The Most Important Race In The World

Here's a good way to start an argument, whether you're gathered over a few beers with some race-loving friends or on a internet message board or chat room. Just ask what the most important race in the world is. Within minutes, you'll have a list as long as your arm and a couple of violent disagreements to go with it, with everyone arguing the merits and faults of their own personal favorites.

Is it the Dakar, that ultimate test of man (or woman) and machine, pushing navigation skills, machine reliability and human endurance? Or perhaps it is the Monaco Formula 1 race, the event that is followed around the world, spreading the cult of motorized racing as entertainment to a global audience of casual viewers. How about the Le Mans 24 hour races, another event where either cars or motorcycles are pushed to the limits of their performance, and of their endurance, for 24 hours without rest, a real test of durability? Perhaps it's the Qatar MotoGP race, the race that marks the start of the MotoGP season, and the commencement of battle in motorcycle racing's premier class. Or maybe the Dutch TT at Assen, or the World Superbike round or Formula 1 race at Monza, putting motorcycle racing in its historical perspective. If history is the key, then surely the Isle of Man TT, the 102 year-old race around the Mountain Course, 37-odd miles of public roads. The track is too long for riders to memorize completely, and with long stretches where the bikes are held wide open over bumpy mountain roads, it tests both riders and machines to their limits.

But in my view, there can be only one answer to the question of which race is the most important in the world: The inaugural running of the TTXGP, the self-styled "world's first zero carbon, clean emission Grand Prix." The race, a single lap of the Isle of Man circuit, was held today, Friday, June 12th 2009, and was won by Rob Barber on the Team Agni bike, basically the skeleton of a Suzuki GSX-R 600 powered by a couple of Agni electric motors and 16 kWh of battery power, at an average speed of 87.434mph, or 140.711 km/h.

So why do I think that a two-wheeled golf buggy cruising around the Isle of Man just a smidgeon faster than a 1966 50cc Honda is the most important race in the world? Well, because unlike any other race currently being held, the TTXGP harks back to the very raison d'etre for racing: To improve the breed. MotoGP, World Superbikes, Formula One, Le Mans, Endurance racing; all have provided important advances for ordinary road users, and have helped push automotive technology forward on both two wheels and four. But the number of truly significant advances from these series has been dwindling for a long time now, with progress coming in the shape of ever-increasing refinement of existing concepts and ideas, rather than earth-shattering new ideas.

That's not so much the fault of those racing series, but rather the result of their long history. Over the years, regulations have gradually built up for one reason or another - sometimes for safety, sometimes to favor one technology over another, and sometimes in a (usually failed) attempt to cut costs - which have limited the options for true breakthroughs, leaving only room for refinement. And refinement is subject to the law of diminishing returns, where incremental improvements demand exponential costs, gradually forcing smaller, low budget teams out of the series. Ironic really, that the longer racing continues, the fewer creative minds are involved in the technology behind it.

Not so for the TTXGP. With a relatively open rule book - FIM standard bodywork, a minimum and maximum weight, zero toxic emissions, and no carbon-based fuel - the entrants were free to pursue any solution they wanted in the hunt for speed and victory. In the end, the entries were predominantly powered by electric motors supplied with current from various battery systems, but the breadth of approaches and strategies from a field of just 15 entries was incredibly exciting. With no artificial limits, the teams could try to win in any number of ways: low weight, but low power, or more weight in stored energy, but using it up faster to get up the mountain roads.

This open competition produced a worthy winner, in the shape of the Agni Team bike. The brains behind the bike, Cedric Lynch, has been building innovative DC motors for over thirty years, and his experience with the technology combined with a simple approach turned the low-key entry into a high-profile winner. While many other teams - Mission Motors, Brammo, MotoCzysz - had launched their entries in a blaze of publicity, it was a scruffy, quietly-spoken man with a backyard bike who took victory.

That's not to disparage the high-profile entries. They all acquitted themselves respectably, surprising most of the sceptics with the speed and durability of their machines. But the team that won did so based on brains rather than budget.

