Electric motorcycle racing became a lot more interesting today when the TT Zero race at the Isle of Man was run and the top three riders all finished at average speeds of more than 100 mph.
The win went to the Segway MotoCzysz team with Michael Rutter (pictured below) producing a lap of 104.56 mph but the extra strong showing of a 102.215 mph lap on the Mugen (Honda) ridden by John McGuinness indicates the electric bike racing scene is going to become very competitive in the near future. Honda rarely fails when it sets its mind to something, and it is the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles and the current MotoGP champion.
John McGuinness when interviewed after the race, revealed some interesting information. He said he'd ridden most of the race at 50% power but towards the end he was told that he could use 60% power. "So I turned it up to 60% and didn't it go then," he said, indicating that a LOT more power was available for shorter circuits.
For Michael Czysz (pictured), it was his team's third straight IOM TT win and it must have brought mixed feelings. On one hand his work has created the stand-out team in international competition in the pioneering period of the sport, but he now faces, Segway's involvement not withstand, a company that knows the racing business better than any.
Czysz has developed exquisite technology that can rightfully claim to be world beating as of this moment, but Honda is clearly coming after the mantle of the world's fastest EV producer, and it brings with it a full hand of knowledge in a wide range of relevant technologies, and enough money to get the job done, whatever that takes.
Mugen is unquestionably a surrogate Honda team.
Mugen is a company owned by Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Honda founder Soichiro, and currently the largest shareholder of Honda Motor Company. It is a company that has never actually been owned by Honda, but over the last four decades it has worked for no other manufacturer, and certainly does a lot of the bleeding edge performance tuning and race engineering for Honda.
If Team Segway MotoCzysz and German Team Muench (below) have been the big boys on the block for the last few years, they most certainly are no longer, and they face a formidable foe.
It's the beginning of what we expect will be an interesting battle as the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer seeks to dominate electric motorcycle racing as it has done gasoline motorcycle racing
Mugen alone is formidable, being a large, very focussed organisation which acts as Honda's bleeding edge in many forms of motorsport, though not previously on two wheels.
It is a very well funded, race-hardened organisation that has built engines and entire cars for major races series across the globe for decades, including eight years as an engine supplier in Formula One for the likes of Jordan, Ligier, Prost and Lotus during the 1990s.
Its engines have four F1 wins to their credit. It's organizational capacity is also bleeding edge. As McGuinness indicated after his second-placed ride, "they didn't just turn up here, they've been here before", and he also indicated obvious respect that the bike worked straight out of the box and ran flawlessly.
Just how closely related the motorcycle we saw on Honda's stand in the Tokyo Motor Show last November is to the Mugen is anybody's guess.
There are some similarities between the two machines, but the sideplates on the Mugen are obviously there to stop people from seeing inside so we may never know what has been borrowed and from where.
One wonders just what resources Mugen might have drawn upon in building an electric motorcycle for racing. There must be a vast pool of knowledge within Honda on many closely related topics.
I first visited Honda in the late nineteen seventies and at that time, it had more than a thousand engineers working on R&D projects. As the R&D budget is fixed as a percentage of the turnover of Honda, there would have been many times that number of engineers working on future projects for the last four decades - from planes to robotics, to mobility aids ... and those machines all have electric motors.
Indeed, Honda's omnidirectional wheel as first seen in the U3-X might yet turn out to be one of the engineering breakthroughs of the century, so there's obviously a lot of work being done in different corners of the company on electric motors and controllers.
Honda has known it would be going electric motorcycle racing for at least a decade, and it jealously guards its motorcycle racing heritage. That's why it spends hundreds of millions on its superbike and MotoGP racing efforts and employs Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa to ride Honda motorcycles and win world championships.
It is the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer and the moment we have waited for since Azhar Hussain kicked off TTX four years ago is finally here.
Honda's racing heritage
It's an often told story in motorcycle circles, but as this article is aimed at a much broader audience, here's a quick recap of Honda's initial foray into world motorcycle racing.
An expeditionary group was sent by the Honda factory to the Isle of Man races in 1959, and the Japanese riders they took to ride them must have wondered what they had encountered.
The IOM mountain circuit is a natural road course of 37.7 miles (60.7 km), comprising over 200 corners and is the oldest racing circuit still in use, having been first raced on in 1907 when average speeds were under 40 mph.
By 1959, the winning 125 MV Agusta of Tarquinio Provini was lapping at an average speed of nearly 75 mph amidst the curbs, stone walls, and unique terrain which stretches from sea level to an altitude of over 1,300 ft (396 m).
With completely different weather conditions experienced regularly on different parts of the circuit during the same lap, the IOM TT races are the most lethal motor sporting event in modern history having claimed somewhere between 175 and 200 competitors in the 100 year running.
