MotoCzysz today won its fourth TT ZERO race in a row, Michael Rutter his third straight. Towards the latter stages of the race, John McGuinness on the Mugen (Honda) led by ten seconds. In the final stages, though, Rutter's MotoCzysz appeared to better use its remaining energy to increase power and he significantly upped his pace, running down the Mugen in the run to the line.
McGuinness, who had started behind Rutter on the road, and could hence see him in front, later said, he had to "watch him ride into the distance" in the latter stages.
After the race, Rutter said "I thought they were gonna win it. I deep down thought they were gonna beat us but we worked as a team, and in the end it was close, but we got there."
Rutter also paid tribute to Michael Czysz. This is the first year that the pioneer motorcycle designer and builder has not been at the Island to fettle his machinery first-hand. He's at home in America undergoing chemotherapy in a battle with cancer. Both riders started today's race with the words "Godspeed Michael" painted so they reflected back from the windshield: a low-tech heads-up display sticker reminding them the force was with them.
It was. For the entire race, McGuinness was going to win. In the early splits, he was running at faster than 112 mph pace, more than three mph faster than Rutter. When they announced the standings at the Bungalow, McGuinness was 9.8 seconds up, having added nearly five seconds to his lead from the previous split.
Towards the end of the 37 miles though, Rutter's MotoCzysz had more battery capacity in hand, and by increasing the speed available from the reserves, it clawed back more than ten seconds from the Mugen's lead and crossed the line just 1.6 seconds ahead of McGuinness.
There is no clearer illustration of the extraordinary progress of the electric motorcycle, than the first five runnings of the TT ZERO electric motorcycle race at the 105 year-old Isle of Man TT motorcycle racing festival.
The electric racing motorcycle's very first appearance on the international stage was on this 37 mile mountain circuit just four years ago, the TTX grand prix of 2009.
In 2009, Rob Barber's winning AGNI (pictured above at the start of that historic race) averaged 87.434 mph (140.711 km/h), roughly the same as the outright lap record in 1936, set by a Norton Manx Special.
One year later, Mark Miller's MotoCzysz won at an average speed of 96.8 mph for the 37.7 mile (60.7 km) mountain course (Google map). Then, in 2011, Michael Rutter took the race on a new MotoCzysz at 99.6 mph, and in 2012, Rutter and MotoCysz again triumphed at 104.056 mph. Today that speed was pushed close to the 110 mph mark.
Today was the fifth running of the event and the winner's list now looks like this:
Speeds have increased not just every year, but with every practice session, and the 109.7 mph electric lap record created by Rutter in today's race is now the equivalent of Mick Grant's 109.8 mph in 1975 on a Kawasaki 750-cc three-cylinder two-stroke.
At this meeting just 48 months ago, electric racing bike technology was at 1936 levels (compared to conventional bikes.) and now it is at 1975 levels, at least measured by the only thing that counts: the stopwatch.
The bikes running those speeds are very different. Grant's 1975 Kawasaki was much faster in a straight line thanks to an output of around 100 bhp. It was timed at 191 mph in that race through the Selby speed traps. Rutter today did 142.2 mph.
In order to run similar lap times, both the MotoCzysz and the Mugen brake later into turns, carry more corner speed, have prodigious grunt (roughly double the torque of a big Ducati V-twin sports bike) to punch them out of every corner faster, customisable rheostat-like power delivery and infinitely better tires.
That's the Kawasaki 1975 KR750 below.
Hailwood versus Agostini - Honda versus MV Agusta
One of the milestones surpassed by the electric bikes in practice this year is the lap record set by Mike Hailwood on the fabled Honda RC181 DOHC four of 1967. Honda had won everything else but the 500cc title in the preceding years and it wanted the final crown - the 500cc World Championship.
With more effort than the five-cylinder 125 and six-cylinder 250 bikes its staff loving crafted to achieve dominance in every other class of racing, the RC181 was Honda's last tilt at the title before it pulled out of racing altogether.
Hailwood was the up-and-comer hired to win the title, and Giacomo Agostini was the reigning champ.
Hailwood's legendary status was confirmed in the 1967 Senior race, and the vitally important second round of the 10-race world 500cc championship. Agostini had won the West german Grand Prix and Hailwood's Honda had retired.
The race is generally regarded as the greatest TT ever - two contenders for the best rider ever, two contenders for the best constructors in the history of the sport) , contesting the heavyweight championship at motorsport's longest-standing home.
Those speeds were bettered in Qualifying by McGuinness on the Mugen with a 109.038 mph average speed, and Rutter was not far behind at 107.817, a time that would have put him amongst the Hailwood-Agostini battle.
Hailwood won the battle, but Agostini won the war - he continued winning from his first 500cc title in 1966, winning the title every year through 1972. He was so dominant on the MV Agustas that the following year he won the 350 title as well, winning that title every year through 1974. His greatest moment would come in 1975 when he won the world 500 title one last time riding a 500cc four-cylinder, two-stroke for Yamaha.
Mugen versus MotoCzysz
There were only ever two teams (three bikes) capable of winning this year's race: Mugen or MotoCzysz, as the first practice session's time sheet above clearly showed. The timing sheets for the second and third sessions showed a battle between the two camps to find extra tenths of seconds and eek out the power. Just as with a marathon runner doling out his last reserves of energy to give it all by the finish line, the riders of these bikes need to nurse the limited energy supplies available from the batteries to finish the race before they are empty.
