Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monday morning Crew Chief, Thursday Edition. The six-motor rule blows. Or does it?

For a while, it seemed is if MotoGP's "six motor" rule could have a real impact on Jorge Lorenzo's World Championship bid. As the season wore down, Pedrosa's team had lots of (expected) life left in their six motors. But Lorenzo, through no fault of his own, wrecked one motor half-way through the season. That left the very real prospect that #99 could have to use a seventh motor, which would mean that he'd have to start from pit lane.

"I see your white smoke," said Pedrosa, "and I'll raise you 250 rpm."
The consensus seemed to be that, should that happen, it would suck. I.E., that we were (again!) experiencing the law of unintended consequences as it applies to MotoGP rules. Limiting the number of engines sort of made intuitive sense as a cost-limiting measure (good). But few liked the idea that the rule might actually be the 'outside assistance' Honda and Pedrosa needed to pull championship victory from the jaws of defeat second place.

With only two races to go, it now seems less likely that this will be a deciding factor in the championship. It could still be so, but only if Lorenzo blows a motor and is DNF somewhere, which doesn't seem to happen that much any more. Most feel that if Yamaha had to fit a seventh motor and thus forced him to start from pit lane, that he'd still have no trouble putting enough points on the board to win the title, thanks to his very strong early season form.

I frankly like the added strategic battle that the six-engine rule brings to MotoGP. If there can't be action on track, there's at least intrigue in the pits, and the battle's well-joined by the Crew Chiefs.

It's cool that (by measuring the pitch of Pedrosa's exhaust note at peak revs) geekfans have determined that Honda's been raising the rev limit on his bike. I think that right now, if Lorenzo finishes right behind Pedrosa at Philip Island (which is not a given, since Stoner's resurgent, but still) then Lorenzo would only have to finish 8th or better in Valencia to clinch. That would make for a boring last couple of races except that we may be looking at a situation in which Pedrosa's team can tune a bike for guaranteed wins while Lorenzo's team have to tune for the finish.

I think it would have been even more interesting if Lorenzo had run into engine life issues a few races ago. That would open up the situation in which his team's best strategy was to take a seventh motor with, say, four races to go even though they may have made their six 'legal' motors last.

Yes, that would mean an unnecessary pit lane start -- which seems like a ridiculous choice -- but it might be better to do that and run all the motors at full power rather than start at your earned grid position in that one race, but run all remaining races detuned for reliability.

I wonder if the teams have a computer simulation that allows them to calculate and optimize this strategy?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

FDA to Monster Energy: "This stuff is killer, dude!"

Red Bull set a new standard with Felix Baumgartner's 'space jump', which was watched by 27+ million viewers on YouTube alone.

People who work in the ad/marketing/sponsorship business are used to Red Bull's eye-popping stunts (and skillful exploitation of social media.) But the company's latest and greatest venture has caused a lot of discussion about the future of 'content marketing.' 

First, they said 'Advertising is dead.' Now, even conventional notions of sponsorship may be deemphasized by companies like Red Bull, in favor of stunts like the space jump, in which the sponsor doesn't share the impression with any other brands. Let's face it, the quality of the sponsorship impression made by that jump was vastly superior to any impression made by a logo on a motorcycle, swirling amongst dozens of other logos, often of competing brands.

 I read an interesting interview with Red Bull's CEO, in which he was asked, essentially, Is Red Bull a drink company that produces content, or a content company that sells drinks? His answer was, It's both.

On the face of it, I thought that was ridiculous. Even if, by some estimates, it spends an astounding 40% of its revenues on sponsorships and related activities, I was sure it was still a drink company. That huge marketing budget proved (I thought) only that the cost of production on that shit has to be very, very low.

But the more I mulled it over, the more I began to question my first take on it. Suppose you ran a more run of the mill business... Say, you're Joe the Plumber, with a commercial plumbing business. You might have an Accounts Receivable department (if you were a really successful plumber.) All of the revenue would come through that department, but that wouldn't mean that, when people asked what you did for a living, you'd say, I'm a bill collector. You'd say, I'm a plumber.

