If you’ve been following me on social media at all in 2020 (I’m @motrizzle, in case you’re wondering), you’ve probably noticed my feed is littered with pics of a certain orange motorcycle. It’s not that common for a single bike to dominate my feed considering the different number of bikes I get to ride (pre-pandemic, anyway). But this one is different. Both literally and figuratively. The Lightfighter electric superbike plays such a dominant role in my feed because I have a personal stake in it. I helped develop it. And now, for version 2.0, a physical object built around my feedback would be the proof in the pudding to determine whether I have any idea what I’m talking about.
For those unfamiliar with the Lightfighter, let alone version 2.0, you can read all about the bike’s genesis here. But if you want the quick Cliffs Notes version, here’s a brief recap. The Lightfighter is a one-off electric racing motorcycle designed and built by Brian Wismann and Ely Schless. The former is the VP of Product Development at Zero Motorcycles, while the latter has been riding, racing, designing and fabricating for decades, with a client list of all different genres, including aviation and aerospace.
The idea for the Lightfighter was to build an electric superbike with a geometry-first design brief instead of the battery-first machines that had become the pseudo standard. The starting point was the geometry of a current-generation Yamaha R1 and linkage which Wismann bought directly from eBay. Everything else was then built around it, including the custom steel trellis frame and battery – both built by Schless.
This was the point where I came in as the lucky sap who got to ride and develop the bike. Wismann, Schless, and I had an eventful 2019 testing and racing Lightfighter version 1.0, achieving more success than we could have imagined, with multiple wins and podium finishes racing head-to-head against gas bikes. We even took the 2019 bike and won at Laguna Seca back in February, just weeks before the world turned upside down. This success was entirely unexpected and drove us to strive for more to legitimize an electric racing motorcycle against our internal combustion peers.
But from the start, there was one major change that simply couldn’t be done. The chassis of version 1.0 was too rigid, which meant at full lean, when the fork and shock have minimal effectiveness at dealing with bumps, the frame wouldn’t flex enough to absorb those hits. From where I was sitting, at full lean the chassis would get upset over bumps, and I’d have to wait for it to settle before applying another input. Waiting means losing time, and losing time is the exact opposite of what you want to be doing on track.
Armed with an off-season full of ideas, Wismann and Schless went to work designing and building the next iteration of the Lightfighter, this time incorporating my input about the frame. For this, the second time around, not only was there a reduction in support braces within the trellis frame, but the thickness of the steel itself was changed for more flex at full lean which translates into better, clearer feedback to the rider – me.
Since they were designing a whole new frame anyway, Wismann and Schless reconfigured the packaging of the battery, controller (also known as the inverter in some EV circles), and the associated subsystems. Apart from the rigid frame, another drawback of version 1 was the inability to swap batteries quickly. This was partly because the controller, wiring, and other components had to be removed first, but also because the battery was mounted at an angle within the frame.
The new frame design places the battery completely vertically within it, with the associated peripherals like the controller and DC-DC converter either out of the way or easily removed with quick disconnects. In theory, the battery could be released by loosening a few bolts, lifting the bike on stands, and dropping the battery out from the bottom. This is all a theory because a second battery doesn’t exist. At least, not yet.
While dropping a battery might seem daunting to some, it’s really much easier a task than dropping an engine (and theoretically much faster than a one-hour recharge) – and that’s the point. There’s a small learning curve to riding, racing, and working on an electric race bike, but when you think about it, there are far less moving parts to worry about than an internal combustion engine. As Brian likes to put it, “If you know how to clean a carburettor, this will be a piece of cake.” Again, that’s the point. Not only is the bike wicked fast, but a secondary goal is for it to be easy enough for the club racer to work on. All you do is plug it into a Nema 14-50 outlet, the same RV outlet many racetracks already have, and go ride. There’s no oil to change or valves to check, though there is a tiny amount of water in the radiator to help cool the motor. The primary consumables that are the same with a gas bike are the tires, brake pads, and brake fluid. The rest of the time, you can sit back and relax.
While we’re on the topic of batteries, for Lightfighter v2.0, Farasis Energy, one of the team’s major supporters and supplier of lithium-ion batteries and battery tech to a number of different industries, came through with all-new cells with more energy density than before. This, in turn, meant Wismann could coax more power from the Parker Hannifin motor (one of the carryovers from v1.0) without fear of running out of juice before a race was over. In fact, after a few dyno pulls to tune the Cascadia Motion inverter, Wismann extracted over 140 horsepower to the wheel – approximately 20 more horses than before. All from pressing a couple buttons on his computer. Being electric, torque isn’t an issue, so the 120 lb-ft the motor generates is plenty healthy. Couple that with the 2:1 reduction gears and there’s ample amounts of oomph being put to the ground.
The Öhlins fork and shock, the R1 swingarm, and the Brembo braking components are also carryovers from v1.0 – mainly because they were so remarkable there was no need to change anything. Stylistically, the Kramer bodywork is back. But this time around Wismann put his graphic design skills to work and took advantage of some artistic freedoms to hack away the center section of the fairings to better show off the battery and motor – the very components that make Lightfighter different from ICE bikes. And in keeping with the trend these days, sneaky little carbon fiber side plates under the half fairing are perfect attachment points for winglets!
