In many ways, Ducati's MotoE project is the opposite of all the electric motorcycle projects which have gone before. Up until very recently, conventional motorcycle manufacturers have mostly stayed well away from electric motorcycles, preferring to wait and see how the technology, and the political and legislative framework in which this all takes place, will play out. Exceptions have been few and far between: beyond electric scooters, KTM have the Freeride, an electric enduro machine, and Honda worked with Mugen on their bike which dominated the TT Zero race on the Isle of Man.
That has left the field open for a host of new companies, which have operated with varying success. Silicon Valley produced a large swathe of start ups, mostly run by motorcycle enthusiasts from the area's electric vehicle and technology industries, and funded with VC money. A few others, such as Energica, are engineering start ups producing electric vehicles and based in areas with strong automotive industry links. Small companies with limited manufacturing and engineering facilities which relied on widely available components and techniques for a large part of their bikes.
So when Energica won the first contract to produce the MotoE racer, they were competing against other specialist electric motorcycle manufacturers, sometimes no bigger than a handful of people based in of small workshops. But all had the same philosophy: to take their existing products and turn it into a race bike, by stripping unnecessary ballast and upgrading suspension, braking, and various chassis components.
Their race bikes, and the Energica Ego Corsa which became the MotoE bike when the series first started in 2019, are basically the electric bike version of Superstock spec machines: production bikes which have been turned into racing machines by upgrading existing components to racing spec.
At the technical presentation of their MotoE machine on Thursday, the contrast between what has gone before and Ducati's approach couldn't be greater. It started with the location: Casa Maria Luigia, an understatedly elegant villa outside Modena, run by Massimo Bottura, a 3-star Michelin chef with a passion for motorcycles, and especially Ducatis.
That was just the beginning. During the presentation it became clear just how much of an advantage a manufacturer like Ducati has when approaching a project like building a MotoE machine. With a solid financial basis and a dedicated racing department, they have the luxury of building a prototype creating specifically for MotoE, to meet the requirements set out by Dorna, rather than adapting an existing road bike to transform it into a racing machine. (Though with 14 rider and 17 manufacturer titles in World Superbikes, this is something they have also proved themselves to be eminently capable of.)
The success of Ducati Corse is beyond doubt, and as Ducati is part of the Audi Group, they also have a deep well of knowledge of electric vehicles to fall back on. Most importantly, they also have sports car brands Porsche and Lamborghini in the group, both of whom are also engaged in producing high-performance electric vehicles with similar demands.
They have a ready pool of expertise to tap, to help them build the V21L prototype which will be the official motorcycle for the MotoE series from 2023. More importantly, they also have a wealth of experience building and designing successful racing motorcycles, and a deep understanding of exactly how to make a motorcycle go as fast as possible around a racetrack.
Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the V21L, Ducati's MotoE bike, is that it is a prototype built from the ground up, with a view to using the lessons learned by designing and racing it in the production of an electric sports bike at some point in the future. It is rather ironic that a bike built for a spec racing series so perfectly embodies one of the reasons manufacturers go racing: to learn lessons and transfer technologies to the production machines.
The design process of the V21L reflects this idea. At the start of the project, Ducati set up a collaboration between their racing department, Ducati Corse, and Ducati's R&D department. The project is led by Roberto Canè, eMobility Director, and Vincenzo De Silvio, R&D Director. The project was led by Ducati R&D, who led the design of the chassis and powertrain, and the electronics parts. Ducati Corse provided aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics simulation, and developed the ECU software strategies, including power delivery, torque maps, and engine braking.
The first step Ducati took was to have Roberto Canè contact the Audi Group to tap into their expertise. They were able to use the resources and knowledge of Volkswagen's battery research center at their plant in Salzgitter, Germany, and had a lot of assistance from both Porsche and Lamborghini, who are developing high-performance electric sports cars.
Dorna had given Ducati two main criteria for the MotoE bike: it needed to weigh less than 237kg, and it needed to be capable of completing race distance, which is generally between 7 and 10 laps, depending on the circuit. For reference, the current Energica Ego Corsa MotoE bike weighs around 247kg, about 15kg lighter than the first version of the bike.
