Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lightning Motorcycles on verge of making historic win at Pikes Peak

The big hairy audacious goals set by Lightning Motorcycles when the company was started including qualifying at the top of the pack in a major international race against gas powered bikes.  A few years ago that goal seemed ridiculous, even in 2010 at the inaugural TTXGP at Infineon Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) which Lightning won.  On Friday, though, that particular goal was achieved, and it represents a tipping point in electric motorcycle development.  That a big piece of history is about to be achieved, hopefully, by Lightning Motorcycles.

Carlin Dunne, Lightning Motorcycles
2013 Pikes Peak
As I noted yesterday, Carlin Dunne riding for Lightning Motorcycles qualified in the 2013 Pikes Peak Hill Climb, in the Exhibition Powersports class.  To do that he beat the time he set in qualifying in 2012, riding his 1200cc superbike.  Last year Dunne went on to win the PPIHC outright.  This year, with a qualifying time almost 7 seconds faster than the next entrant, on a 1200cc superbike, he had the fastest overall time of all motorcycles present.  It appears likely he'll repeat this again on Sunday and take an overall win.

That would be historic.  Winning outright against gas bikes in a major international race, against the top gas bike racers from around the world, has never been done in the history of motorcycle racing. 

I just got off the phone with Richard Hatfield, CEO of Lightning Motorcycles, for a long conversation about where they are, and what this means in the bigger scheme of things. 

Hatfield and a small crew have been on-site at Pikes Peak for most or all of June doing daily test runs with Carlin Dunne.  They'd rise at 3:30 AM, on-site by 4ish AM, hold a riders meeting, and do multiple test runs for a few hours.  They have two bikes on-site allowing Dunne to switch off and just keep riding.  He's been an excellent development rider to work with providing concise feedback.

Hatfield says that Dunne believes the bike, as it exists today, does not need more horsepower.  It has all the horsepower needed right now, even though more is possible with the components they have on the bike right now.  The next phase is traction control, so they can increase the power and keep it on the ground.

To power the bikes they have a large solar array with a 35 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a pair of 6 kilowatt SMA inverters.  The inverters allow them to quick-charge the bike at a 40 amp rate, with electricity gathered from sunshine.

But, what does it mean for Lightning to be where they are now?  To have a top racer on his team, beating the best gas bike racers in the world?

Brammo, Lightning, Moto Electra,
at 2011 North America finals at Miller Motorsports
Three years ago in the 2010 TTXGP season, electric motorcycle racing was a crew of scrappy upstarts.  Most of the bikes were home built experiments that ran, most of the time, but were a lot slower than the 600cc superbikes.  Even Lightning, with the top bike that year, was a lot slower than the 600cc superbikes.  The whole scene was laughed off as one that would never amount to anything other than "oh, that's interesting".

Year after year the field of electric motorcycle racing teams have improved, especially the top bikes.  This includes not just Lightning, but Brammo, Mission, MotoCzysz and others.

Trophy for winning at Mosport
Lightning has come a long way.  In 2010 at the Mosport (Canada) TTXGP race, Michael Barnes had a 1:39.289 best lap time compared to 1000cc superbikes with best laptimes in the neighborhood of 1:21-22.  In 2013, at Pikes Peak, they've consistently been beating the gas bikers in practice all week long, the best gas bikers in the world.

What it means in the bigger scheme is, for Lightning Motorcycles, a validation of their years of hard work.  It means they'll be able to present their superbike, the one they're selling to the public, as being a clone of the bike that won on Pikes Peak.  It's the "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" adage, and Richard Hatfield certainly aims to do so when he returns to the office.

But he also said several times during the interview - "One small step for Lightning, one giant leap for electric vehicles."

If they do win, it'll be big for them as a company, but in the grand scheme it represents a major milestone being reached.  One that many thought was impossible.

It's a short step from this to thinking about the success of Tesla Motors.  Just a few years ago they were just selling the Roadster, and seeing all kinds of problems, while promising a top-notch luxury sedan with unheard of specifications.  No matter the problems, they were tenacious and kept at the plan.  And the success of Tesla Motors isn't just that the Model S is winning accolades around the world, but that Tesla's very existence pushed the automobile industry towards electric vehicles.

The existence of Lightning (and Brammo, Mission, MotoCzysz, etc) in electric motorcycles, with the improvements year-after-year, are playing a similar role with the gas bike manufacturers.  The major gas bike makers are certainly looking over their shoulders seeing these electric guys catching up and wondering what to do.

A juxtaposition of TTXGP and Honda
TTXGP 2010 world finals at Albacete Spain
Hatfield related a conversation he had while waiting at the results board.  Two guys wearing Honda R&D shirts came up, saw him with his Lightning shirt, and said "Next time we'll come back with more horsepower."  Richard says he responded saying "Next year you should come with batteries," to which one of them turned to the other and said "yes, we should."

To the extent that Honda == Mugen, it's very possible for Honda to race at Pikes Peak with an electric bike, perhaps with a Mugen name on the plastic.

The question when the major manufacturers enter the game is whether the scrappy upstarts like Lightning will be able to keep up.  Hatfield says they have all the manufacturing partners and parts suppliers lined up to be able to go into production.

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