It’s not the most dangerous race in the world – that dubious honor must go the Dakar Rally which averages two competitor deaths and an unknown number of spectator deaths (thought to be more than one) per event – but the IOM runs a clear second and the inexperienced Honda contingent of 1959 more than upheld its honor.
The company also learned its lessons very quickly, identifying what it needed to win. It recognized that to conquer racing at world championship level with the unique cultural, language, experience and skills necessary, it needed faster bikes and seasoned riders and went about providing both for the 1960 season.
Just twelve months later Honda had redesigned many aspects of its machinery, produced a lot more horsepower, and had hired some of the best riders in the world. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Honda machines were beginning to take podiums (a top three placing) in both 125 and 250 World Championship events and the Honda name was introduced to the world via the reliability and speed of its machinery at the highest level. Race wins followed, and within two years of its debut, Honda won both the 125 and 250 world titles.
Five years later, it quit the sport and did not return for many years.
The well-worn motto of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” proved true for Honda on an entirely new level to that enjoyed by the European and American marques which had previously dominated racing. In 1959 when it first announced itself to the world at the IOM TT, Honda sold 285,000 motorcycles in the entire year. By 1961, it was selling 100,000 units a month, and went on to become the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer in short order.
Now the world is set to change from gasoline power to electric power, Honda has joined the electric motorcycle racing fray.
Honda has entered the fray.
Going into the race, Honda appeared unlikely to win, with Team Segway MotoCzysz having easily "cracked the ton" (a euphemism for the first 100 mph lap) in practice with Michael Rutter putting in a lap of 22 05.05 for an average speed of 102.508 mph.
Rumour had it that the MotoCzysz was spent running at that speed and the Honda appeared strong, though it certainly produced a significant jump in performance between qualifying and race day.
There can be no greater indication of the serious intent of Team Mugen than the hiring of the best throttle-twister in the business around the Island course - John McGuinness .
McGuinness is a TT legend, having won his 18th TT a few days ago, with an average lap speed of over 130 mph. He holds the lap record for the course, and he has been dominant for the last five years, as indicated by the fact he was the first person to crack a 130 mph lap back in 2007 when he went around in 17:21.99.
Hence although McGuinness can ride the wheels off a motorcycle around the TT course, it's illustrative that his best lap time on the Mugen in practice was 23 20.97 for an average of 96.953 mph - six minutes slower than he normally goes around the TT course on his genuine HRC machinery.
McGuinness improved his practice lap time of 96.953 mph to a race lap of 102.2 mph and as he indicated, there's plenty more where that came from.
It will be interesting to see when Honda/Mugen next appears.
Team Segway MotoCzysz is not the only contender Honda will need to deal with if it is to dominate the sport, as the recent first round of the 2012 European TTXGP championship showed.
It was no surprise to anyone that the race was dominated by German manufacturer Muench. When Muench gets its electric racer into production a year or two from now, it will will have no shortage of customers if its run of spectacular success continues.
Muench won the race by more than a lap.
The team that finished second and third in the race might also be worth following.
Chinese manufacturer Zhongshen has been at the forefront of the TTX field from the get-go. It has only just started, and it has already beaten all comers but one - the stand-out Muench team.
Zhongshen also shares common ground with Honda, in being the only e-bike racing outfit backed by a company that makes more than a million motorcycles a year.
Zhongshen is a very large motorcycle manufacturer already, and clearly has grand ambitions given unfetered access to its home market of China, where there are already more than 20 million electric bikes on the road.
Zhongshen also has partnerships with Piaggio and Harley-Davidson, and unlike the names we normally associate with motorcycles, such as Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki, Zhongshen has already had an electric motorcycle on the market for 18 months. It's a commuter, but sending a factory racing team indicates serious intent to invest in knowledge.
The racing side of the Zhongshen operation is following the aforementioned “Honda” template of racing at the highest available level with the intention of learning fast and then building a better mousetrap, and repeating the process until winning. Honda has since won more championships than any other marque.
The first race of the season indicates Zhongshen is at least competitive.
Lap times at electric motorcycle races are reducing rapidly – not like in Formula One or MotoGP, where natural evolution shaves a few tenths of a second off the lap times every year, but in huge chunks, seconds at a time.
The lap times of electric racing motorcycles are reducing so rapidly that within a few years they are almost certain to approach, perhaps even better those of conventional gasoline-powered motorcycles.
So how the Honda shapes up against the Muench will also be of great interest. Muench's Synchron-Permanent-Magnet-3Phasen-Motor is now producing 80kW and the batteries had enough energy left at the end of race to run a few more laps.
Racing improves the breed faster than anything else, so it will be interesting to see three, perhaps four genuine contenders for the electric bike racing crown - MotoCzysz, Mugen, Muench and perhaps Zhongshen.