The first choice Ducati faced was to decide whether to focus on weight or performance. Basically, the more energy you want to pack into the battery, the more it weighs, as more material is needed to store the extra charge. Ducati's design goal was to focus on making the MotoE bike feel as much as possible like a combustion-engined bike, and so they chose to concentrate on weight, rather than power.
As a result, Ducati managed to cut the weight of the V21L MotoE bike down to 225kg. By comparison, the minimum weight for a MotoGP bike is 157kg, but the listed wet weight for a Ducati Panigale V4S is 195.5 kg. (In reality, it is a little higher, as that includes a partially filled fuel tank, but not all 17 liters.)
At the heart of the bike, and how Ducati managed to keep the weight so low, is a carbon fiber battery pack which serves as a stressed member of the frame. The pack contains an 18 kWh battery that weighs 110kg. Using the battery pack as a stressed member created the freedom to position it in the right place to optimize handling and weight distribution.
Ducati also chose to use cylindrical battery cells, rather than the prismatic or pouch cells commonly used in automotive applications. Using cylindrical cells allowed the designers the freedom to shape the battery pack more freely, creating a shape which fills the space normally occupied by the engine and fuel tank of an ICE machine. "It's not a dishwasher," Roberto Canè quipped. Other bikes, including the Energica Ego Corsa, have used large, rectangular battery packs which have required frames to be built around them.
In this respect, of course, Ducati have plenty of experience. The Italian factory has long used the engine as a stressed member of their bikes, and in transforming the Desmosedici GP15 engine into the Panigale V4 road bike, used the engine as a stressed member there as well.
The battery pack is connected to the headstock by a short aluminum front frame, while the seat unit is a carbon fiber subframe. The swingarm is aluminum, and attaches to an aluminum pivot brace at the rear of the battery pack.
Designing and building the battery pack, finding the correct stiffness and strength for the carbon fiber shell, was the hardest piece of the V21L puzzle that needed cracking, Roberto Canè told us. "In my opinion, the most complicated part of the bike was the battery pack," Ducati's eMobility Director told us. "The complication is in different items that you have to take into account when designing this kind of motorcycle."
"First of all, you have to find the best compromise in the balance between the energy and power you put in the battery pack and the weight itself, because it's a compromise of course," Canè said. "And then once you have defined what is the best compromise, you have to make it work. And especially make it work in very harsh conditions like at the track where you have 35°C of air, and you have something that's getting very hot because it's providing very high power."
Managing heat, which can suck energy out of a battery, was another key design target. "The other item was the cooling. The cooling system was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest," Canè admitted. The battery pack, the inverter (which controls the supply of power from the battery to the motor), and the motor all had different cooling requirements.
The solution was to create two separate cooling systems. A large system to cool the battery pack,and a smaller system to cool the motor and inverter. As the battery pack needs to run at a lower temperature than the motor and inverter, it has a larger radiator, with an electric pump managing water flow to optimize cooling.
Having a liquid-cooled battery also allows the bike to be recharged more quickly. Using the socket in the tail section, the battery will accept 20kW and charge from almost flat to 80% in 45 minutes. It can also be charged as soon as the bike enters the garage, without having to wait to cool down. That allows for a fast turnaround between sessions.
The motor and inverter use a smaller radiator, using a pump driven from the motor. The whole looks very similar to ICE cooling systems which have a large water radiator for the engine, plus a smaller radiator to cool the oil.
With limited expertise but specific design criteria, Ducati turned to the many specialist engineering firms in Motor Valley, the section of the Po valley between Misano and Milan which houses so many of Italy's leading automotive companies, to help with the inverter and the motor. The inverter is a silicon carbide MOSFET design, which weighs 5kg and operates at up to 99% efficiency. The inverter controls the flow of power from the battery to the motor, and is roughly analog to the throttle bodies on an ICE.