Maybe Red Bull really is refashioning itself as a content company, and it's just that the revenue flows in through the division of the company that sells drinks.

Right now, if the energy drink business catches a cold, motorcycle racers start to sneeze. That's because energy drink companies are among the few non-endemic sponsors pumping cash into the sport. And while the motorcycle racing world may have to fear a long-term shift of that sponsorship towards content projects like the space jump, there are short-term risks to the energy drink segment, too.

I noticed a story in today's New York Times, which reports that the Food and Drug Administration has recorded five deaths associated with the consumption of Monster Energy drinks. This news comes out thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to get the FDA records, filed by the parent of child that died, who* is suing Monster. The company's stock dropped 14% when that was announced yesterday.

Monster's spokespeople have coyly stated that the company is, “...unaware of any fatality anywhere that has been caused by its drinks.” That's perhaps technically true, although they were aware of the reports of fatalities that got back to the FDA.

The FDA, for its part, notes that while correlation doesn't equal causality, it's also likely that they did not hear of all incidents of death following the consumption of Monster Energy. 

According to the Times, the duty to investigate causality would, it seems, actually fall to Monster. I'm sure they're diligently researching it.

In the meantime, the lawsuit may increase pressure from some** legislators, who have been calling for regulation of the energy drink sector, which aggressively markets drinks loaded with caffeine (and related stimulants) to kids, while blithely including a fine-print disclaimer that the drinks are not intended for children. Of course, we all know that energy drink companies would never encourage kids to do anything dangerous. 

Given the size of the energy drink segment, and its profit margins, I'm sure they'll mount a hell of a lobbying effort regardless of the impact of this lawsuit. Or, Romney may win the election and shut down the FDA. After all, the federal government, in his view, is not as good as the private sector at anything. I'm sure Monster, Red Bull, et al realize that its not in their best interest to profit from products that may be unhealthy, and that they can be trusted to regulate themselves. I mean, the tobacco industry was always very responsible that way...

*I mean, the parent is suing Monster; it's not the child suing from beyond the grave.
**Democratic Party, business-hating, job-killing socialists.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

1 + 2 + 3 - $2,490,000 = ?

High-tech battery maker (and prominent EV motorcycle sport sponsor) A123 Battery Systems of Waltham MA is bankrupt. Over the summer, A123 announced that it would give Wanxiang Group Corp., China’s largest auto-parts maker, a majority stake in exchange for financing. But that deal has fallen through, and now Johnson Controls will pick up most of the pieces for $125 million.

Not surprisingly, the apparent failure of another green energy company has been pounced upon by the Romney campaign, which had earlier accused Barack Obama of "backing losers" when he encouraged government investment in tech like EVs, and solar and wind power generation. 

A123 received a $250 million grant from the Dept. of Energy, and has used about half of it. A123 was given $125 million in refundable tax credits from the state of Michigan that it never collected, although it did collect a $10 million state grant. Before Republicans succumb to too much schadenfreude, however, it should be noted that  A123 received U.S. grants in 2003 and 2007 under Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, before the stimulus grant from the Obama administration. A123 has been supported and endorsed by several Republican legislators over the years.

More than it shows any real lack of oversight, the A123 debacle illustrates an often-overlooked truth: the second mouse gets the cheese. A123 was an early leader in developing EV battery tech. It's undoing came when batteries it supplied to Fisker -- and early player in the EV sports car segment -- had to be recalled. 

It's a bit of a bummer for the small players in the EV-motorcycle racing field, since A123 was an enthusiastic sponsor and technical partner. It remains to be seen whether Johnson Controls -- a $10,000,000,000 company -- will even notice such fledgling efforts, much less support them.

I noticed the news of A123's failure on the same morning that my friend Susanna 'Pinkyracer' Schick posted a six-month old Bloomberg story to the effect that electric cars will save users about $1,200 a year on energy costs.

