Big issues to face after devastating fire
In perhaps the most bizarre incident in motorcycling racing, an entire grid has been destroyed in a pit paddock inferno. All 18 machines developed for this year’s inaugural MotoE World Cup were lost in overnight storage at Jerez, Spain, on 14 March.
Organisers claim the championship, which promotes electric motorcycles as a new form of racing, will continue but some big questions are being asked.
1 Did the motorcycles start the fire?
Organisers say the fire broke out in the main charging unit and spread to the motorcycles, which it says weren’t connected to this unit at the time.
2 Why did the building burn so intensely that it destroyed the entire building?
The lithium batteries used to power electric motorcycles, cars and even the large domestic storage units now being installed in houses do present a potential fire hazard if grossly overheated. A process called ‘thermal runaway’ is a spontaneous chain reaction that results in the entire battery system self-destructing at incredibly high temperatures.
3 How do firefighters deal with this situation?
Water is useless and actually encourages thermal runaway, so firefighters are forced to let the toxic fire burn out by itself. Huge amounts of water are applied later, sometimes for days, to prevent reigniting.
4 Has something like this happened before in motorcycle racing?
Yes, but on a minor scale. Soon after lightweight batteries started to be used in MotoGP, the Tech3 team suffered a potentially serious fire at the Texas Circuit Of The Americas round when an electric starter overheated while being charged overnight. It was put out by water containing a firefighting retardant.
5 How can we be confident that electric bikes are safe for everyday use?
Remember the hoverboard controversy a couple of years back? Even now there are occasional incidents of mobile phones catching fire, or e-cigarettes exploding. The new battery technology is being developed with ever-improving fail-safe procedures to prevent overheating when charging. This is the main area of fire risk.
6 But surely there is a risk of fire if a motorcycle crashes?
There should be no greater risk than that of a petrol tank bursting into flames. For example, MotoE organisers have already tested the impact resistance of their battery boxes and found they exceed that of racing vehicles’ fuel tanks. A lot of the concerns over battery fires come down to a lack of understanding from users. We all know that petrol is dangerous, so we’re careful with it and don’t throw matches into our fuel tanks. It can be hard to line up the learnt idea that batteries are ‘safe’ with the fact that if a battery can store enough energy to move a 200kg bike and its rider at high speed for 150km then it’s going to pretty spectacular if all that energy emerges at once in the form of fire.
7 What safety procedures does MotoE have in place for an accident?
The FIM, Dorna and Energica, the manufacturer of the 2019 MotoE racers, have issued a statement saying the bikes power off when reaching horizontal lean angles, they have trained race marshals on how to deal with a possible fire and are designing a specific circuit response vehicle to be in place for the first round.
By HAMISH COOPER & BEN PURVIS