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John McGuinness’ Electric Dreams | BIKE TESTS

We chat to TT legend John McGuinness and ride his Zero Mugen Shinden Yons around Honda’s Motegi race circuit to experience the E-superbike that’s winning Isle of Man races.

John McGuinness: First time riding the bike was here at Motegi, and it was a frosty morning with ice on the track. I was well nervous, with loads of people everywhere waiting to see the bike run. I didn’t really know what to expect, but you just get on with it, don’t you? Apart from my teammate Bruce [Anstey], I’ve never seen anyone else ride the bike until you and some others did today. But it’s backed up what I’ve always said – anyone can just jump on and ride an electric bike because it’s such a simple, easy thing. Twist and go – it’s just a big racing scooter, really, with a linear power delivery from a pretty small motor that I wish I could understand better. Me being a bricklayer, I can’t really figure out how it works. It’s like magic to me, just a miracle of development that keeps getting better and faster.

When I first started riding the Mugen at the TT I was obviously swapping back and forth between it and my normal bikes, but it wasn’t difficult to do that because in the early days it didn’t have the speed. About 125mph (200km/h)was tops, but compared to 200mph (322km/h) on a superbike with 200-plus horsepower, it was pretty docile. You jump on those things and they want to hurt you – they’re spinning the wheel and wheelying everywhere, unstable as hell. But on this Mugen I just have an ear-to-ear smile all the way – I love riding it. It’s been a joy to do so from the very beginning, and I think it gets the best out of you as a rider, because it gives you time to get on the perfect line, and lets you make it really flow. When you’re on the superbike each corner is on top of you sometimes before you’re expecting it, but with this bike you have the chance to put it where you want in the road. Each time I do a lap on it I always wish I could just flick a switch and go for another one.

“It’s improved so much year to year in the four years I’ve been riding it. The first year I could open my sandwich box and have a buttie going down the Sulby Straight, because it wasn’t very fast. But now I’m working hard the entire lap, thinking way ahead of myself because the window’s just narrowed as it’s got faster, and now you’ve got to be inch perfect the entire lap. Look, we’ve gone from 102mph to 119mph in four years – that’s a huge step forward, and it shows how hard everyone at Mugen is working to push on with development.

McGuinness will be itching to break the 120mph barrier in the 2016 TT

We don’t get many laps of practice, just three maximum, and you’re straight into the race. So you think to yourself, a click here, a click there, is it going to make any difference, or is it better keeping the bike as it is so you’re familiar with it? It is frustrating, and I would love to ride it more to find its limits. You can feel the limits of a 600, but on the Mugen you don’t ever feel like you’re really out of it – sounds weird, but I’d really like to take it to a short circuit and find the limits, because I reckon they’re pretty high.

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I don’t know how they’ve got the connection between the throttle and the rear wheel so perfect, maybe it’s because it doesn’t go through a clutch or a gearbox, I don’t know. There’s a little bit of engine braking when you back off the throttle which is the regen that just sort of drags you into the bend as soon as you pick the throttle up anywhere.

We were targeting a 120 mph lap this year, which we would have got if I hadn’t messed up at the start. The Mugen doesn’t really like being loaded up, so if you go through some really high speed sections the air flowing through the ducts in the bodywork keep it quite cool. But when you slow down, like going through Parliament Square and then Ramsey Hairpin, Waterworks and Gooseneck, it gets quite hot which takes power away from you, which is pretty frustrating.

So we were told to put it into Map 2, the slower Rain map, to give the motor a little less work climbing from Parliament Square to the Gooseneck.

Anyway, I was buggering around with it at the start to make sure it worked, and I accidentally chose Map 2 off the line. So here I am rushing down Bray Hill and thinking, this doesn’t feel right, there’s something wrong. Quarter Bridge, still the same, on towards Union Mills and then I realised what I’d done. You fool! I clicked it into Map 1 and off I went to the chequered flag. Except we were knocking on the door of a 120mph lap and I missed it by five seconds, all because of that. Very frustrating, and I was sorry I let Mugen down.

It does great wheelies – not like the Superbike that wheelstands everywhere, but you get his gorgeous long progressive wheelie that feels so sweet and gives you a real buzz. But you have to be careful over Ballaugh Bridge or Ballacrye because of all the weight in the frame. I don’t know if it’s doing it damage jumping off the ground and landing again quite hard, but I back off slightly on Ballacrye just to be sure. I snapped a chain at Parliament Square in the 2009 Senior TT because I used a powershifter from first to second going through neutral, and after that I’ve always tried to be that bit friendlier with any bike I’m racing. In TT Zero you’ve only got one lap, so just one chance at winning, and if anything preventable happened to stop that I’d be kicking myself for ever.

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We don’t have to worry about battery charge during the race, you just go and ride it as hard as you can. Mugen’s battery technology is obviously pretty advanced, so that’s not an issue. What is there about the bike I’d change? I like its big bike feeling. Some say it’s too big and too tall, but I actually like it. I always have my bikes big at the TT, because you’re on them a long time so you’ve got to be comfortable – I can’t be cramped when I’m sat there. I suppose everybody wants more power, but I wouldn’t change much else.

Electric bikes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I know some people turn their backs on them because they don’t make much of a noise. They may be silent, but they’re also pretty violent. I think the more their technology is progressing, the more of us are thinking about them. It’s something for sure that the government ought to get behind – encouraging people to try riding electric two-wheelers, with all the environmental benefits that may bring. One way to expose people to them would be to have electric two-seaters like MotoGP does. Two laps on one of those would get people convinced!

This excerpt appears in AMCN Vol 65 No 11