If you plug that savings into the equation for the electric Ford Focus, it's a little disappointing. The base model Focus EV lists for about $40k -- $32,500 after federal tax credit. That's about double the base-model ICE Focus. It would take ten years or more to recover the additional cost in energy 'savings'. 

I think it's cautiously safe to assume the EV's battery pack will last that long, but a Norwegian university conducted a 'life cycle' study that I noticed on, which suggests that when you take into account the energy used to make and decommission EVs, they'll reduce greenhouse gases by no more than 25%, compared to ICE alternatives.

What does all this mean? It's too early to tell whether electric motors will or even should replace ICE in light vehicles. In the short term, the solution is smaller vehicles that we use less because we have better public transportation alternatives, and increased use of bicycles and walking. I use a motorcycle that gets a real 50 mpg for long/highway trips, and a 70 mpg scooter, bicycle, or walk for in-town trips. If I'm picking up 100 pounds of stuff at Costco, I borrow my wife's nine year-old Focus. There's neither an economic nor environmental case for me to even consider an EV.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Mission, uh, 'accomplished'?

If A&R has its facts right, San Francisco's Mission Motors has just laid off most of its staff. It's been an up-and-down few years for Mission, which burned through its founder and $10,000,000+ while producing a handful of prototype motorcycles. A year or two ago (if my blog is to be believed) the company basically shitcanned its plans to actually produce motorcycles and repositioned itself as a specialty engineering company offering its EV knowledge to the auto industry.

So, how do I interpret this new news?

I'd say the venture capitalists who funded Mission have run out of patience. Either they've just decided to stop throwing good money after bad and written the company off, or they're getting ready to hawk Mission's only assets while there's still time -- "I-P!! Get your Intellectual Property now, while it's still warm. Ten cents on the dollar!..."

The fact that it's going down this way, with ignominious layoffs of most of the staff -- including engineering staff -- is an indication that no existing auto (or bike) maker wanted to acquire Mission's IP, expertise and staff even for a few million bucks. It suggests that most if not all potential buyers for a company like Mission have already internalized their EV teams.

So will Mission just be wound down, or will some company come in and acquire the assets? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I went back and reviewed the notes I made in 2009, when I first wrote about Mission and Brammo, in advance of the first TT race for EVs. I made a road trip up the West Coast, first visiting Brammo and riding an Enertia prototype (the company's first race bike was being assembled while I was there.) Then, I went back down to S.F. to spend the morning at Mission and the afternoon at Infineon, where I was one of the first outsiders to watch the Mission race bike test.

The overall impression that I had was, Mission had a lot more engineers and IQ points in the room, but Brammo had a business plan. (To be sure, Brammo's had to revise its plan plenty, but at least they had one.)

The old expression goes, "What you don't know won't hurt you."

What you don't know that you don't know, however, will kill you.

At Brammo, the guys seemed to have a better sense of what they didn't know. At Mission, they were sure that they knew it all. Brammo's still not delivered its first Empulse, but at least it's still in business, so I feel that my first impression was accurate. And, to help you recall those heady days all of three or four years ago, when it seemed we were only, oh, five years away from a viable EV-moto segment that could seriously threaten the ICE bikes, I dug up a few pics from that first Mission visit.

Hacking the world's first (self-proclaimed) electric superbike. Those were the days.
Forrest North, the company's first CEO, didn't have a corner office, but he had a corner. That's his dog, Tonka. A year or two later, North was in the doghouse with Mission's investors.
Tom Montano, Mission's resident test stud, was an American TT racer before that was cool.
Remember Yves Behar's striking prototype design? After hiring a neophyte designer, Mission threw this out and hired James Parker. That, ironically, meant that the final, gorgeous iterations of the Mission R were designed by a guy who still drew on paper with a pencil. Parker was the right choice, but it was too little, too late. He and I had many long conversations in which he bemoaned the fact that there were too many people at Mission who didn't really know -- or even like -- motorcycles.
A closing thought. Back in 2009 (which is a long time ago, in the tech world) people said, "We're five to ten years away from really threatening the fossil-fuel status quo." And today? We're still five or ten years away. What's God's way of telling you that you have a great pitch, but an oversimplified approach that will fail in the real world? You find yourself presenting at TED.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How bad was America's season on the world stage? So bad, I had to invent a new metric: Depthination

When John Hopkins announced that he would be taking 2013 off, he put that capper on a seriously crappy season, for Americans, in the World Superbike Championship.