Naturally, there's a lot to criticize about the TTXGP too. Its claim to be a zero-carbon event is of course nonsense, as the bikes needed electricity to propel them around the Mountain Course, and electricity has to be generated from somewhere. But the beauty of electricity is that it need not necessarily be generated by burning oil, in contrast to an internal combustion engine, which can do little else. Once humankind harnesses nuclear fusion (the only genuine hope of solving humanity's energy crisis, and criminally underfunded in comparison with other energy research) then we will have cheap and almost limitless electricity once again, and electricity will truly be carbon free, and almost pollution free.

The big problem with electrically powered vehicles at the moment is energy storage, with current battery technology only permitting energy densities of about 20 times less than gasoline. To put it another way, if gasoline held as much energy as batteries currently do, then the MotoGP bikes would be taking to the grid with 400 liters (or 105 US gallons) of fuel, and would look more like oil tankers than the sleek missiles they currently are. Gasoline's energy density is the reason the fuel is still the energy source of choice for so much of our current transport - there are very few ways of carrying so much power in such a small package.

But that's exactly what makes the TTXGP so important, by having racing improve the breed. Small improvements in battery technology or energy recovery systems or electrical motor efficiency can pay off handsomely, providing big advantages over the competition. And that competition is the reason for pursuing these improvements. For better or for worse, the desire to outdo your neighbor is one of the driving forces behind human evolution and human progress, and so much of the incredible technology which extends, enrichens, improves and terrorizes our lives is down to that fundamental urge.

Though the event itself was fairly modest, and the entry list short, the TTXGP will go down in history. It was an event that returned to the very essence of racing, its very reason for existing, as the best way of generating progress besides warfare. There hasn't been an event of this importance since motorcycle racing was first organized at the turn of the 20th century. This race was the start of something very, very big indeed.

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i think the TTXGP was often a target of ridicule which i find amazing considering motorcyclists are typically gear heads and gadgeteers. yes, the bikes were relatively slow, but dammit, the existing technology could already take me to work and back on one charge!

and think of where laptop batteries were barely 3 years ago. look at what apple has unveiled this week. every major and minor energy player is working on battery technology - no matter what the source of electricity, battery capacity is the biggest obstacle to rapid adaptation of electric vehicles and will be the biggest area of innovation in the next 10 years.

so thank you for writing this piece; i wish the race was given more coverage, it's been really hard getting actual footage of what i also consider the most important race of the decade.

I too was afraid of some reflexively neanderthal response to the TTXGP but I have been pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm on some of the motorcycle blogs I have seen.
Like it or not, this is where things are headed so I am happy to see others embracing it too.
Hell For Leather did some reviews of the Brammo Enertia and they seemed pleasantly surprised by the bike.
Very encouraging for something so new.

I think the TTXGP is a monumental undertaking as well; though, I'm frustrated by the moralistic hype that surrounds alternative energy. Batteries are not very efficient to produce and they certainly are not a "clean" technology. We should pursue new technological avenues, but the moral diatribe must end immediately. It makes creative technological endeavors susceptible to common sense arguments against additional pollution, even if the new technology is designed to reduce future emissions.

Alternative transportation is important, but I question our motives for producing it. If consumers requested better fuel economy, lower costs, and lower emissions; those requests could be delivered on a very short time table using currently existing technology. Gasoline ICE's could be cut to nearly zero emissions and at the same time, mileage could be drastically improved by reducing vehicle weight, reducing displacement, and introducing mechanical/hydraulic hybrid technology. Since enormous progress could be made in the near future with currently existing technologies, it begs the question "Why are we making alternative energy?"

