Thursday, February 24, 2011

Racers shouldn't be fat(uous.) And more on James Parker's role in creating the stunning Mission R

So we're about to start another racing season. It's time to start my eye-rolling exercises, so that I'll be ready for more fatuous use of the word 'we' when racers refer to themselves. According to Wikipedia, it was USN Admiral Hyman Rickover who punk'd a subordinate who used the 'royal we' by asking him, "Three groups are permitted that usage: pregnant women, royalty, and schizophrenics. Which one are you?"

I don't even think royalty should use it, but I do agree with Mark Twain who thought there was one more class of person who could legitimately refer to themselves in the plural: people with tapeworms.

I get it. A high-level motorcycle racer is backed by a whole team and, by and large, unless they do their jobs adequately (or at the highest level, unless they do their jobs pretty damned well) the rider has no chance of winning. 

I suppose that in some long-lost post-race interview, the first racer who referred to himself as 'we' may have done so out of a spirit of generosity, in order to share credit for a win with his crew.

His crew would certainly have preferred to share the racer's paycheck.

It's appropriate to give your crew a shout out, but this idiotic use of 'we' has now become a nosism, which is to say that it's actually being used to aggrandize the speaker. Maybe motorcycle racers do it to sound like car racers; maybe car racers do it to sound like stick-and-ball athletes, who really do play as a team. Perhaps some racers' egos are that big that they should be saying 'we,' but until there's a MotoGP bike ridden by a pair of midgets one of whom can just barely reach the throttle and the other who just barely reaches the shifter, or until that new Chinese Moto3 team fields Siamese twins on their bike.. Riders please, refer to yourselves correctly, as 'I.'

The proof of how contrived this whole 'we' thing is, is that while riders self-consciously refer to themselves as 'we' they unselfconsciously refer to their competitors in the singular. I am sure that, in this video clip lowlight of Nicky's '06 campaign, he's not cursing out one whole side of his team's garage...

OK, rant over. I finally got around to transcribing the rest of my interview with Mission R designer James Parker. If you want to read this from the beginning, or need a little background on Mission and its bike, go here. If you're already up to speed, click on the little blue 'Read more' link just below this photo...
Parker and the Mission R, sans battery. The machined alloy plate seen in the horizontal plane at the level of James' left quadricep is, coincidentally, the fourth element of his 'quad-element' frame.
Backmarker: Walk me around the bike and talk about what's noteworthy about your design...

Parker: One thing that was interesting is that the battery is wide. We had to trim the battery around the area of the rider's legs and around the handlebars. We got a CAD model of a Yamaha R6 – it was not something Yamaha did, but it was a CAD model of that bike – and we said, OK the riding position will be essentially identical to the R6. That determined the package as far as the rider was concerned.

But the battery comes almost right to the steering head, so there was no room for me to bend tubes to the steering head. That's why I came up with the 'head box,' which is a machined alloy box that's the full width of the battery and the frame attaches to the outer edges of that.

I had already determined that the motor would provide the structure at the back of the frame. So the frame's what I called a 'quad-element' frame. There's the head box at the front, the motor at the back, the trellises on either side; and the fourth element is a bracing plate that fits inside the battery box and gives it diagonal stiffness.

In a conventional beam frame, you wouldn't need to triangulate it, because the massive beams come in to a central point at the steering head; it is a triangle...

If you look at a rectangle, it can parallelogram. [The Mission R] is really structurally sound. For example, one thing we felt strongly about was wrapping the battery box with the frame elements. We wanted to protect the battery in event of a crash. The battery's stable, chemically, and it's not that delicate, but you still don't want to drag one down the road.

What is going to happen if, no, I should say 'when' someone really wads an electric bike, and the battery's strewn all over the place. Are the corner workers going to clean it up in hazmat suits?

I'm not saying you can't bang up our battery, but it's going to be damned hard. This bike will have to be wadded big time. It can't touch in the lean angle area. That's another thing people have been doing with electric bikes is, people have been... You may have seen some electric bikes dragging in the corners, because people want so much battery volume that they don't give themselves enough lean angle. Czysz had that problem; Lightning had that problem. If you crash our bike, that bottom edge of the battery doesn't touch the ground.