The U.S. hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire in MotoGP, either. Which set me to wondering whether this was the worst season for America on the World Championship stage since, well, whenever. Of course, some years only one or two Americans rode but did really well, while in other years, several Americans competed, but none were regularly on the podium.

To compare such varied seasons, I needed a metric that measured domination at the sharp end of the field, and depth on the grid.

I decided to look at overall season rankings in both MotoGP/500GP and WorldSBK, between 2011 and 1976. I then assigned point values to riders' rankings, as if those rankings were finishes in a MotoGP race.

IE, points were awarded for P1 through 15 on the season, with 25 points for first, 20 for second, 16 for third, down to P13=3 pts, P14=2 pts, P15=1 pt. The chart below goes back to 1976 because that was the first year an American, Pat Hennen, placed in the top 15 overall in a premier-class World Championship. I call this metric depthination (trademark applied for.)

So, by this standard, just how dismal has 2012 been? Let's just say we're putting the 'depth' in 'depthination'! With Hopkins, mired in 20th position, the SBK contribution to America's 2012 depthination score was nil, zip, zero, the null set. One chocolate donut.

As for the MotoGP side of the ledger, assuming that Hayden (currently in P9=7 pts) Spies (P10=6 pts)  and Edwards (P17=0 pts) hold their positions in the standings, America's on (maybe I should say 'off') the pace to score a lowly 13 points in 2012.

Made By

Compare that to past results on my patent-pending Depthination Chart, above. This hasn't been the most dismal year since Americans arrived on the world scene, but only 1995 was worse.

That year, Scott Russell and an injury-plagued Kevin Schwantz finished 13th and 15th, respectively in the 500GP class, while Colin Edwards and Mike Hale finished 11th and 15th in WorldSBK, for a total of 10 DP (Depthination Points).

The depths of winter are coming and many a tear, and beer, will be spilled as Backmarker readers try to figure out how America can recapture its World Championship mojo. They'll look back, wistfully, to 1983. That year Spencer, Roberts, Mamola, and Lawson finished 1-2-3-4 in 500GP, for 74 DP.

Even that wasn't America's best year by this measure. That came in 1992 when six of the top ten riders in 500GP were Yanks -- and as if that wasn't enough, Doug Polen won the WorldSBK title, and Edwards and Fred Merkel both finished well inside the top 15 in that series, for a combined 111 points. If you want to consider North America's aggregate DP, that year was even better, as Canada's Miguel Duhamel finished 12th overall in 500GP. The continent, collectively, put 115 points on the board, and the Euros to rout.

The U.S. fell from grace in the mid-90s, and American 500GP riders scored no DP in 1997. Luckily, that was its best-ever year in WorldSBK. John Kocinski won the title, and Russell, Hale, and Edwards all contributed to a 44-point season, saving America from global moto-shame.

I have to say that I started to compile this post as a lark. But now that I've finished crunching the numbers, I think my DP statistic is actually kind of useful.

As of right now, I'm not sure any Americans have WorldSBK rides lined up for the 2013. Unless there's a miracle (or a monsoon) neither Hayden nor Spies can realistically target finishes above mid-pack on the Ducati in MotoGP, and Colin Edwards will have his hands full finishing in the DP points. I think that it's an even-money bet, whether or not the U.S. will score better in 2013 then it did in 2012.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Bikewriter polls have closed

Obama couldn't channel his in rock star in Denver, but something gave Romney wings...
The results of the first totally scientific, statistically relevant, and highly-predictive Bikewriter-MotoGP/Election analogy/poll have closed. The biggest wiener, er, make that 'winner' in all this was Chris N., of Illinois, who was selected at random amongst the voters to win a free copy of Riding Man.

