As Mugen gears up for its seventh year at the Isle of Man racing the Shinden electric bike in the TT Zero, BikeSocial talks to Mugen Euro boss Colin Whittamore about this year’s bike, his riders, and the reason for Mugen’s support for battery-powered racing.
I’m an hour late for my meeting with Mugen Euro boss Colin Whittamore at his Milton Keynes HQ. I explain it’s because my 200bhp Kawasaki H2 SX ran low on fuel, and I’d left my wallet at home. Sitting in an office with four of the world’s fastest battery-powered motorcycles lined up behind me, the irony is so thick you could cut it with a sledgehammer.
Mugen is best known outside motorcycling as a Japanese tuning shop supplying tuning kits and performance parts for four-wheeled Hondas for over 30 years. On two wheels, however, the company is best-known for competing in the TT Zero with John McGuiness, Bruce Anstey and, last year, Guy Martin, aboard the battery-powered Shinden. Mugen’s electric TT racers have won the single-lap TT Zero for the last four consecutive years, two apiece for McGuiness and Anstey.
But for 2018 the team have two new faces; Michael Rutter and Lee Johnston. Johnston was signed to ride a third Shinden alongside team regulars McGuiness and Anstey, but McGuiness has failed to recover from last year’s NW200 leg break in time, and Anstey is being treated for a cancer diagnosis at home in New Zealand. Rutter, drafted in as a replacement, is already three times a TT Zero winner, between 2011 and 2013. “He’s unbeaten in the TT Zero,” smiles Colin. “And Lee has some electric bike experience. But neither of them have done the speeds we’re expecting them to do. Michael’s fastest Zero lap in 2013 was 110mph – we’re expecting him to do 120mph plus this year.”
Injury has prevented John McGuinness being on board this year
Whittamore is a biker himself, but his professional background is on four wheels: “I spent a long time in chassis manufacturing for Lola cars, then I joined Mugen in 2008,” he says. “When I worked at Lola, we didn’t like engines back then – they were just a spacer between the back of the tub and the gearbox, so they were just a nuisance.”
Spoken like a true chassis engineer. And, as it happens, like a true exponent of cutting-edge two-wheeled battery tech. But Mugen is a lot more than just the super-trick Shinden bikes wheeled out at the TT every year...
Who are Mugen?
“Mugen Euro was founded in 2006 as a daughter company of the Tokyo business, founded by Hirotoshi Honda, Soichiro’s son. We were formed to provide a platform for Europeans who wanted to buy Mugen products, and then we started developing our own parts based around the Civic Type R, which we entered in various race series around Europe. And we’ve recently been heavily involved in Honda’s Touring Car Championship – developing, building and running it for the last few years. And it’s what Mugen Europe focus on for the 11 months of the year when we aren’t at the TT.”
Bruce Anstey in practice ahead of his win in 2017
Why are Mugen racing bikes at the TT?
“Soichiro Honda’s passion for the TT is reflected in his son, Hirotoshi. Hirotoshi Honda grew up seeing his father disappear off in the middle of the year to an island in the Irish sea at a time when, as Hirotoshi-san says, it was very difficult for the Japanese to travel internationally.” [In the 1950s Japan was rebuilding from post-war ruins and still, culturally, an isolated country.]
“Soichiro Honda’s drive to compete at the TT effectively opened the door for the birth of the Japanese motorcycle industry, and certainly, in Europe, Honda’s name was founded on the TT. So Hirotoshi watched all that happen – and although he never actually worked for Honda, he set up Mugen in 1973 as a tuning shop with very, very close ties to the factory.”
“Although Mugen isn’t a motorcycle tuning shop, Hirotoshi is very much a traditional biker – he doesn’t even ride a Honda, he rides a Harley with so many trick bits
there’s not much Harley left. Anyway, in 2000 Hirotoshi-san built a Mugen motorcycle; what he felt was a modern take on a Vincent Black Shadow.”
“The Mugen MV1000 was a hand-built, one-off, 1400cc, 45° air-cooled, pushrod, overhead 3v V-twin, shown at the Tokyo Show; the idea was to test its potential for production but by the time it was complete it was prohibitively expensive.” “In 2010 Hiro-san decided to take the MV1000 to the TT for a parade lap. But it was crashed by a Japanese race driver. Then, the next thing we here at Mugen Euro knew was, ‘Yes, we’re going to go and do the TT.’ So we thought fine, that’s great, love to do that. As a professional car person, I’ve always gone to car racing for free, but paid my own money to go to MotoGP. But I assumed we’d go there with a tricked-out Mugen Fireblade. But when we found out he meant with an electric bike, we thought, ‘What? Why electric?’ We’re an engine company, we develop engines, what’s that got to do with running an electric bike? But Hirotoshi foresaw that Mugen, as a motorsport company, needed in-house knowledge of EV powertrains, and we needed them in our range.”
