In the Paddock

Michael Scott | February 14, 2018

The Silence of the Amps

COLUMN

“Crossroads.” It’s a classic 1930s Robert Johnson blues song, reflecting how he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for an otherwise inexplicably abrupt acquisition of extraordinary talent on the guitar.

MotoGP’s own crossroads are a little different. But the common question is: who has sold their souls? Is it the whispering brigade of politically correct disinformation surrounding electric vehicles? Or is it the rest of us, with our infernal internal combustion engines?

The crossroads have loomed for a while, with news last year that Dorna was planning an electric-bike class for 2019. In February it was flagged up with greater clarity, with confirmation of the bike chosen for the one-make series. It is based on the Italian Energica Ego, a 145-horsepower 150-mph road bike. One function will be to make Moto2 look more varied, since the new series dictates not only identical engines but also identical machines for all 18 participants in the “FIM Moto-e World Cup,” to be run over some five races, all in Europe.

And who will participate? There is an element of compulsion here: Dorna and the FIM forcing the thing through by making it obligatory.

The original plan was to draw from the existing pool of riders for an extra race-day outing; the current one doesn’t name names, but requires that all seven MotoGP teams will run two-rider teams, while four Moto2 and Moto3 teams will enter one each.

It is hard to imagine that, for example, HRC would encourage Marquez and Pedrosa to have a go, preferring that they should concentrate on MotoGP (racing in different classes was once common, but 1985 was the last time a rider seriously competed in more than one, when Honda’s Freddie Spencer won both 500cc and 250cc crowns). It remains to be seen whether the e-bikes will be used as training wheels for up-and-comings or as twilight bikes for has-beens.

These are merely details, and in the current world climate—and given the rapidly improving performance of electric vehicles everywhere, on two and four wheels, and on road as well as track—it is hard not to applaud the organizers’ far-sightedness in pushing this plan ahead.

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More powerful, however, is the tide of sadness rising within, and the certain knowledge that racing is set to change irrevocably.

Being far-sighted is all very well, but it rather depends on what comes into view, looming over the horizon.

So what’s wrong with electric-bike racing?

The only thing missing really will be the noise. And all the things that go with the generation of power by combustion: valves and smell, clattering and whirring, and years of technical interest that went hand in hand with development that was readily understandable.

Dorna’s futuristic and seemingly far-fetched plan for on-track solar charging stations notwithstanding, the generation of power will still involve these things—heat and noise—but all taking place in remote power stations, piped in to the end users via the national grid.

And who wants to go and watch a power station at work?

More to the point, who wants to watch electric bikes humming silently past?

The record so far is not encouraging, with fans wondering whether it might not be more fun if teams would put a bit of cardboard in the spokes (as children we used to use clothes pins on our bicycles) to generate some sound.

Loris Capirossi, who has done much testing and demo-riding, enthuses about what fun it is to hear your knee-slider on the deck while cornering; adding that the extra weight of the bikes is not really noticeable. But then again, the one-time rebel of the 250 class works for Dorna now, and is paid to enthuse.

The Isle of Man’s TT Zero series has proved totally underwhelming, leaving fan less than lukewarm; the four-wheel open-wheel Formula E series (which includes a midrace pit stop to change to a fresh car with a charged-up battery) much the same. A 2016 report in the respected U.S. publication Road & Track said the following: “Formula E is a boring mess. Short on thrills and compelling sounds, it should be headed for disaster.” But it went on to point out how much more important than petrol-powered racing the series was to the industry. The same is true on two wheels.

Dorna’s identical bikes might avoid the stultifying dullness of TT Zero, at least giving the opportunity for close racing (though it hasn’t always worked in Moto2).

But you have to be very future-friendly not to feel a sense of doom.

And a sense of impotence.

It was one thing mourning the end of the two-strokes back around the turn of the century.

The end of the shrieking and roaring, the popping and banging, and the spine-tingling shout of piston-powered racing bikes is something else altogether. CN

 

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Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.

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