We try one of the new eco-friendly, electric motorbikes as they make their debut on Isle of Man's notorious race course
They laughed at Thomas Edison. And in the world of motorcycle racing, where loud, fast and smelly are good, some see electric bikes at the Isle of Man TT as a joke too.
When the flag drops on Friday, June 12, though, the TTXGP will be the first zero-emissions grand prix in history. Notoriously tough on both man and machine, “the Island” is the perfect place to test the promise of electric motorcycles. And with 17 international teams lining up to do just that, with the official backing of the world governing body for motorcycle sport, the event will be a genuine trial of performance and stamina.
For the winners, the prize will be motorcyclists’ hearts, minds — and wallets. The manufacturers of these bikes are optimistic that customers will soon be lining up in bike showrooms for electric machines.
Three weeks before the race, I visit an industrial unit outside Norwich to become the first journalist to test-ride one of the leading contenders — a prototype bike made by Evo Design Solutions. I am ushered into a backroom workshop where the bike — the EV-0 R — stands on a bench. Some of it, anyway. This incomplete, skeletal machine has been built to test the electronics and motor, the heart and guts of the race bike. The rest is still being made.
“You’ve got 20 days to go and that’s the bike?” I ask, perhaps tactlessly.
“And 20 nights,” says Rick Simpson of Evo, which is based in Grantham, Lincolnshire, but is testing its bike at the Norfolk premises of its carbon-fibre supplier. “Have you not been involved in motor sport before? It’s amazing what you can get done in a night.”
Simpson and his colleague Brian Alexander would know. They helped design and build Bentley’s Le Mans-winning racing cars. “That’s where we met,” says Simpson. “We hit it off and went endurance motorcycle racing in the British championships.”
After a few years’ break from competition, the friends caught the racing bug again. Starting their campaign last Christmas — months later than most other teams, in the midst of a recession and with no funding, they have struggled from the beginning. Hard work, optimism and ingenuity have kept the project rolling but now they face a new problem: their high-performance race batteries won’t arrive in time. They have sourced some more, but there’s a hitch — the batteries are in China.
“Either somebody’s got to go and get them or we have got to wire several thousand pounds over and entrust that someone’s going to put them on the boat and trust that they will get here,” says Simpson. “There’s lots of ‘ifs’ still, which is scaring me but it’s amazing how much this project changes from one day to the next.”
The Chinese already mass-produce electric scooters and are well placed to profit from this emerging technology. By contrast, the established motorcycle manufacturers have been slow to develop electric motorcycles. Of the big names, only KTM and Honda are publicly pursuing electric projects. That could change, however, if the TTXGP succeeds, proving electric motorcycles in the same way that the TT proved petrol-burning bikes a century ago.
The race is a single lap of the 37.733-mile TT mountain course. I ask Rick how many bikes he thinks will have the juice to complete a full circuit. “Ladbrokes are probably scratching their heads about that one too,” he replies.
“To be honest, if you make it round, you’ve got a chance of winning. It’s going to be a challenge not unlike the challenge faced by the guys in 1907 [when the first TT was held]. Anyone can win. It’s so open it’s unbelievable. The ‘man in shed’ who has developed some very trick technology can win because it’s so new the big guys haven’t had time to develop their own.”
Unlike many other teams that have bought production bikes, stripped out the engine and gearbox and replaced them with an electric motor and battery packs, the Evo team created the EV-0 R from scratch using an unconventional carbon-fibre monocoque chassis. Well, almost from scratch. It’s an update of a Norton designed by Peter Williams, a former Lotus engineer, who rode it to victory in the 1973 TT.
“We have taken his design and with his permission made it stronger because the island is notorious for killing bikes,” explains Simpson. “It’s an exoskeleton; the strength is in the bodywork.”
With no heavy central spine, the chassis’s strength and rigidity come from the lightweight boxy carbon-fibre shell enclosing the motor, batteries and controllers.
Assuming the batteries arrive on their slow boat from China, a top speed in excess of 150mph should be achievable on full power. The Evo team’s understated slogan is: “It’s a bit more exciting than a milk float”.
The team will run two bikes: one ridden by Olie Linsdell, 21, who won two races in the Manx GP a couple of years ago, then aged just 19, the other by Paul Owen, a Welsh rider who has raced in several TTs.
Meanwhile a bike called Firstest, made by a team from Kingston University, will be ridden by Maria Costello, the Guinness World Record holder for clocking up the fastest lap of the TT circuit for a female rider in 2004, at an average speed over the course of 114.73mph. Chris Palmer, a three-time overall TT winner, will race a Suzuki Hayabusa-based machine made by Imperial College London.
Altogether, the 17 teams, fielding 23 bikes, will line up on the “Green TT” grid, hailing from as far afield as India, Italy, Germany, Austria and the Isle of Man itself. However, the generously funded Americans are one of the favourites to win, especially the Mission One team. Founded by a Tesla Motors engineer with staff poached from Google, Intel and Ducati, Mission One is already promising 150mph with 150-mile range, and the company is taking road bike orders from customers.
“They’re going to be the guys to beat. The Americans have really jumped on the electric vehicle bandwagon,” says Simpson.
Even as we speak, the Evo prototype is being bolted together for my test ride at Ellough Park kart track nearby. It’s raining and I wonder out loud whether riding an electric motorbike in the wet is entirely wise, or a sure-fire way to short-circuit your shorts.
“The voltage it’s running isn’t going to hurt you,” says Simpson. “And the motor is liquid-cooled, so we’re not too worried about the rain.”
“How do I change gear?” I say, looking for a gear pedal.
“You don’t,” says Simpson. “It’s an electric motor. You just keep going and going.”
Instead of swapping cogs with his foot, the rider can select three different power settings by flicking dash-mounted toggle switches. Otherwise, it’s very much like riding a twist-and-go scooter.
A wet, greasy kart track is no place to test the prototype’s limits (or mine) but it feels light, flickable and, with no engine braking, it coasts freely like a two-stroke. Running on half its potential battery power, performance feels roughly equivalent to a 125cc or 250cc machine.
It’s quiet but not silent, thanks to the motor’s whine, tyre and wind noise and miscellaneous running-gear rattles. The rear brake feels severe at low speeds — you would not want to touch it by mistake while cranked over into a corner — but it should provide plenty of stopping power on downhill sections of the TT course.
It’s not the fastest motorcycle I have ever ridden but with twice the power — well, I’ll watch the TTXGP with interest. And I won’t be laughing