“EV is the future whether we like it or not. More and more, we’re realising we need to be involved in the EV market; it’s going that direction no matter what people say – and one of the biggest changes we’ve noticed in the years we’ve been doing the TT is that people’s reactions have changed too.”
“So by doing the TT, Mugen will achieve a couple of things: one, we’ll learn about EV powertrains, and two, we’ll establish a legacy of Mugen at the TT to parallel Hirotoshi’s father. He couldn’t duplicate what his father had done; he’s a trailblazer as well and he wanted to set his own path.”
Is Mugen’s development work at the TT on behalf of and fed back into Honda?
“No. While 99% of every programme Mugen does is connected with or on behalf of Honda, the one programme that’s 100% Mugen is this one. It’s internally funded and resourced – which isn’t to say as part of the network process if Honda knocked one the door and said, ‘Tell us all the secrets of the Shinden,’ we certainly say, ‘Yes, what would you like to know?’ Because part of what we’re doing is making ourselves more valuable to Honda in the future anyway, by setting ourselves up as a company with that technology.”
“For example, Mugen’s recent motocross concept bike, the E-Rex, is in partnership with Honda.” [Mugen actually have ancient historical previous in motocross, fielding a couple of Mugen Honda ’crossers in competition in America in the early 1980s.]
“We see a huge potential in the electric motocross market. For example, indoor supercross will grow – and every outdoor motocross track in the world has a problem with noise to some degree.” [Whittamore is right; at the recent presentation of KTM’s latest Freeride E-XC, the Austrian factory pointed out they’d been trying for years to get a section of waste ground next to the factory turned into a motocross track, but had been continually refused permission on noise grounds – but with EV MX bikes, that’s no longer an issue.]
In terms of the Shinden project, how has the TT involvement developed the bike?
“To Mugen, the TT is an end-of-term exam. The reason we’re doing what we’re doing is to learn EV technology and this is, right, have we learned it? We recognise it’s probably the toughest test – if you can get round the Mountain course on a battery-powered bike at 120mph then you’ve achieved something. So the TT is a good test of what could transfer onto the road. But in terms of Mugen, it’s almost a side-project, in a way. It’s not a project that has permanent resource applied to it.”
“The first Shinden in 2012 was mostly off-the-shelf components. We bought the battery, inverter and motor, and just packaged them in a nice chassis. But we’ve now arrived at a point where we have the expertise ourselves: the motor is a Mugen motor, designed, manufactured, assembled and tested in-house in Japan, and we’ve done the same with the inverter, and even with the battery Mugen are a technical partner with Maxell, as opposed to just buying it in. The individual cells come from Maxell, but the make-up of the pack is almost as important – and that’s designed and assembled by Mugen.”
Bruce Anstey and Guy Martin took a TT Zero 1-2 for Mugen in 2017
In terms of targets, are Mugen happy with where you are?
“Yes. The bike has been capable of a 120mph lap for the last few years.” [The 119mph record was set by McGuiness in 2015]. “In 2015 John set off in the wrong mode and wondered why the bike felt slow before he realised and switched it over – so a 120mph lap was possible then. The next year, when John landed at Ballaugh Bridge the G-force overcame the spring in the kill switch in the seat unit, and activated it (we’ve redesigned it now so the switch is at a slight angle and can’t be activated by accident). And last year, Bruce said the bike was a rocket but for some reason we put the bikes in race mode on race day, but both Guy and Bruce came back after the race and said it wasn’t the same as in practice; there was the same issue with both bikes that limited power. So last year Hirotoshi-san was there at the race with his wife, his daughter and his two grandchildren – to see grandad’s bike set history with a 120mph lap. And we didn’t do it; so we’re under pressure this year – regardless of whether we win or not, because someone could come in with a big leap in technology, we must do a 120mph lap.”
Did Mugen pitch for the MotoE series in 2019 in MotoGP?
“Some people from Dorna came to the TT to have a look at what we were doing – but when it came to the tendering process Mugen weren’t involved. I suspect the decision was based around the cost; Energica [Italian manufacturer of electric bikes
who won the contract] are production-based; we’re creating a bespoke racing motorcycle with not that much regard to the cost within a budget. Mugen aren’t set up to mass-produce or sell bikes; it’s not what we do.
What’s different about the 2018 Shinden Nana?
“This year’s bike is very much an iteration of last year’s Shinden Roku. Weight is a big consideration, of course. With the battery out, ours is one of lightest chassis in the paddock – and with the battery in, it’s one of the heaviest. But this year we’ve concentrated on battery cooling. Mechanically it’s the same: same motor, same inverter, the battery pack is different but the cells are the same. So the difference is the way we’ve linked all the cells together.”
“Anything that would be an engine and fuel on a normal bike it battery on the Shinden. We don’t reveal how many cells are in the pack, but they generate in excess of 370v. The inverter sits under the battery and converts the DC current to three phase AC, and is also where the throttle input is received, and then it’s fed to the motor at a specific rate depending on battery discharge rate, throttle, mode setting etc.”
