I crossed over the line to start the fourth lap, this nearly two full seconds faster than any of us three had gone all weekend. And with lap times like this it coming up on the dash one after the other after the other, actually dropping slightly over the next three laps, it came as little surprise that the gap to Himmelmann and Brannetti was quickly shrinking.
While they ran times slightly quicker than I did in the early laps to get a small gap, as they faded back into the 1:41-range near the half-way mark, I only continued to get stronger, actually setting my best lap time of the entire race on the penultimate lap. As we came to the crossed flags, marking half-distance and starting Lap 5, we were now within a couple tenths of Himmelmann and the German Munch bike and it was time to start looking at a way past. I had the momentum and confidence of knowing I had caught him from a couple seconds back, so I knew the biggest hurdle would be making a move and making it stick. Thankfully making the pass (the first time) for fifth came quite easy, as a solid drive out of the final corner led to a fairly straightforward drafting move into fifth spot just as we completed the fifth lap.
By this time Himmelmann and I had made up a good deal of ground on Brannetti, so once into fifth it was only a matter of a couple corners and I was poking my nose in, showing the CRP-mounted rider my front tire in a variety of spots to see if I could get him to make a mistake. That wasn’t going to happen and combined with Brannetti’s mad-late-braking skills, I knew the best option was going to be through a repeat of a move I made on Munch the lap prior. Even in full-power race-trim the CRP was a couple mph down on both us and Munch, so while it took a perfect drive to make it happen the lap before, this time I made the pass well before the line to complete Lap 6.
My momentum and confidence were riding as high as they had been all weekend, the result of working my way through the pair of reigning world champions. I knew I couldn’t let up for even a split second though as the quicker I pulled a gap, even a small gap, the quicker I knew I could demoralize them, knocking their confidence down and hopefully relegating them to battle for fifth amongst themselves, which would only help me build a gap over the course of the final two laps.
And for the first few corners of the seventh lap it looked as if my mental plan might just work. I was able to put over a second gap on the Euro pair in the first three corners alone. Unfortunately, as quickly as the lap started out, it would then go totally backwards as we hit lapped traffic for the first time in the eight-lap race. The duo of Marcelino Manzano and Ely Schless were together in their own battle for the tail-end of the top-10. All I had to do was get past these two cleanly and keep up my momentum for the last lap and a half and fourth was ours.
With something like 37 different FIM-mandated flag stations around the relatively-small Northern California track all waving the blue flag, coming up on the pair looked more like a homecoming parade for the LA Dodgers than a racetrack there was so much blue waving in the air. Having given them the sea of blue for at least three corners prior to where we met in Turn 4, it wasn’t surprising that Manzano was far out of the way and had done so well in advance,.
Schless, who was running only a couple hundred meters in front Manzano, appeared to initially react in a way that led me to believe he had seen the umpteen thousand blue flags (I honestly have no clue how one could have missed all of them), starting to fade off line to the left. As a result, I made the split-second decision to hold my existing line (with closing speeds as high as they were I only had time to make a single choice and stick with it). He continued to move further off line to the left.
Unfortunately, his veering wide and off line to the left was not him moving over for me to come past; it was merely his line and just as I got to within roughly four or five bike-lengths of his rear tire, he erratically veered back into the racing line and directly into my path of trajectory. And as my trajectory path was double-digit speeds faster than the one he was on, all of the sudden I found myself with a kung-fu death grip on the binders while leaned quite a bit further over than I would have liked.
After saying a quick prayer addressed to any and all gods who happened to be listening, what followed was a series of rather long and very scary front-tire-slides that would repeatedly lock up and chirp, all happening what felt like mere inches, make that millimeters from the back tire of Schless. So first things, first: Many thanks to whatever God answered that prayer, as it was by miracle alone that I didn’t plow into the back of Schless and park the Empulse RR square on his back (or possibly a different part of anatomy, one a bit more R-rated). I’ll be the first to admit right now that there was no rider skill involved in that save whatsoever. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had my eyes closed the entire time.
Atlas mustered a fourth-place result at Laguna, setting up his potential title win at the Miller finale.
After opening my eyes and regaining my composure, I had basically come to a complete stop to be able safely drive back around the outside of Schless. Despite all the noise and commotion, I doubt to this day that he has the faintest idea of how extremely close things came to a 500-pound motorcycle being parked in his personal hanger, so to speak. Of course, as a result the gap I had built up on fifth had not only evaporated, but by the time I was finally in front of Schless, both Brannetti and Himmelman had deposed me back to sixth, all my hard work down the drain.