Think of it as racing a MotoGP bike with a miserly amount of fuel available. The bikes don't have enough onboard energy (fuel) to run the full race flat out, and MotoCzysz appears to have better managed its energy reserves today.
MotoCzysz participated in the first electric motorcycle race in 2009, and failed to finish.
It returned in 2010, the first year of the new TT ZERO series and remains undefeated, converting four starts into four wins.
Mugen is Honda's development partner. The Mugen Shinden Ni (God of Electricity) is Honda's de facto entry into electric bike racing. Honda leads the current MotoGP class of motorcycle racing with its own bikes, and is getting back into producing engines for Formula One so it is working with Mugen (founded by Soichiro Honda's son).
The Shinden Ni is the most expensive machine in the entire TT paddock without doubt. Paddock rumors put the development cost of this year's bike at US$4.3 million but when you factor in all Honda's facilities readily available for the design and construction, it has effectively infinite resources available to it for the design and fabrication of anything. Honda also builds jets, cars, robots, exoskeletons, develops incredible technology for next generation's products and is the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles and scooters.
When the world motorcycle market inevitably converts from gas engines to electric engines over the next few decades, Honda plans to be at the top of the sales charts. That's the electric bike Honda showed at the Tokyo Show in 2011 above - it's, at least as I can see, the same bike Mugen fielded on the Island in 2012 (below).
Honda played much the same role in the advancement of motorcycling as Apple has done for the computer industry - mastering an array of advanced technologies, Honda's technology changed the industry and pushed it along. It might have lost a few battles along the way, but it has won every war in the last fifty years.
Last year it turned up via the Mugen entry and immediately began looking a winner, until the race when Team MotoCzysz narrowly prevailed to make it three wins in a row.
Honda has a history of "invading" the island. Since it arrived in the late fifties, it has won more races and championships than any other marque. Honda wants to be the best and doubtless it will be. This year's bike was both liquid and oil cooled, weighed 20 kg less, and carried more energy in its batteries.
So today's race was David versus Goliath all over again, and in head to head battles, David is running two–zip.
The world's largest motorcycle company which is also one of the best motorcycle race bike constructors in the world, in a massively funded race effort, could not go one place better than last year's second position on the bike's first and only outing. Two starts, two second places.
Each of the genuine contending teams had a rider of legendary status on one of their bikes. Nineteen-time TT winner and outright TT lap record holder John McGuinness on the Mugen Honda, and three-time TT winner Michael Rutter on the MotoCzysz.
McGuiness is a freak – he has raced at the Isle of Mann every year but one since 1996, winning 19 times. He has also competed at the equally dangerous Northwest 200 over the same period for six wins compared to Rutter's 13 wins at that circuit.
He's also colourful. When he set a new outright lap record earlier this week, he laughed, "I'm old and fat, but I've still got the pace."
He's the best Island specialist available and he rides for Honda for good reason. Honda gets the best riders on its bikes.
He appeared uncharacteristically upset at losing a race he felt he should have won, saying, "I can tell you, no-one is going around corners any faster than me out there", indicating the difference had been supplied by the speed of the Motoczysz towards the end of the race.
Both circuits are very fast and have been held on public roads for a long time and death is commonplace for competitors. The NorthWest event has claimed 15 lives since it began in 1946 and the IOM TT has claimed an average of two deaths a year since it began in 1907. Roads which are billiard-table-smooth at legal speeds become incredibly hazardous on a racing bike at 200 mph and if you are in any doubt as to the folly of racing purebred race machinery on public roads, watch this video (warning: not for the faint of heart – Ed).
Racing at lap record speeds around the TT or NorthWest circuits for decades is akin to playing Russian Roulette indefinitely. The greatest motorcycle racer to have ever lived, the great Giacomo Agostini, won 15 world titles, and won 12 times there before he and Englishman Phil Read led a boycott of the meeting on safety grounds.
While Rutter's TT record isn't nearly as impressive as McGuiness', he has more wins at the Northwest 200 in Northern Ireland and has won the Macau GP, another highly dangerous street circuit, nine times. Michael is the son of another street-circuit legend, Tony Rutter. His father won at the Island seven times and at the NorthWest 200 eight times.
How long until they match the best gas-powered bikes?
Today's lap of 110 mph is still a long way from John McGuinness' lap record speed set a few days ago at 131.76 mph (212.05 km/h) , but speeds have improved by 24.4 mph since 2009, and if they improve by the same amount over the next five years, the gap will have been closed.
Five years seems highly optimistic, but that's where the lines intersect based on the performance of the best of breed of each animal around the same 37 mile mountain circuit.
The biggest factor will be energy storage technology - whereas John McGuiness can average 130 mph laps for ten laps, the electric bike cannot. Indeed, the race is still held over just one lap because that's as much energy as you can fit into a bike at these speeds.
If the battery technology was available for just twice the current total energy capacity, at the same battery weight as now, electric bikes would be much faster than they are now.
Electric bikes also run on the same circuit on the same day as MotoGP bikes once a year at the USGP. The race is held around the much shorter purpose-built Laguna Seca circuit, and the lap times of electric bikes are now just ten seconds shy of the times of MotoGP class machinery with the very best riders aboard.
That's less than 10% difference, and the sport is in its infancy. Around Laguna Seca, an electric bike can use more energy and run its motors harder because it doesn't need to conserve energy energy as much as the IOM contestants.
Which is completely immaterial as to how well a bike performs on the road. Everyone, from beginners to experts love the power delivery of an electric bike. It is cheaper to run, makes no noise, uses considerably less energy and hence costs less to run.