Perpetual creativity aside, I believe our real motivations are far more ignoble than the futurist marketing campaigns admit. In reality, mankind is searching for another vehicle that can be operated in a relatively inconsiderate fashion without residual guilt. It took nearly a century to admit the drawbacks of the automotive revolution. I often wonder how long it will take us to admit that the next generation of vehicles also has inherent flaws. Alternative energy/transportation endeavors are certainly worthwhile, but society will not develop useful technology until we admit that we are after the greatest intangible of all--desirability. Desirability is highly influenced by consumer perception, hence the vilification of hydrocarbons and the exaltation of alternative energy, but desirability is also widely varied throughout the vehicle-buying public. By attempting to usurp the desirability of our beloved oil-burning vehicles, we are taking the longest route possible between ICE's and alternative vehicles. A niche-driven "divide and provide" strategy will be more successful than an all out assault on the oil economy. Motorcycles are a great niche market, and the TTXGP is a great way to start development.

Personally, I think developing alternative renewable fuels is more efficient than banishing the ICE b/c alternative fuels will allow us to use our current energy/transportation infrastructure. Algal oil is my fave because it can be made to mimic the complementary nature of the fusion-fission relationship. Algal oil is still hydrocarbons, but algae eats CO2 and we can control what algae synthesizes. Biological and genetic research is far more palatable to the average person than nuclear R&D.

Anyways, the future will not be determined by one idea, but my many many different ideas all competing with one another to win over consumers. I hope the policy makers of the world can ensure the authenticity of the contest without intentionally altering the outcome.

I find the TTXGP to be nothing more than an exercise in guilt assuagement by the motorcycle community, a "reflexive" act of self-flagellation.

Motorcycles, in case some of you have forgotten, are about... PASSION, not about social conscience, economy, saving the environment, or practicality...just PASSION; the unmitigated viseral joy of twisting the throttle & going FAST & hearing the SOUND & FEELING the power through your body. ADRENALINE, FUN, & freedom.

These silly devices aren't about ANY of these. They are about political correctness & obediance to government fiat. Battery "technology" improvement is an oxymoron. After 100 years (& countless billions) were have they gotten...1900 lead acid 40w/l...2009 lithium ion 300w/l (gasoline 9,700w/l)..think they'll be catching up Technology..yes, a technological DEAD-END.

Yes, this IS an historic moment..but not for why you think. It is the beginning of the END, of motorcycling as we know it. A dark age where personal enjoyment will be sacrificed at the alter of (misguided) environmentalism...I greive.

You can cry about it all you want but, personally, I think the bikes are cool.

I would like an explanation of why the power source determines enjoyment.

If you live your life believing afraid of "political correctness" (which is a term only used by those complaining of something they don't like, usually about about someone else's rights being protected).

There is a visceral joy in riding the hell out of a 125cc dirtbike. There will also be much, much more powerful electric bikes in the future so you cannot convince me that we are losing the thrill of speed that motocycles give us. All we lose is some noise.

So, your argument comes down to noise. If you need noise to enjoy riding, there are a whole lot of dead-slow Harleys down here for sale cheap.

You should calm down a little.
I don't need someone else to tell me what motorcycles are about. They may mean one thing to you and something else to another. The riders in the TTXGP were pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed racing on these bikes, go tell them they don't know what motorcycling is about.

To your more technical points on battery development, I would point out that many more resources have been brought to bear upon improving internal combustion engines than have been applied to battery technology, until the last couple decades at least. I don't view this technology as a panacea but I doubt anyone can argue that internal combustion is kind of untenable in the long term. If that is true, clinging to internal combustion and ignoring possible alternatives is a far more efficient way of killing motorcycling than developing electrics.

Have a sensible discussion please.

Electric bikes are the motorsports enthusiasts' answer to environmental complaints against our sport. Noise and pollution are the chief sticks that we hand our opponents to beat us with. Almost every racetrack in the world is under some kind of legal assault over noise levels, and noise and residual hydrocarbon pollution keeps dirt bikes off of large tracts of public land all over the world.

Take away the noise, and the complaints from neighbors start to look like exactly what they are - killjoy whining - and their chances of getting tracks closed or severely limited disappear altogether. And some areas of national parks are being opened to electric off road bikes because the traditional complaints against dirt bikes don't apply in this case, they are little different to mountain bikes, which are allowed into the parks.

