Slowly but surely, the Finish border town Imatra fills up with bikers on Friday afternoon. The sound of roaring engines fills the street. They come for the Imatranajo, a large-scale racing event that attracts thousands of people. Visitors wear shirts with Imatranajo 1983 or 1971 as if they are military awards. Between the pine trees, they set up their tents while the local tradesmen heat up the oil for all kinds of fried food. In the ‘paddock’, dozens of racing teams have parked their Yamahas, Hondas and Kawasakis.
The Twente students are also working on their electric superbike here. They participate in the ‘3 flashes’ competition, in which they compete against a Finnish team of the LUT University from the nearby town of Lappeenranta. The students are invited by the Finns and sleep on the campus of the technical university. According to UT student Max Biesheuvel, the teams get along well. ‘We are even allowed to use their workshop, but this weekend we will again be competitors for a while.’
The LUT University got the idea of building a fully electric superbike when a delegation from the university visited the UT a few years ago, says one of the lecturers at the Finnish motorcycle. Electric Superbike Twente is an important source of inspiration for the Finnish team. There is even a photo of the Twente motorcycle in the workshop of the Finns. The question is: will the apprentice beat the master? Team member Lassi Onne is confident. ‘Of course, we are going to win. Otherwise, we don’t have to participate, do we?'
(Photo: the superbike of the Finnish team)
During the first free practice, it appears that both teams are evenly matched. The experienced driver Jorn Hamberg is on the Twente motorcycle. He will not only be racing on the electric superbike this weekend but also on his own Yamaha R6. ‘For me, the superbike offers a great opportunity to rack up miles on an electric motorcycle. Is it the future? In the coming years, I do not think electric motors will win over petrol engines. But it can advance fast. Of course, it is a switch. When we went from 2-stroke to 4-stroke racing bikes, some people said: ‘I am not going to watch anymore. But you do not hear about that anymore.’
Conditions are tough for the drivers this weekend: It is un-Finnishly warm with temperatures above thirty degrees. ‘Well, I just have to keep drinking enough water. The heat does not get better during the day, but that is the same for everyone,’ says Hamberg unaffectedly. They also struggle with the heat at Electric Superbike Twente. The battery pack of the superbike quickly reaches a high temperature due to the scorching sun. If the battery gets too hot during racing, it will be disastrous for the performance of the superbike. That is why, from Saturday morning, the team members are working with a solution that is as provisional as effective: they stick garbage bags filled with ice on the motorcycle. ‘It looks really weird,’ mechanical engineering student Stijn van der Veen admits. ‘But oh well, we have to do something.’
(Photo: bags of ice, stuck to the battery package)
While he is telling his story, several motorcycle enthusiasts come to the tent of Twente. Some are curious and enthusiastic, others downright sceptical. ‘No, no, no! This is not the future of motorcycle racing,’ says one man. His son nods in agreement. He is holding a bottle of water in his hand. ‘When the motorcycles come by, the sound should make the water in this bottle swirl. That is not the case with these electric motorcycles.’ Another spectator also says he misses the sound. ‘But with the current fuel prices, we may have to budge.’
The 67-year-old Laurila Esko is enthusiastic. He has been riding motorcycles for fifty years. ‘My first Imatranajo was in 1969. I think fossil energy has no future. I would hate it if we could not ride motorcycles because of that. Electric motorcycles are a great alternative. I have eight motorcycles and would definitely consider buying an electric one.’ The Finn will not miss the sound either. ‘I live in a quiet town about 200 kilometres from Imatra. During a nice evening, youngsters often come through the streets with a lot of noise. That's not social behavior. An electric motorcycle is better for our environment.’
Despite the varying opinions, the Twente tent attracts a lot of attention. ‘People often have the same questions,’ says team member Hanna Heijs, student of biomedical engineering. ‘We used to joke that we could make a bingo card. People want to know how fast the motorcycle can go, what the range is and whether they can drive a lap on the bike themselves, although the latter will not happen. I own a motorcycle myself and the basis of riding a motor is the feeling of freedom. That is not necessarily tied to a petrol engine, and we try to show that with our superbike.’
(Photo: curious Finns at the tent of Electric Superbike Twente)
A Finnish broadcaster’s voice blares across the grounds. Two words are clearly understandable: superbike and 3 flashes. In short, it is time for the race. The tension is now palpable among the team members when they take a seat in the stands. And then the Twente superbike starts. Immediately Hamberg leaves Finnish competitor Pauli Pekkanen behind. The lead is further extended every lap. The hands of the Electric Superbike Twente team members go up in the air when Hamberg crosses the finish line first. A split second later, those same hands move towards the mouth and back of the head in disbelief. After a slide of at least a hundred meters, the motorcycle and driver are stretched out on the Finnish circuit.
The members of the safety team run from the pit lane to the motorcycle and the other students remain behind in the stands in despair. To the great relief of the team members, it soon turns out that Hamberg got away without too many scratches. He stoically walks towards the paddock for his next race. Although the Twente superbike is damaged, it can be safely loaded onto a trailer. ‘We were very shocked,’ says team member Mirjam Davidse afterwards. ‘But Jorn is okay, that is the most important thing for us.’
The crash brings an abrupt end to the race weekend of Electric Superbike Twente. They are disappointed, but also proud. The motorcycle set a new speed record of 274 kilometres per hour, several motorcycle enthusiasts have been made excited for the electric future, and do not forget: they crossed the finish line more than a minute and a half earlier than the Finns. And Jorn Hamberg? He managed to ‘casually’ win his own race on Sunday. Talk about nerves of steel.
(Photo: the superbike is loaded onto a trailer after the crash)