From a roar to a whirr – MotoGP goes electric

Updated 3:27 AM EST, Fri January 4, 2019
01:03 - Source: CNN
Motorbike veteran Capirossi goes electric
(CNN) —  

It’s motorbike racing but not as you know it.

MotoGP administrators Dorna announced in February 2018 that a new all-electric series, The Enel MotoE World Cup, will be joining its three existing classes – Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP – from 2019.

PHOTO: Dorna

A big departure

It will mark a big departure for a series characterized by loud, boisterous gasoline-fueled racing, and Dorna has been weaning fans onto the concept with demonstration laps by former grand prix stars, including Max Biaggi, Colin Edwards, Randy de Puniet and Loris Capirossi, at races during the 2018 MotoGP season.

MotoE has taken a standard production bike, the Italian-built Energica Ego, and is adapting it to race specifications, much like Formula E has done with its race car.

Capirossi, a hugely popular MotoGP veteran, with nine premier class wins to his name, has played a key role in testing the machine.

01:55 - Source: CNN
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Just push the button

“It’s a strange thing because, when you jump on, you’re looking for the clutch, there’s no clutch; you’re looking for the gearbox, no gearbox; and also, no sound, the engine has no sound, just you push the button and the engine is on,” Capirossi told CNN Sport from his Monte Carlo home.

While the production Energica Ego is no slouch, with a top speed of around 150mph and a 0-60mph time of three seconds, the bike is a far cry from the multi-million-dollar MotoGP monsters that can reach over 220mph.

Nevertheless, Capirossi has been impressed with its characteristics. “You start to open the throttle and you see immediately, you feel immediately the torque of the bike, the acceleration of the bike, and when you’re on the track you’re thinking only about braking and acceleration, the rest you don’t need.”

Another thing that is noticeably absent, of course, is the roar of the engine.

“You feel just the speed, you feel the wind,” Capirossi explains. “When you touch the ground, you hear just the sound of the (knee) slider on the surface.”

Keeping costs down

Nicolas Goubert, who left MotoGP tire manufacturer Michelin to head up the MotoE series, says the focus is on competitive racing. Part of that involves keeping the costs down for entrants.

“Cost is a really big issue for an organizer. Every series, you name it, Formula One included, has to be careful with the cost,” he told CNN.

“You also have to make sure that you have different teams competing with bikes at about the same level. Basically, the approach was to say okay, we’re not going to ask Honda, Yamaha and Ducati to come up with prototype electric bikes because that’s going to cost an awful lot, and then maybe one of them will be a lot faster than everybody else and it will not be a good show.”

Energica has a three-year contract to supply bikes to the series, but Goubert says key changes will be made to the production machine.

“There will be modifications, of course: battery, brakes, suspension, wheels,” he explains. “We’ll make it a race bike, but technology will be very similar; so, it won’t be a million-dollar prototype, it will be something down to earth, and that’s important.”

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All seven privateer outfits from the MotoGP paddock will enter the new series in 2019. Hervé Poncharal, Principal of the highly successful Tech3 team, has been impressed by what he’s seen so far.

“We’re very excited, because since we saw that bike, although this is a year of preparation, we have seen the evolution since the Grand Prix in Qatar,” he told CNN.

Poncharal, Principal of the Tech3 team says MotoGP will be a hybrid championship.
PHOTO: Tech3 Racing
Poncharal, Principal of the Tech3 team says MotoGP will be a hybrid championship.

Unlike Formula E, MotoE will race on the same calendar as its bigger petrol-driven cousin, and Poncharal sees this as a crucial move. “In Formula One and Formula E you have two championships fighting each other, but MotoGP will be a hybrid championship, because the same championship, the same promoter, the same race day, will have a petrol engine and an electric engine,” he told CNN.

“So that means there will be comparisons on the same day with the same conditions, on the same circuit. We will compare lap times and hopefully we will see the gap between, say, a Moto2 and a MotoE bike reduce and shrink every single race.”

Green appeal

Poncharal also sees commercial benefits in MotoE’s green credentials.

“You run a race team, and you run a business,” he added. “And more and more you meet potential sponsors and they tell you, ‘yeah, but you know, the CO2 emissions, this is the past, and we don’t want to be part of that image’. Hopefully it could help us (to attract new sponsors).”

The Frenchman also wants the series to play a role in developing technology for consumers. “I would like to see MotoE like an R&D project for the person who will use a bike to commute in town or around the city. This is exciting, because you’re part of the future.”

But while sponsors may find environmentally friendly racing attractive, it remains to be seen whether bike culture – traditionally defined by its noisy, occasionally grimy nature – is ready for electric racing.

Convincing racers

PHOTO: Dorna

Capirossi admits that people may take convincing.

“When you talk with every rider, like Valentino Rossi, he says well, everybody says ‘we don’t like,’ ‘we like the sound,’ ‘we like the noise (of petrol bikes),’” he concedes, “you know because nobody really properly tested that type of bike.”

The Italian believes it will come down to the racing itself. “It’s really important we have 18 good riders on the track; for sure then the show becomes interesting.”

Goubert is also optimistic that fans can be won over. “When you have a change in technology you always have people doubting it.

“I am sure with electric bikes that some people will be reluctant at the beginning but gradually, over time and with technology changing, I am convinced that will change.”

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If MotoE takes off, might bike fans one day be willing to say goodbye to the roar of petrol engines? Goubert believes even that may change in time.

“If that technology is successful, for sure in 20 years’ time you will see young guys looking at us as if we were mad to go racing with all this noise.”