Is Gas-Powered Racing Innovation Dead?

The Symptoms:

  • Event attendance at NASCAR, MotoGP and other series has plummeted during the recession.
  • Formula One and MotoGP fans and racers alike complain that excessive use of electronics has ruined the sport by making it less competitive.
  • The new Moto2 spec engine class is by far the most competitive and exciting, yet comparatively low-tech.
  • Electric motorcycle racing series TTXGP has spawned more innovation halfway through its first season than quite possibly the entire ICE motorcycle industry has over the past decade.

Dinosaurs vs. LiIons

Just as the iPod and Napster gave music fans an easier way to enjoy their music, electric motorcycles are poised to revolutionize the motorcycle industry. While the major OEM’s have seen sales plummet in the recession and have little to offer in the way of real innovation, startup electric motorcycle companies are cropping up every month, with increasingly faster and better bikes.

Many of these brands compete in the TTXGP series, and have enjoyed tremendous development as the season has progressed, as mentioned here. While these bikes are still not head-to-head competitors for equally priced ICE bikes, they are rapidly closing in on that goal. Sure, many current motorcyclists say they can’t imagine riding without the deep rumble of their motor beneath them. After all, people still ride horses, even though it’s no longer necessary. But for every Harley rider there’s at least one sportbike rider who cares more about performance than sound, and expects the latest technology to make him at least feel capable of riding like Rossi.

As the owner of a series of Yamaha R1 motorcycles, the latest of which includes some amazing new crankshaft innovation derived from Rossi’s Yamaha M1, I will be the first to say it’s not working. At a certain point, what works in MotoGP just doesn’t translate well to canyon carving by mere mortals. It’s not that the bike is too fast, it’s more that the bike feels pointless and uninspired below 70mph. I’m looking forward to replacing it with an electric sportbike in 2011, one capable of speeds over 100mph with an average range of 100 miles. That’s plenty for everything I do except touring, which the 2009 R1 is (surprisingly) perfect for. And as a bonus, increased adoption of EV’s will help use some of that (clean?) energy excess Vinod Khosla predicts in an article mentioned here.

Valentino Rossi Doesn’t Want An Electronic Motorcycle

Yes, I said electronic. I have no idea how he feels about electric motorcycles, but he has joined the chorus of exceptionally gifted racers complaining about how excessive dependence on electronics has ruined the sport. MotoGP, the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, has long been the proving ground for the latest in high-performance innovations. Traction control, launch control, engine braking control, anti-wheelie, ride-by-wire, etc. were developed to set the bike apart from the competition.

The problem now is that this leaves little room for rider input, rewarding riders not so much on talent and ability to control a 200 HP beast as on simply being lightweight. Which is why the spec engine class, Moto2, where participants are given sealed motors, is so much more competitive than MotoGP, although the bikes are comparatively “low-tech”. It also helps that it’s much cheaper, so the grid is much more crowded. For an expert insider’s view of the electronics situation in MotoGP, I will soon be posting an interview with former MotoGP electrical engineer Francesco Di Goro.

Analog Vs. Digital

Rather than wasting the talent of their electrical engineers on finding ways to automate ICE motorcycles, manufacturers could give them a REAL challenge and develop electric motorcycles. History is littered with examples of successful incumbents being rendered irrelevant by startups with some disruptive innovation, a management strategy issue highlighted in this Economist article.

TTXGP and the Federation International de Motocyclisme (FIM) are a perfect example of this age-old conflict. Although FIM were originally planning to cooperate with TTXGP, much like they cooperate with Dorna and other series organizers, that didn’t last for long. The problem is that the FIM is an organizing body. Which means they write the rules. The rules are written in conjunction with organizers, racers and most of all, manufacturers. But ultimately, the FIM writes them, and always has.

What really caused the rupture was that TTXGP insisted on creating an open-source rulebook, particularly for the first season. With technology changing so rapidly in this field, and no historical baseline to reference, how could rules possibly be written? Like Sony vs. Apple 10 years ago, the FIM is accustomed to owning this content, and could not tolerate the idea of anyone less expert than them writing the rules. Although I suspect TTXGP competitors know a little more about electric motorcycles than the FIM. The rules wiki has been open to all since January 2010 and moderated by lawyer and electric motorcyclist Harry Mallin. Although they took a snapshot of the wiki on August 15, the wiki will continue to remain a vital, growing, and changing document according to this press release.

So the FIM decided to start their own series, ePower, to do it their way. The FIM does not seem to be taking this very seriously, as I reported when I saw their event in conjunction with the Laguna Seca MotoGP race. They did not even bother to employ Dorna’s camera crew stationed around the track, and do almost nothing to promote the series. This makes it far less attractive for sponsors, yet they are able to fill the grid by paying riders an unprecedented $1,000 ($5,000 for riders who traveled from Europe to California) just to start the race. Yet some riders who traveled halfway across the world were not even able to compete because of the FIM’s traditional style qualifying rule. When there are 30 or more bikes on the grid, they have to be within 120% of the leader, or else lap traffic will be treacherous. But with 10 or 15 bikes this sort of exclusion is unnecessary, and some suspect that the FIM did this to limit the amount they would have to spend on starting payments.

Because electric motorcycle racing is so new, many people believe that having two separate series dilutes each of them. What really makes things difficult for competitors and organizers alike is the current economic climate. Sponsorships are hard to come by, and many racers are self-funded and doing this for the love of creating and developing their own new electric motorcycle. Some will go on to become the Hondas and Ducatis of tomorrow, others will fall by the wayside. One day there will be enough interest in electric motorcycle racing to support two separate series, like we now have with World Superbike for production-based racing and MotoGP for completely new technology. But while the industry is so small, and some manufacturers are even reluctant to race, two separate series are not helping to strengthen the industry.

TTXGP founder Azhar Hussain will be happy to answer questions about the creation and future of TTXGP and Mavizen at two events in California next week. More about the events at Intel and at Hollywood Electrics here.

Image Credits: Dinosaur courtesy of Dystopos via Creative Commons, Valentino Rossi playing around on a Yamaha R1 courtesy Fiat Yamaha via Creative Commons, all others courtesy of the manufacturers.

Susanna Schick

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders. Occasionally she deigns to cover automobile events in Los Angeles for us as well. However, she dreams of a day when Los Angeles' streets resemble the two-wheeled paradise she discovered living in Barcelona and will not rest until she's converted the masses to two-wheeled bliss.