These carbon fiber appendages are the work of Paul Taylor, formerly known as the proprietor of TaylorMade Racing, and one of the experts behind the carbon work on the 2013 Brough Superior Moto2 racer. Of course, his help with the project wasn’t primarily with the wings. His wizardry and expertise with carbon fiber was put to use fabricating the custom carbon tail/seat section. Since nothing is housed in or under the seat/subframe like on other bikes, the tail section could be made as minimal and light as possible – just as long as it could support my weight! In the end, Taylor’s tail section weighed in at under 2 pounds.
Keeping on the theme of carbon fiber and lightness, the Lightfighter team were incredibly thrilled – and a bit confused – when we secured sponsorship and support from Thyssenkrupp. You, like us, probably know them best as “the elevator company,” but no, the elevator team doesn’t moonlight building carbon fiber wheels. Thyssenkrupp has several divisions under its umbrella, and tkCC (its abbreviation for Thyssenkrupp Carbon Components) has come through in a big way with its carbon wheels for Lightfighter. To date, these are the lightest wheels Wismann has used on a race bike – and he’s been involved with a lot of race bikes – with the front weighing 1.9 kg (4.2 lbs) and the rear at 2.9 kg (6.4 lbs).
With a new bike ready, 2020 was looking to be a promising year. Several tests were on the horizon, with a healthy amount of racing events circled on the calendar.
Then 2020 happened.
Like many of us, the Coronavirus pandemic ripped up all our plans for the year. Thankfully, and most importantly, none of us, nor any of our immediate families, got sick, which left us waiting out the situation to see if any track activity would take place at all. Then, slowly, as more and more trackdays were given the green light to resume, we made our way back to the track to test.
Not knowing when we’d be back, we had to make the most of any testing opportunity we got, and after my initial warm-up lap, the throttle came right to the stop to begin my second-ever lap on the new bike. Brian casually mentioned to me that he found some extra power, but I didn’t realize he found that much more power! Engage the Hootin’ ‘N Hollerin’ effect. By the time I reached the end of Buttonwillow’s front straight, I found myself laughing in excitement inside my helmet. Lightfighter v2.0 was going to be a weapon.
The beauty of the Lightfighter (both versions 1 and 2) is not just the amount of power they make and how easy they are to ride, but it’s appreciating why they are as capable as they are. Part of that has to do with the painstaking effort Wismann put in to ensure power delivery is as linear and smooth as possible. Riding it is effortless, despite its sheer speed. And the braking power is next level. That’s a great combination.
Of course, I wanted to know if the new frame really made a difference. Besides, I was the one who asked for it, after all. I’d hang my head in shame if it didn’t make things any better. Buttonwillow’s banked, high-speed, bowl-like corner, Riverside, was the perfect stretch to test the frame. Entering it at speed and with the bike banked over, it felt immediately better, with far fewer jolts coming through the frame, giving me more feeling for what each tire was doing. Immediately following Riverside is a fast left kink that’s bumpy at the apex. Version 1 would nearly get out of sorts through there, while version 2 was far more composed.
After discussing my feedback with Brian and taking a look at some data, we realized the spring on the shock, which hadn’t been changed from version 1, was too stiff this time around. As it turns out, Lightfighter v1.0’s seat was the standard Kramer’s composite tail section, which doubles as the bike’s fuel tank. Since Lightfighter didn’t need to house anything in the tail section, Brian hollowed and gutted the tank as much as he could safely do. Little did we know it at the time, but the revised seat flexed enough to conceal some of the feedback coming up through the shock. The rigid carbon tail on v2.0 didn’t mask those jolts and we ended up going with a lighter spring as a result.
Back when the world was fully operational and Corona’s were associated with limes instead of masks, we tested version 1 of Lightfighter extensively before competing with it. We wouldn’t have that luxury this time around. With only one test under our belt, the next opportunity we would have to ride the bike was during the WERA race weekend at Buttonwillow Raceway. Not ideal, but considering all the uncertainty in the world, we had to jump at any opportunity we could get. So, racing we went.
Ostensibly we were entering a race weekend, but the reality was we would use the weekend to continue testing different things like power settings to see how much more power we could use during an actual race environment. At the same time the 109ºF ambient temperature would be a test of both man and machine. To top it all off, I had the bright idea to add another variable to the mix – testing Pirelli’s new sizes for its Superbike Slick. Measuring a 125/70-17 front and 200/65-17 rear, I fell in love with the extra rubber when I first tried them aboard the Ducati Superleggera V4.
This isn’t so much a race report, as there really wasn’t much action to report about. Being the only electric in the paddock means finding a class to slot into can be a bit of a challenge. Ideally, the target is to compete against 600cc supersports, but WERA wanted to gauge our performance by slotting us in Formula 2, which is mainly comprised of middleweight Twins (think Suzuki SV650s, Yamaha MT-07s, and the like), 250cc two-strokes, and other purpose-built race bikes.