“Regeneration is available on a closed throttle, and can be altered to provide an engine braking effect. When we first tried the bike with John and Bruce, they wanted to try it completely off because they thought it would be slowing them down. But they did about half a lap on zero regen and came back in because it was like free-wheeling into corners. So we’ve dialled in around a 250 two-stroke’s worth of engine braking effect, just so they feel there’s something there when they back off. The downside of regen is you’re generating extra heat, because you’re charging the battery. If your biggest problem is getting rid of heat, you don’t want to be adding to it.”
“To keep the battery cool, we duct air through it from side vents and through the central fairing duct. Keeping the outside cells cool isn’t a problem because they’re on the outside; it’s the ones in the core that get hot – in the past we’ve had to leave the battery to cool down for two days, when we overheated it. We could open it up and put more airways in, but then we’re wasting space that could’ve had a battery in it. The water-cooling is for the inverter, and the motor is oil-cooled.”
“The Shinden chassis is designed to look like a conventional bike, and appeal to riders on a component level. Even if you don’t like battery power, just look at the chassis! It’s basically all stuff you can’t buy: so we have factory-spec Showa development separate function forks, Nissin WSB-spec brakes, obviously all bodywork is carbon, and the monocoque frame and swingarm... and the regulation horn button; if you see a yellow flag, you have to go through sounding the horn because marshals on the circuit won’t hear you coming otherwise.”
“The on-board software automatically monitors battery usage and controls output according to battery usage to date, current battery usage, where the bike is on the circuit by GPS, how much further is left to go, how much battery range is left at the current rate. So where, when we started, the rider would set how much he could use according to the State Of Charge (SOC), now it’s done automatically.”
Are we due a big step in battery technology?
“Lithium-ion is where we are, and when we got to them from nickel batteries we were talking half the weight, twice the performance. So we need the next big jump. But this is a refinement of existing technology. The next big thing? Could be hydrogen fuel cell, which Honda is quite keen on in their road cars... an electric motor is an electric motor; it’s how you feed it and how that energy is stored that matters. And the interesting thing about the TT is we turn up there and never know if someone else has made that leap.
What does TT Zero really needs to take it to the next level?
“A manufacturer has got to get involved. Someone like Kawasaki, BMW, Honda, who can really apply the resources to it. We can’t afford to have a team on the Shinden all year round, but someone like a manufacturer could. We can’t afford to try five things and throw away four of them; they could. Everything we do has to count.”
Lee Johnston brings electric bike racing to the team for his Mugen debut in 2018
Why hasn’t that already happened?
“My personal view is the technology is so new, a factory could easily find itself stuck on the wrong branch. There are so many questions that are yet to be answered, and no-one wants to end up down the Betamax route when everyone else has gone VHS. So although Mugen’s investment is significant for a small company, a full-blown manufacturer project would sink a lot of money and they can’t afford to get it wrong. So there’s a big element of ‘Let’s wait and see where it levels out.’”
Has TT Zero’s popularity with spectators changed over the years?
“Talk to spectators and you’ll get polar opposite views. But when we first started in 2012 there was a lot of negative feeling towards TT Zero. I remember talking to a couple of people at the first TT; one was interested and asking questions but his mate wouldn’t even look at the bike. It was an abomination. He actually turned his back to it. So there was a lot of ‘It’ll never catch on,’ and ‘If that’s the future I don’t want to know anything about it’ – a lot of that in the first year.”
“But now, the tent is full of interested, engaged people asking questions – can we do two laps, how fast can we go, what does it weigh, and if the future looks as cool as this, they want one. So we’ve seen a big change in the interest. There are probably thousands who don’t give a stuff, but those who we meet are into it – and I like to think Mugen has had a bit to do with that, turning up with a professional-looking team.”
What about its popularity with riders?
“In the early days, most of the top TT riders had offers to ride electric bikes in the Zero TT. And most of them had no interest whatsoever. But when John McGuiness knew Mugen were interested, he knew it would be a proper effort so he was interested immediately. Whether he was sceptical before, I’m not sure – I was with him when he first walked into the factory in Japan and saw the bike, and saw the light flick on as he realised just how serious this was.”
“And one of he reasons we wanted to get Lee Johnston on the bike is because he’s been to see us every year, and he interested in what we’re doing – he’s a friend of the team already. And the Japanese like to know their riders – when Lee signed for Honda, we were happy because it fitted. To be honest, when the two Shinden seats became available a while ago, a number of riders approached us and said right, I need to be on that bike. That probably wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago.”
“I mean, it’s a limited field and they might be thinking they have a good chance of winning a TT. But a 120mph is race bike territory – it’s not some novelty bike; this is a bike you have to ride hard to get the maximum from it and lots of riders can do a 105mph lap; a 120 plus is different.”