The electric motor was designed in collaboration with a supplier, one of the leading companies in the field (though Ducati do not name them explicitly). Again, the objective was to learn as much as possible in the process of designing and producing components for an electric vehicle. The motor weighs 21kg, including all of the parts needed to allow it to run. It will spin at up to 18,000 RPM, produces 110kW or 150 hp, and 140Nm of torque. That is down on the quoted Energica figure of 215Nm, but in the end, usable torque is limited by tires.
Ducati claim the bike is capable of reaching 275 km/h down the front straight at Mugello. That is a fraction faster than the 272.7 km/h set by Alessio Finello in race 1 for the MotoE class at Mugello this year, suggesting the performance should be in the same ballpark as the Energica at first. When asked for lap times, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali refused to answer, saying the bike is still being developed, and there is still more performance to come.
There was one area where Ducati were able to gain in both performance and weight savings. By choosing to run the system at 800 volts instead of the more usual 400V, it allowed Ducati to make the power cables, motor, and inverter all smaller, the higher voltage allowing lower current to produce the same power. That is also a choice made by Porsche for their Taycan and Audi with the RS e-Tron GT, the high-performance electric vehicles from Ducati's parent company.
One notable absence from the Ducati V21L is any form of wings. The MotoE bike had been developed for efficiency, and that means keeping the drag as low as possible. "Of course, efficiency in an electric bike is even more important than on a conventional one," Vincenzo De Silvio said. "And so reduction of drag was the main factor to be optimized. This is the reason why for instance we decided not to go with the wings, which are very good in order to increase the vertical load, but on the other side are increasing a little bit the drag."
Ducati's main design focus was on learning as much as possible about building electric bikes, so all of their R&D effort and expenditure has gone into the powertrain, and building a chassis to house it. Those costs had to be recouped somewhere, so the choice was made to fit the bike with high-end, but not prototype suspension and braking components. Forks are Öhlins NPX 25/30, the same units found on Ducati's Superleggera, from whence the Öhlins TTX36 rear shock also hails. Brake calipers are from Brembo, GP4RR M4 on the front and P34 on the rear.
The aim of all these efforts was to create a bike which felt as much as possible like a conventional Ducati. Ducati Corse's work on throttle response, torque maps, and engine braking was to produce a bike with a natural feel. That has produced a bike with very similar dimensions and balance as the Panigale V4. The weight distribution is 54% front / 46% rear, while the wheelbase is 1471mm, a fraction longer than the 1469mm of the Panigale V4.
Ducati test rider and multiple Italian Superbike champion Michele Pirro was impressed by the bike, he told us. "The first run with the MotoE was amazing," he said. "I was expecting a bike with difficult handling, because the weight is a little bit more than a MotoGP. But after the first lap I felt this was not a big problem. The feeling is similar to the MotoGP and the Superbike. In particular the engine torque delivery is very nice and it's very close to the MotoGP, or the Superbike, or the Panigale V4."
Designing and building the Ducati V21L MotoE bike had produced challenges, but also had offered opportunities to use lessons learned from the past. "We had to modify how approach the design, but to be honest, the methods have been the same," R&D Director Vincenzo De Silvio told us. "We compared the stiffness of the old system, the battery pack, the motor, the swingarm with the conventional bike, and we worked a lot while designing all the fixing elements and the battery casing in order to not be too far from what we were used to. And at the end, we can say making this innovation of the chassis, all together we found similar values as the one we are used to."
De Silvio agreed with eMobility Director Roberto Canè that the battery pack had been the biggest challenge. "For sure, the battery pack is a very difficult component, because the bike is basically the battery pack, but the approach that we used I think worked very well. Because if we had chosen the conventional approach having the frame and the battery pack supported by it, it could be much more difficult to find the right balance, and especially to find the weight." Hitting Ducati's self-imposed target weight would have been much more difficult. "For sure it would have added a complexity of reaching the final goal of 225kg," De Silvio told us.
What was my main impression of Ducati's MotoE launch? The presentation was heavy on facts and figures, while still withholding one or two key numbers, most notably the current lap times. Ducati know what the target lap has to be, as Ducati Corse have a lap time simulator which will take dimensions, weight, and performance and calculate how fast you should theoretically be able to lap.