Gridded at the back of the field, the Lightfighter’s incredible ability to leap off the line – and amazing ability to brake later than anything I’ve ridden – got us the holeshot into turn 1, and I never looked back. The win might have seemed easy on the outside, but from where I was sitting, something didn’t seem right. I thought v1.0 got better launches. But considering the triple-digit temps, and the need to get the bike recharged and out again for the C Superbike race (against modified 600cc supersports) in a little over an hour, I thought maybe Brian was being conservative with the power settings.
As it turns out, the bike was performing like a champ, and a full race distance was nothing for the battery. Which, sometimes, was more than could be said about last year’s bike. Our charger, however, was feeling the heat, literally, and began throttling back power to save itself. We weren’t going to make our next race. Instead, WERA let us move to the B Superbike race, which is intended for bikes up to four cylinders and 750cc. But since there aren’t many of those on track anymore the grid is mostly 600cc supersports. Perfect.
Another decent start saw Lightfighter get up to second by turn 1, but I got demoted to third by the next corner. Eager to engage and race with the two leaders I went in pursuit to claim the spots back, only to have my left knee puck come flying off later in the lap. Without the puck I had to be extremely careful leaning to the left, and I could tell anyway the bike wasn’t quite right. A fact later confirmed by my lap times that were a couple seconds slower than last year. Nonetheless, I brought the bike home in third. A solid podium finish, but a bit disappointing knowing I could have been in contention for the top spot. Here’s a quick recap of the weekend:
If the WERA race proved anything, it’s that Lightfighter well and truly belongs amongst its 600cc gas-powered peers. Brian and Ely built something special, and in a sense, I feel validated that my input from version 1 has truly made version 2 better. Better still, the denser battery cells gave us just enough juice to pull more performance from the motor and still comfortably complete a full race distance and with enough in the tank (get it?) to coast back home on the cool-down lap.
However, the slower lap times sat well for neither Brian nor myself. We had to find out what was up. Hence, more testing. After weeks of looking over data and Brian fielding my text messages and emails after his busy day job at Zero, we collectively came to the conclusion that the tires – the tires I pushed to try on Lightfighter – were to blame.
On a bike as powerful as a Ducati Superleggera V4, the extra rubber is crucial to put power to the ground. The Lightfigher doesn’t have nearly the horsepower. The extra rubber while on the side and trailbraking was extraordinary. But it came at the expense of acceleration and agility. In hindsight, the huge rear tire dulled some of the bike’s acceleration off the line, which would have a ripple effect whenever I tried to get a jump out of corners. To make things worse, it’s huge profile that gave amazing grip leaned over took considerably more effort to make the bike change direction – even after we accounted for the tire’s change in ride height.
The decision was made to test the 180/60-17 rear tire we had so much success on with version 1.0. We hadn’t used it this time around for a couple reasons: First, because our Thyssenkrupp rear wheel’s 6-inch width is technically too wide to be optimal for a 180/60 tire. And second, because Thyssenkrupp doesn’t yet make a 5.5-inch wheel we could use the tire on. That’s in the pipeline.
So, with an old 180/60 tire and last year’s (heavier) wheel, we went testing. Right off the bat the bike felt more nimble, changed direction easier, and got better drives out of the corner (or at least felt like it). But the sheer number of traffic at this trackday meant shooting for a fast lap was nearly impossible.
Nearly. On one fortuitous occasion, as I rounded the last corner, I saw (mostly) clear track in front of me. So, I went for it. For me, anyway, riding at a trackday doesn’t have the same intensity as racing, but despite this, I lapped within a second of my best-ever lap with Lightfighter v1.0. On old tires. This was pretty convincing evidence I screwed the pooch with the tire choice for the WERA race. With fresh tires and the subsequent intensity that comes with racing, getting Lightfighter v2.0 into the sub 1-minute, 50-second range seems entirely doable – times that would have easily put me on top of the box for the B Superbike race. For reference, the fastest motorcycle time is a tick over 1-minute, 43 seconds and the fastest 600cc time at Buttonwillow is just a second slower.
Having hit our stride with the bike during our last outing of the year was surely bittersweet. There’s now a clear direction to go with setup and the rest would come down to Brian pushing the software side of things as far as it can go. Alas, as it has for most of us, 2020 had other things in store.
To say we’re eager to start 2021 (once it’s safe and responsible to do so) is an understatement. Lightfighter continually gets better, and as quiet, unassuming evangelists, the best way to bring attention to it is to get results. Still, the downtime is useful to plan for the big picture. Ultimately, to have some version of Lightfighter become scalable, safe, and affordable would be a fantastic outcome. Doing so means major investment as creating a single, fast race bike is one thing, but developing a motorcycle for volume production requires another level of resources altogether.
Scalability is still a long way down the road, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s not to lose focus on the here and now. There are some big plans for Lightfighter v2.0, and 2021 is when we hope even some of them can come to life. Until then, consider this an unfinished story.
Lightfighter has gained so much momentum it now has its own website. I’ll of course post my exploits on MO, but for up-to-date news on Lightfighter, be sure to follow us on Instagram @lightfighterracing.