I understand the attraction of noise, but frankly, once you start travelling above about 80mph, you can't hear the engine noise above the sound of the wind buffeting your helmet. If noise is integral to your enjoyment, you could always load up an endless loop of MotoGP bike sounds on your iPod and play them while you ride. Personally, I find the sensation of control, of flowing along a road, a much more powerful part of my enjoyment of motorcycling. But it takes all sorts, I guess.

One of the most important changes in the TTXGP didn't actually get tested. The ACU were persuaded to dramatically relax the aerodynamic rules but in the end none of the teams took advantage of it, and a team that would have pushed this as far as they could didn't get the funding. Allowing a tail fairing as tall as the rider's head and removing the requirement to see the rider's back radically changes the game. It's step on the road to the return of the NSU Hammock from the 50s. I for one would love to see high speed, recumbent pod racers but with 2010 engine, frame and suspension technology. Maybe then we could build in some comfort and crash protection into sports bikes without losing the essential thrills.

As for fuels, I think hydrogen and plain battery power are a bit of a dead end but we do have to wean ourselves off oil as a base product and avoid cannibalising food production for the replacement. I'm holding out for genetically modified algae or an algae-bacteria symbiosis that turn CO2-water and sunlight directly into something like Propanol. If we can create sources of plentiful, cheap, clean electricity there is a place though for battery power in cities and for short haul. And things like the TTXGP will drive developments in M/C sized batteries, motors and control tech that will help that.

And of course as a Brit, I'm smiling because some much hyped American entries failed to finish while an Anglo-Indian team with a truly eccentric Brit won it and the Brit's motors powered half the field.

Oh, come on. How fast do you suppose the first gasoline-powered bike was? I'll bet it was a fraction of the speed of the bikes that ran the TTXGP. Look what those first bikes have evolved into today.

Also, it didn't take a century for us to admit the ICE has flaws. It took us that long to determine its flaws.

And sound = passion? Or is it sound = adrenaline? Or, maybe it's sound + adrenaline = passion? Arggh. A friend of mine says he might lose his "passion" for motor racing if he can't hear cylinders firing. I told him it sounds like he's never raced. Never felt the thrill of competition, never pushed a machine toward the edge of control, much less past it for a moment in a desperate act of possibly regrettable overexuberance in the pursuit of victory. Like some obese sportswriter who's never played a minute of football expounding on the virtues of one player and the vices of another.

Motorcycling isn't about passion, life is about passion. Guess what? Those of us who pursue life with passion and who happen to ride motorcycles aren't going to let fast bikes, or fast cars for that matter, become a thing of the past. Go ahead and tell the world the sky is falling. A majority might even agree with you. But the sky will not fall. Not because it's physically impossible, but because the rest of us won't let it.

Just came to read the article, and the comments, now.

I think it's brilliant to speak about The Race, cos 15 years from now everyone will look at it for exactly what it is: the Race that started it all. Would you want it or not, there is just NO choice but finding other ways to propel machines without fossil fuel.

Electricity seems to be the way right now and looking at the leaps they're doing already when research has barely been really starting, one can only imagine how exciting it will be in let say 5 years from now.

I'm with you on this one, David. It's good some people have the guts to seek outside the envelope, especially in a (motorcycle) community which is rather conservative...

Went to their press release not too long at Hollywood Electric Motorcycles. Rode a few models. I must admit they are pretty neat in the city. Just imagine one set-up with nice suspension. And I'm sure traction control would be interesting, too.

I'm not sure if Zero Motorcycles had any entries in any rounds of the TTXGP, though.

Zero had two entries at the infineon round and 1 in the other US rounds (i believe). a zero sponsored agni powered shawn higgins won at infineon while his teammate kluge rode a standard zero S with some extra batteries and a race fairing - he ran out of juice and ran the bike across the line - scoring 5th place :)