Did you look at a lot of rival electric motorcycles before starting out on this project?

No. We were aware of what was out there, in public. My original design kind of went where Czysz went; putting the batteries on the outside of a spine frame, and there's some attractive things about that, but the vulnerability of the batteries is not a good thing. I don't think people are going to be electrocuted or anything, but there's a lot of chemicals in there that aren't pleasant. It's not like gasoline; gas isn't that pleasant either, but if it catches fire it burns off quickly; if it's sitting there on the track it can be cleaned up.

If you leave the clothes on it, it looks a lot like a sport bike...

One really interesting thing to me was that the motor was shown. The motor's not just a plain cylinder; the ribs on it and some of the other features were designed to make the motor mechanically interesting.

You're the kind of guy who like to work – in your case literally – from a blank sheet of paper. This project took you into relatively uncharted territory; was it more fun than designing an ICE bike?

Parker's working on some interesting gear that will show up on a future generation of this bike, but if I told you what it is, I'd have to kill you.
It was definitely fun. Right from the beginning, I said, People are going to love to look at this motor. I really emphasized that the guys at Mission. The people who are looking at this motorcycle are motorcyclists, and if this bike is for sale, the people who buy it are going to be experienced motorcyclists. So if it doesn't have interesting parts, it's not going to ring their bells.

Is the basic geometry inspired by any particular bike we'd be familiar with?

Because the battery and motor, together, are long I couldn't put a really long swingarm on it. So I looked at the Ducatis and said, I don't want a swingarm any shorter than a Ducati's. Ergonomically and in some other ways, the R6 was a model. There were a few bikes that gave us, I guess you'd say, a sense of confidence that it would work. You know, if we'd made a swingarm even shorter than a Ducati's, would we have been completely confident about the rear suspension? I'm not sure.

We know that works. What about rake and trail?

Yeah, the rake's a little steeper, but it's close. I'll just tell you the Ducati is 24 degrees of rake and just under 100mm of trail, and we're at 23.5 and just under 100.

The angle of the rear shock is striking. It's making room for the motor...

Yeah, it's making room for the motor, but you can see the linkage for the rear shock and it's very familiar.

So there's nothing strange about it from an engineering point of view?

When you design a linkage, the whole thing can be rotated. The way that shock works, in terms of linkage ratios and angles, is very conventional.

Tell me about the rear subframe...

It's a carbon fiber structural part. There's a small steel component where we mount the shock, but the rider's sitting on structural carbon. It's a sweet part. Eventually I'll make one that's all carbon, but this is a good compromise. There's a really nice ride-height adjuster on the rear shock at the top; unfortunately none of the pictures really zeroed in on it.

As a designer, you see the project in stages; on paper, as a prototype, and finally in serial production. Do you expect the serial production bikes to be pretty much just like this one?

Pretty much. There's bound to be some detail changes as we test things and figure out if it works or can be improved. And we have the fact that some of the stuff that's machined from solid will be cast. The headbox and swingarm will be cast if we go to any size of production at all.

When you make the transition from billet components to cast components, are there any major differences? Say in strength...

No, it's more an issue of availability. A cast part needs tooling, so a billet part's cheaper in some ways. It's very hard to make a closed box in billet, but you can do that in a cast part. That's sometimes quite a bit better. Both the headbox and the swingarm, as cast parts, would be closed. You'd have access holes for the casting but they won't be open boxes like the billet parts.

I did a story with Tim Prentice [who was the stylist on the Mission R project] a year or so ago and I asked him then, What's your dream project? And he told me, I'd really like to work with James Parker. Had you guys ever worked together before?

We both worked at Indian at the same time, but we never really worked on the same bikes. I was doing a new engine and frame, and he was styling the existing models. But I've known him for 15 years or more, and I've had him do some stuff for me independently. He really likes the RADD front end; we'd both really like to do that [design a bike with Parker's hub-steered front suspension.]

