Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chip Yates walks the walk; Honda launches a category killer...

Chip Yates has been a bit of a lightning rod in the EV-motorcycle world. He's a skilled and relentless self-promoter – which, depending on how that strikes you, might mean that he's got what it takes to make it; attracting media attention and investment are prerequisites to shifting paradigms. Or, it might make you skeptical.

Does this tail-section make my bike look fat? I hope not, because by the time it was raced at Fontana last weekend, it got even bigger. This photo, from late last year, shows the Christini-derived front-wheel KERS system - not used in the races.
I admit that I've been in the latter camp. But I also have to admit that I was truly impressed when he took his 'SWIGZ electric superbike' to Fontana last weekend and raced it somewhat successfully against ICE bikes in a couple of WERA twins races.

In his typically bombastic style, Chip's “put the ICE bikes on notice.” OK, maybe. Later. Much later.

To lap at sportbike pace for ten minutes, the nearly 600-pound SWIGZ was laden with 180 pounds of batteries. Some of that mass was located in a 'top box' that made him look like the world's fastest courier. If the race distance had been doubled to 12 laps from six, the ICE bikes on the grid would have had to add another gallon of gas, but the SWIGZ would need to add... about another 180 pounds of batteries. That might change when and if his front-wheel KERS system lives up to its hype. (In a post-race email, Yates wrote that, "We removed the front wheel KERS system to save a few pounds of weight since we decided to go racing in WERA, and our battery pack is sufficient to race for their 6-lap distances." Again, count me among the skeptics; I think a recovery of 15% of the energy expended to accelerate the bike is feasible, but Yates claims he can recover far more. If he can, why not add a few pounds in the form of the KERS system and lose 50 or 60 pounds of battery?)

But in the end, that's quibbling. What counts is...

Chip had the courage of his convictions last weekend. He wrestled that behemoth around Fontana faster than the average sport bike rider could've lapped the track on any motorcycle. More importantly, alone among the builders of electric motorcycles, he's invited comparison with state-of-the-art ICE motorcycles, and he's come out... OK. E-bikes have competed at the same event as ICE bikes before, of course. On the Bonneville Salt Flats, at the Isle of Man*, at AMA races that featured a TTXGP class, etc. But they were never on track at the same time. Even at that, those events have invited lap time comparisons that aren't too flattering of the zero-emissions prototypes.

I can't think of any other time that an EV raced ICE vehicles head-to-head in any event lasting longer than a few seconds (drag racing.) People will be parsing the results of those Fontana races for some time, but there's no denying that Yates made history.

As for how that history was made, Yates told me in that email, "After I was banned by the TTXGP and FIM, I called up Evelyne Clarke, the owner of WERA and proposed this to her and she agreed.  After I told her our power to weight ratio, she picked the HWT SB and HWT SS classes for me because my power to weight ratio is worse than the leaders but better than the slower guys so it seemed like a reasonable class to start in to see where we should race.  We didn't want to pick a class where we would win but we also didnt want to pick a class where we would come in last, so this worked perfectly - we had to fight our way up to both podiums.  In the Superbike race, I was nearly passed by a Ducati 848 superbike that hounded me the whole race so it was a good battle!"

So, congratulations, Chip Yates. And, I have to say, thanks WERA for being flexible enough to make it happen.

* Just before posting this, I got an email from the TT Press Office saying they expect 25 entries in the zero-emissions race this year, which will be the 100th anniversary of the 'Mountain Course'. The email also included one cryptic comment about an entry from one of the Japanese 'big four'. Hmm...

While we're on the subject of regime change...

Yesterday, I made a reference to Honda's famous 'nicest people' ad campaign. There was, of course, an engineering yang to that marketing yin. No amount of advertising could build Honda's market share and attract a whole new generation of riders on its own. When those people came around to the idea of riding a motorcycle, they had to find a whole new, user-friendly generation of bikes to ride; bikes that started at the touch of a button, were oil-tight, and nearly maintenance-free.

To be honest with you, I think that the last few years have been tough ones on Honda's motorcycle division. When I channel Mr. Honda (which I do pretty frequently) I'm saddened by the company's inability to come to grips with the MotoGP formula, or match BMW's flagship sport bike.

I don't think there would be hell to pay in Honda's R&D facilities if Mr. Honda was still alive. I think that if he was still alive, he'd still be a source of inspiration and ensure that his eponymous company maintained its commitment to be the best no matter what the cost or challenges. I'm know that, wherever he is, the motorcycle division's relative failures (of late) sadden him.

But all's far from lost. A few years ago, Honda announced that it planned to do, to the private aircraft business, what it had done to the motorcycle business in the '60s. Just before Christmas, Honda passed another milestone in the development of its HondaJet private aircraft. It's a beautiful plane, which they've painted to look a bit like a killer whale. If I was in the corporate jet business, I'd be feeling like a fat salmon or a lazy seal right about now.

The company just released a sumptuous, um, launch video. While I watched it, the spirit of Mr. Honda entered me and I got just a little teary. 
OK, break's over. Let's get some of that emotion back into the motorcycle division.

Passings... Last but not least, while I'm digressing on subjects that aren't specifically about motorcycling but really are, I'd like to salute another guy named Yates, director Peter Yates, who recently died.

Yates has only two degrees of separation from the motorcycling soul. He directed our sport's patron saint, Steve McQueen, in his iconic role as Frank Bullitt, and was both producer and director of Breaking Away. The bikes in Breaking Away may have been human-powered but, make no mistake, it is still the best racing movie ever made.

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