Dorna, the rights-holders of MotoGP, will add five events during the 2019 season for a fleet of identical Italian-made Energica electric racebikes to be operated by existing Moto2, Moto3, and satellite MotoGP teams.

The well-publicized precedent for this series is the TT Zero one-lap electric-bike events held on the Isle of Man. The best lap time has improved rapidly from Rod Barber’s 87.4-mph average in the 2009 TTXGP to John McGuinness’ 119.279-mph lap in 2015.

Dorna, in making a spec class of its planned electric series, has bypassed the understandable lack of fully engineered entries typical of TT Zero. In that event, after the top four, entries predictably come from university teams operating on the proverbial shoestring. Why not more well-funded entries? Racing is expensive and requires a sales base able to fund it, something that does not yet exist for electrics. Dorna’s aim is to make close, exciting racing like that now occurring in MotoGP but with zero (on-site) emissions and very little noise.

The great promise of electric-bike racing is that the smooth torque and controllability of an electric powertrain are the very goals at which all the electronic rider aids in combustion-powered racing are aimed. We can hope that electric racebikes, by showing what is possible in terms of optimized drive to the rear tire, will reveal how much performance is still being lost by the difficulty of trying to “electric-motor-ize” the internal combustion engine.

Let’s set aside the question of whether audiences can or will become excited by electric racing. That is a question for the market and for Dorna’s marketeers.

Now consider this: The top TT Zero racebikes and the Energica EgoGP all weigh more than 550 pounds, which is 200 pounds more than a 260-hp MotoGP bike. That’s the equivalent of carrying a passenger! Think how fast the electrics would be without that “passenger.” After the recent Sepang MotoGP test, rider Danilo Petrucci commented that he had lost several kilos of body weight and hoped it would help him extend tire life. Think how much better the race tires on electric bikes would perform without that extra 200 pounds.

The Mugen team that has won TT Zero from 2014 to ’17 works hard to save weight; its bike has an advanced and very light carbon-fiber frame and swingarm. All that extra weight is therefore the battery required to store the energy for one lap of the 37.73-mile Mountain Course. Dorna’s electric class is aiming at 10 laps of the usual GP circuits. People often say, “Batteries are improving so fast now,” but in fact the rate of improvement of lithium-ion cells has slowed since 2002 to something that promises a doubling of energy density (kilowatt-hours per kilogram of weight) only every 14–15 years.

Loris Capirossi
“The first time I tested the Ego I was really impressed,” former 250cc GP world champion Loris Capirossi said. “The feeling is different compared to a normal bike, but it’s good."Courtesy of Energica
Kevin Cameron

Kevin Cameron has been writing about motorcycles for nearly 50 years, first for Cycle magazine and, since 1992, for Cycle World.

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Electric-bike people say the improvements in range and performance of electrics have come mainly from expanding knowledge of how best to manage the limited energy that batteries do contain. This is similar to the fuel-economy research that cost MotoGP teams serious R&D money during the 20-liter fuel-limit period. Where on the track and under which circumstances can engine power make the most economical contribution to a fast lap?

Highly efficient (98 percent) electric motors have existed for 100 years. The present power supplies and controllers are likewise excellent, leaving the battery itself as the limiting factor. All around the world, hundreds of laboratories both commercial and academic are constantly exploring battery problems, seeking to better combine the desired properties—energy density, cost, cycle life, rapid charge/discharge, safety. Li-ion was conceived in 1975–’76, commercialized by Sony in 1992, and has since received a quarter century of intensive development.

Another question is, do electric vehicles offer benefit in reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases? There is no question that an all-electric vehicle fleet would benefit urban air quality (zero emissions at the point of energy use) but at global scale we must consider where electricity comes from and at what efficiency. During 2016 these were the sources/percentages of US electric power:

  • Natural gas 34.0
  • Coal 30.4
  • Nuclear 20.0
  • Hydroelectric 7.0
  • Wind 5.6
  • Solar 0.9
  • Other 2.1

Wind- and solar-power generation are increasing. Wind supplied 4.1 percent in 2014, 4.7 in ’15, and 5.6 in ’16. Solar has risen above 1 percent during 2017. In 1996, 87 percent of US electricity was generated from fuels sourced underground, but 20 years later that percentage had fallen to 84.4.

When you multiply together the many efficiencies that exist from powerplant to electric-vehicle propulsion, you find that for power from thermal plants (coal, nuclear) overall efficiency is around 20 percent. With power from the best combined-cycle natural gas plants (gas turbine) now coming on line in Europe it can be as high as 33 percent, but for the US’s present mix of simple cycle and more modern natural gas plants the number is more like 25 percent.

Germany, often cited as a powerhouse of renewable energy because of its sometimes-remarkable daily peak wind/solar generation figures, still on annual average relies on low-grade domestic coal for 40 percent of its electricity.

Futurists naturally yearn for perfection by Friday at the latest, but infrastructure change is slow, requiring years of financial investment. In the present economy investors are cautious and they act only to earn a profit.

This makes electric-bike racing just a droplet in the hoped-for tide of change, but we can hope it has interesting and valuable things to teach us.