Monday, May 16, 2011

Parsing the weekend's TTXGP lap times

A regular Backmarker reader/intel source emailed me this morning, to ruminate on the times that the Brammo Empulse RR put in around Infineon this weekend. "I was interested to read about the TTXGP at Infineon this weekend," my friend wrote. " I wonder how fast Tommy Hayden or Steve Rapp would have gone on the top bike?"

For the record, Steve Atlas lapped in the 1:55 range in the under-subscribed TTXGP races. That was fast enough to win by a wide margin, and to knock a little less than two seconds off the course record for EV motorcycles. To put that in perspective, Steve would probably not have finished last in the slowest ICE race of the weekend, for Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200s. He would have finished second-last.

But all else being equal, I doubt that anyone else would have gone faster. Steve's finished well inside the top 10 in the Daytona 200. He's got genuine AMA Pro-level speed and it's safe to say that he's quite a bit faster than that bike.

His 1:55 time might have come down a tad if there had been another bike on the track to push him, although having been on track with him a lot over the years, I think he's pretty much got one speed, which is as-fast-as-possible. It's more likely that limiting factors were 1.) lack of quality seat time on the bike - I think they tested at a couple of track days, and that's it; and, 2.) fears that the motor problems that showed up in testing would resurface in the race, if they pushed any more power through the Parker unit.

Where does that leave me feeling about the Empulse RR's performance? I admit to being a little surprised that the very tidy-looking machine was 'only' a couple of seconds faster than the Lightning and ZeroAgni ridden by Michael Barnes and Scott Higbee last year. Two seconds a lap is a big improvement in relative terms, but in absolute terms the gap between the fastest current (no pun intended) EV motorcycles and fast ICE bikes is still about 20%. An eternity, in racing terms. My friend Chris Van Andel dug into recent AFM records and wrote to tell me that Steve, on the Brammo, would only have been able to finish 32nd (out of 36 finishers) in the AFM's most recent 600 Superbike club race.

And those are over short race distances that avoid the EV's current (argh) weakness. The winners of the 2009 Bol d'Or rode a Suzuki GSX-R1000 2,233 miles in 24 hours. I doubt that any EV motorcycle could get half as far.

So on the battery's-half-drained side, it seems that dreams the TTXGP/FIM e-Power/TT Zero field would soon close the gap to ICE lap times have been dashed. Even extrapolating current rates of improvement in a straight line, it will be over a decade before EV bikes are competitive with ICE bikes -- and anyone who has ever developed a race bike knows that the first seconds come easy, but that the last tenths come very, very hard. The sparse Infineon TTXGP grid, too, speaks to the fact that some investor enthusiasm's been drained.

From the battery's-half-charged point of view, the Empulse RR would not have been completely embarrassed in the Sportster 1200 race. I rode that Sportster at Road America when it was launched, and I had a blast on it. If an EV motorcycle is already capable of providing that much entertainment, it's a good first step.

Let's see if Brammo stays focused on developing the Empulse RR for the rest of the season, and if they reach a point where they're confident they can drain the battery over the race distance, without blowing up the motor. Let's see whether Mission, Lightning, and some of the other next-gen, lighter EV race bikes like the Amarok can walk the walk as well as they talk the talk.

I guess the lesson here is, EV race teams release these sexy photos and sketches, and it's hard not to get excited. But the pace of EVolution demands patience.

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