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.