Thankfully, I still had my wits about me enough to know that if I dwelled on the situation, my shot at getting back up to fourth would be long gone. Directly back into red-midst-full-attack-mode I went, showing Himmelman a wheel right away on the brakes going into Turn 5. A little too sketchy of a move to attempt on corner-entry, I squared him up mid-corner and got a good enough drive out of Turn 5 that with a rather late-braking move into the tight and technical Turn 6, I was back into fifth almost immediately. Brannetti was right in front of me once again, and after a solid drive out of six I nearly drove back past him on the run up to the Corkscrew. Even though I was able to pull side-by-side with him, you can bet there was no way that wily Italian and his nimble CRP machine were going to get out-braked.
With a solid run out of Rainey Curve and down the hill, I almost unintentionally showed Brannetti a wheel down into Turn 10. That question was quickly answered, as without any hesitation the CRP was fully planted on my left leg and side fairing, reinforcing his point that, unless I had a strange desire to end my race in a gravel pit, I would not be making a pass there. This also marked the official trading of paint for the first time, meaning a certain level of aggressiveness was now fair game.
Squaring up the final corner and early on the gas, I drove back past Brannetti fairly easily to start the final lap. This was it, for all the marbles. One lap left for we the people of Brammo, in our first year of closed circuit racing with the Empluse RR, facing off against the reigning European and World Champions; the trio of us so close we could have been covered by a pair for Victoria’s Secrets.
Brannetti on the little CRP had been a demon on the brakes all race long, so I knew I needed to make a point of getting into all of the following nine corners as deep and as accurately as possible so as not to get out-braked while still staying on line. I knew if I left the door open even the slightest bit both of these hard-charging Euros would take every last inch, and then some; I know I sure would have! Brannetti did show me a wheel briefly into both Turn 5 and the Corkscrew, but neither were aggressive enough to actually try to make a pass. More likely he was just letting me know how close he actually was, hoping I could be pressured into a mistake.
This is why it came as a little bit of a surprise that going into Turn 10, a corner where making a pass stick is extremely difficult, he made a legitimate attempt to come up the inside, doing so with some serious vigor. But just as he had done to yours truly the lap prior, I let back off the brakes and shut the door quickly and aggressively, not stopping until I was planted firmly up against that white and green CRP bodywork. As he had so graciously loaned me some of his paint in the lap prior, it seemed only fair that I repaid my debt and give him a bit of that famous Brammo green in return. He wisely backed down and I remained fourth down the short-shoot from Turn 10 to the final corner for the final time.
With both CRP and Munch Racing glued to my rear tire and only a single, 90-degree left-hand corner followed by a short straight-away left in the race, I basically had two options (each with about a 50/50 change at working): The first is to have an outright braking war in an attempt to keep the riders behind at bay all the way to the finish. The other, far more unorthodox route is to sit up early on the brakes and try to bait whomever is behind into flying past out of control, while you stay cool and calm, squaring up the corner and driving back past on the run to the line.
Shutting the door on Brannetti had put me slightly off line coming out of Turn 10 without the best drive. As a result, just before we entered the braking zone for the final corner CRP showed me a wheel, basically showing me their cards a split second early. Because I knew Brannetti was going for it, I decided to sit up and get on the brakes early, hoping they both would go for the spot on the brakes and tangled up together trying to get a better drive out than the other.
While I’ve tried this a few other times in my racing career on different tracks, none ever really working out, somehow this time it went exactly as planned in my head. Actually, it went even better, as instead of the two slowing each other on the drive out, they both went so deep on the brakes and ran so wide mid-corner that all I had to do was keep my cool, stay on line and get a decent drive out of Turn 11 and it was over. I had gone from fourth to sixth, back to fourth in a matter of a few hundred yards, as I was back past and leading the group less than a quarter of the way from the corner to the flag. In fact, it was early enough that I actually worried one would be able to draft back past. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case and we held on to take probably the hardest fought and most rewarding fourth-place finish of my entire career.
While the top three teams showed up with far more power than we had anticipated, for the guys at Brammo to make a first-year bike like the Empulse RR that can run with and beat the top two teams Europe has to offer goes to show just how amazing of a job they’ve done. Not to mention that with our opening round wins at Infineon and the solid fourth from Laguna, we entered the rescheduled final round of the TTXGP Series with an 8-point lead in the championship. Stay tuned for Part 6, the final installment, were we will find out if we are able to ride fast enough, as well as smart enough to bring the title home in our rookie year…