Tim's talking to BMW about the RADD front end. I approached them and they said, No we're not going to do that. He thinks that BMW should really look at it. Tim also works for Triumph quite a bit, but they've told me directly that they're never going to do a bike with an unusual front end.

As an outsider looking in at BMW they take [design] chances...

They're the only ones that have, other than the real specialist manufacturers like Vyrus. BMW does some really interesting stuff and I hope some day that I can work with them.

That Vyrus has been all over the web. That swingarm is so long and massive, it looks like a hub-steered front end from 20 years ago...

30 years ago! And the amazing thing is, they're using hydraulic steering, which is the kiss of death. If they can make hydraulic steering work, they've got tricks I know nothing about. Bimota tried to make it work on the first Tesi, and [it was a disaster.]

Bikes like the Tesi were adaptable to a steering rod arrangement, because the Ducati motors were narrow, but now they're sort of forced back into hydraulics because they can't wrap the steering rods around the wide Honda motor – that's my guess. But hydraulics just won't work. It will be rideable, but people will not be comfortable with the feel of it; no way.

What was it like working with Tim? Did you spend much time together, or did you sort of deliver a big package and then he took over?

He made some changes to my first design. He felt strongly about the cooling system. I had forward-facing radiators, and he suggested putting the cooling system in the belly pan. And he contributed to the actual tube layout of the trellis frame. You look at a bike like the MV Agusta and you'd think their trellis is just connecting points through the load path, but there's a lot of styling that goes into it.

I didn't contribute much to the bodywork, but he made some fairly large contributions to the cooling and to the frame.

The bodywork was styled by Tim Prentice, whose company 'Motonium' appears on the belly pan as a sponsor. I've got a great interview with Tim in the can, and I'll post it whenever I get around to transcribing it. (By 'in the can,' I mean it's already recorded, I don't mean that I was talking to him while he was in the can.)
You've been a stylist. You're not just a frame and chassis guy...

Yes, and I did some styling on this bike, before Tim came in. I went ahead and did three iterations of styling. But at the same time I was saying, Look I can do it, but I think you should get Prentice involved.

Mission had a previous commitment to the guy who designed the first Mission bike. So they had to go through a whole rationale as to why it should be styled by Tim and not that guy.

When saw it in the metal for the first time, were you really pleased?

Mission said to me, We want a world-class motorcycle. I looked at this situation and I knew that I could do a world-class chassis. I knew that Tim could do world-class bodywork. When Tim came in, I figured we could do a great bike. I didn't see the bodywork until the very end, because it went straight from CAD to being machined on these big mills that carve foam. It was late in the process when we finally looked at the bike and thought, it's a world-class motorcycle.

Is this the least-compromised real-world design [as opposed to a design exercise] that you've ever worked on?

Yeah, I think I would say that. It's really easy for people to jump in; for instance on the Indian project, they were constantly trying to turn it into a Harley Road King. I didn't want my bike to be another Road King, but [Indian's management] looked at it and said, the Road King's their biggest seller; it's an iconic design, make us one of those.

In the end, Mission really has been a good client for the artist in you, the engineer in you...

Yeah, and they're not just good clients, they're a good team.

Who did you work most closely with?

Jorah Wyler is the head of engineering, but he wasn't that active in terms of design. He has to work all these customer projects. Carl Johnson was the lead engineer, and this young Dutch guy Gerard Van Lahr came into the project. He's doing a thesis on motorcycle dynamics. He came to Mission as an intern and has been hired. There were others too, I don't want to leave other people out, but Carl was the main guy.

So for example when you were designing the frame, he'd be putting it into CAD?..

Yeah, and he did some FEA analysis. But we didn't do FEA on everything; it was a quick project and we didn't have a big engineering team.

How long did it take from start to finish?

I had the initial design a year ago September. Tim started talking to them a year ago October, but he didn't start serious work til much later. Because the company is doing other customer work, this project sometimes stopped for weeks at a time. If we'd been working straight through, it would have taken less than a year. It was a nine-month project that got stretched out to fifteen months.

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