The 2017/2018 electric bike was an extremely ambitious ask: Let’s build a bike that takes all of the improvements of Apollo the year before, while increasing the battery capacity by 50% and making the bike more intelligent. Our goal wasn’t just to improve – we wanted to go the Isle of Man to set records, aim for the podium, and leave the motorcycle and engineering communities astounded by what undergraduate students could do.
In response to Apollo‘s improvements from its predecessor Matt Reese (our champion rider and World’s nuttiest Welshman) said “this is like 200% better than the last one!”. We wanted the same response with the 2017 bike. That was our Vision.
Hey reader! Don’t know how this story ends? Hint, the next bike is called Phoenix for a reason. Buckle up, this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Creating the race team
We had retired Apollo after our last race around Anglesey. Reese had shown off his impressive skills and set some blisteringly fast laps once we’d told him to “just go for it, the bike’s going to retire soon”. Reese took it to heart. He’d proved to the spectators (and a few Welsh sheep) that electric superbikes could overtake – even lap – the 500cc’s on the grid, and that electric vehicles were no longer just milk-floats and forklifts (most die-hard racing motorcyclists think “Tesla” is an antifungal cream). This race secured our joint-second in the MotoE racing series and got us rather excited for the year ahead.
Fast forward to the Bath Zero workshop early October 2017 where Hannah Crewe (our brilliant Project Manager) is giving an intro-talk to the would-be signees and eager first- and second-year students. Clearly word had got out that we were looking to expand the team and ruffle a few feathers – the build room was packed. Apollo squatting proudly in the middle of the build space, sponsorship-decals and trophies galore, gleaming like a newly potty-trained toddler.
We hit record numbers that sign up day: most number of final years leading the project, most number of second years signed up, first ever interest from non-Engineering students, and highest tea-and-biscuit expense to date.
Building the bike
Mechanically Apollo was one sexy racehorse. The chassis was a modified Ducati frame, the weight balance ideal, the torque response powerful and predictable. What needed overall improving for Vision was more power, more predictability, and more safety. Simple: new electronic systems and a heap more batteries.
For the electronics we partnered with Quartz TSL to develop all new controllers that checked and measured: relay power, auxiliary battery power, pump power, an ECU, and more. One team member even created a whole new Battery Management System culminating in not only a heap of new analysis features and safety mechanisms but a fantastic Masters dissertation.
To squeeze more batteries in to Vision required several radical design changes, not just to the battery pack design but also the structural reinforcing of the frame and allocation of space around the bike. Trying to squeeze 25kWh+ into a frame that previously had around 16kWh is an electrical, mechanical, and logistical nightmare.
Our calendar looked a little something like this:
- October to December ‘17: designing
- December to February ‘18: idea testing and prototyping
- February to April: development and build
- April through to late May: in-workshop testing (with plenty of frantic further development, fixing, adding, etc.)
- end of May: Isle of Man TT
- June: battery failure testing, damage-control, and sobbing (spoiler alert)
The Isle of Man TT (and the fire)
Just for those that have never been: The Isle of Man is a fantastic little island. I don’t want this to descend in to a travel-blog but if you like coastal villages, colourful Wild Flowers, bracing beaches, indigenous cats (the Manx Cat) and sheep (the Manx Loaghtan), and friendly, knitted-jumper wearing locals then you can’t go wrong.
The reason I mention all this is because, unfortunately, our team hardly saw any of it. On day 3 of our record-busting, drool-inducing TT endeavour, a Lithium battery fire started on Vision, swallowing it (and our ambitions) up in to a heap of melted Steel and Carbon Fibre ash.
Imagine that: standing out the front of the paddock showers at 9am on a glorious Wednesday morning, tooth-brush hanging from mouth, wet towel strung over the shoulder, a head full of testing plans and race procedures (and maybe a little residue cider from the night before) watching your year, your hard work, your vision literally going up in smoke.
Over the next 16 hours we hugged each other about a gazillion times, said our apologies and goodbyes to Matt Reese, packed up our tents and supplies, and retreated on the ferry back to Liverpool (as if the day couldn’t get any worse, we had to go back in to Liverpool). And that was that.
We can never be sure on the exact cause of the fire. We obviously know it was a Lithium fire during charging causing too much current through a few cells causing thermal runaway. But why we hit such high currents through such reliable and stable cells is more the mystery. Our best guess is that the connectors between the battery packs weren’t engaged properly before charging, or that a few cells in one particular pack weren’t properly contacting the bus bar (driving all the current through the remainder). Either way, we learnt some very valuables lessons on the do’s and don’ts of High Voltage Battery design, and (inadvertently) made the TT safer for electric race teams for the next year.