Vincenzo De Silvio and Roberto Canè emphasized that Ducati were still working on the cooling system, trying to optimize the temperature of the battery to maximize performance and endurance. That would have an effect on how much faster the bike can get.
Overall, though, it is an impressive project. The bike looks fantastic, as you might expect from a Ducati, especially one from the computers of the Centro Stile Ducati. It looks like a race bike, both on photo and in the flesh, and it is only once you notice the lack of an exhaust that you realize it is an electric bike.
The clever part of the bike design is Ducati's understanding that function can follow form. It is obvious that the bike was designed first, and the engineers were given the task of fitting the batteries and other components into the space behind the fairing and under the tank. Using the battery pack as a stressed member, and forming it in such a way as to make optimum use of available space gave them the ability to carefully balance the weight in such a way as to produce a nominally normal-handling motorcycle.
More interesting in the long term is the fact that Ducati are working back to front, in reverse order to the normal way of producing electric race bikes. Building a MotoE bike and learning the lessons which can only be found in racing, the harshest of environments, is a fast track to producing a fast, reliable, and above all, desirable electric sports bike. When Ducati do finally release their electric sports bike to the public, you can be certain it will look and handle as well as any other sports bike which rolls out of their Borgo Panigale factory.
Will it have the range of the Panigale V4S? Almost certainly not, but that is unlikely to be a problem. In my travels around Europe on a motorcycle, I have not often encountered a Panigale laden to the gunwales with luggage, embarking on a transcontinental tour. Most sports bikes are taken either on short blasts around local roads, or on track days. High mileage is rarely a feature of either of those activities.
It is obvious, however, that Ducati are using this opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the electric bike market. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the presentation was Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali speaking about the various routes Ducati is exploring on their way to producing carbon neutral vehicles.
There are three options, Domenicali explained: electric bikes, combustible fuels from renewable sources – so-called e-fuels – and hydrogen, either in fuel cells or as a source of combustion. The V21L MotoE bike was Ducati's way of exploring electric bikes. With MotoGP switching to 40% e-fuels from 2024 and 100% e-fuels from 2027, Ducati will be able to develop carbon-neutral engines for that technology there.
Domenicali also said that Ducati, along with several Japanese manufacturers, is also exploring the use of hydrogen as a combustion fuel. "Very interesting for us as motorsports fans, you can use also hydrogen to burn in a conventional engine. The Japanese are making tests with this, we are making experience with this, and so it's an interesting field."
Domenicali was clearly a fan of hydrogen. "Hydrogen is a very nice fuel," the Ducati boss. "Sometimes even too nice, because it catches fire too quickly, so it's not easy."
The best thing about hydrogen was a lack of contaminants, meaning better combustion, cleaner engines, and easier maintenance. "In terms of burning, it's fully carbon-free, so if you look at a piston that has been burning hydrogen, it is fully clean, and so you have no carbon residue anywhere," Domenicali explained. "So it's a very nice and clean engine and hydrogen is very quick to burn, so it's very interesting for high-revving engines. Because there are lots of things that you need in a normal combustion fuel, like ignition advance, that are much better with hydrogen."
By exploring these three paths, Ducati hope to be able to influence the future path of motorcycle propulsion. With the European Union set to ban the sale of new cars powered by internal combustion engines from 2035, while sales of ICE motorcycles will be allowed beyond that, Domenicali believed that motorcycle manufacturers could attempt to influence future legislation based on the lessons learned. "So a long story short, there are different options, so we are trying to communicate with the European Commission, that we want to go carbon-neutral, but let us choose the best option for the different vehicles," Domenicali concluded.
Once upon a time, the main object of racing was research and development, but as the technical regulations in grand prix racing have tightened since the 1960s, that role has diminished, with the role of marketing taking a much more prominent place. Ducati's decision to build a MotoE bike brings the role of R&D in racing right back to the forefront, Ducati hoping to learn how to build a much better road bike using the experience gained in MotoE. It is a welcome and refreshing change.
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