By a slim margin, Bikewriter's reader/voters concluded that, "Romney wants to fire his crew chief, but the truth is, the championship was lost in pre-season testing. HRC and the team bickered publicly, while Obama's crew quietly went about their business."

This conclusion was chosen slightly more often than "They've shown crossed flags and Obama's in the lead, but racing doesn't start when the red lights go off, it starts when the tires go off. It's all still up for grabs."

None of the other options was even close. Note that all votes were cast before last night's Presidential debate. (In which Romney, perhaps inspired by Pedrosa's performance at Aragon, pulled out all the stops.) Next up, the Vice-Presidential debate. It's the Moto2 of debating, which is to say, it'll be a lot more entertaining but no one will really care who wins...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debating two very different views of the future in America. No, not Obama vs. Romney, Kawasaki vs. Harley

With two half-mile races to go, it’s a completely safe bet that the next AMA Pro Racing flat track champ will, again, be a Harley-Davidson rider. Nonetheless, XR750-mounted ‘Slammin’ Sammy Halbert complained a few weeks ago that Bryan Smith’s Kawasaki was too fast on the straights. Over the course of the season Halbert hasn’t been completely alone in complaining that the Kawasakis are slower in mid-corner; that they take different lines; that they may be increasing the risk of riders getting tangled up.

Rumors of the XR750's demise are, at this point, exaggerated. But Sammy Halbert has argued that AMA Pro rules-makers should give the Harley's a 1mm larger restrictor plate on the Miles. That might make it easier for the older bikes to keep up with the Kawasakis, but it will make the miles even harder on the Harley motors, and make the Harleys even more expensive to run. As it is, you could run a Kawasaki all season for the same amount of money you'd spend on bearings, rebuilding an XR750's bottom end. And over the course of the season, you'd have to rebuild the Harley's bottom end, while the Kawasaki would run and run.
In Halbert’s defense, I’ve rarely met a motorcycle racer who didn’t feel that his rivals had him outgunned. Smith won on Bill Werner’s Kawasaki a couple of years ago, but Werner’s bike looked cobbled-together. The Ricky Howerton-built Kawi Bryan’s using this year on the Mile tracks is built to IndyCar specs, fit, and finish. It looks like a threat before they even take it off the trackstand.

And anyway, I haven’t personally read or heard Halbert say anything beyond ordinary, Type A-personality racer bitching. Still, Paul Carruthers wrote a column in Cycle News declaiming Halbert’s gripes. Halbert submitted a rebuttal, and the politicking was on.

By the time I reached Sammy (I offered him a chance to expand on his thoughts about the effect of the arrival of a new contender, the Kawasaki, capable of upsetting Harley’s long status quo) he told me, “I don’t really want to talk about that any more.” I think he was surprised by the vitriolic response his comments earned, and realized that his defense was being interpreted a la Shakespeare’s, “he doth protest too much.”

The Howerton-built Kawasaki is, flat out, the sexiest bike I've seen in years. But is it too early to complain that it's too fast? (Photo: Dave Hoenig, AMA Pro Racing.)
I did have a chat with Bryan Smith about the whole Kawasakis-are-too-fast/too-slow/too-dangerous debate. He can see both sides of it. After spending his whole career on Harleys, he was the first winner on a Kawasaki back in 2010, rode Harleys again last season, and has ridden Howerton’s Kawasaki on the miles this year, while campaigning his own XR on the half-miles. (Although, news flash: Smith will race the Kawi at Pomona, which is another half-mile.)

We spoke right after the Santa Rosa Mile, which was fresh in his mind...

"I led about 18 or 20 laps, and had a good lead there -- five or six seconds, which is huge for flat track. It was the first time anyone’s raced there in 42 years or something. It was a real old-school track, the kind that was the heart and soul of flat tracking. 

"There’s different types of horse tracks. This wasn’t a thoroughbred track; there was wood chips or something mixed in with the dirt, which made it interesting. It was pretty gnarly; they couldn’t keep enough water in it. There were only a couple of us riding the cushion -- it was only about five feet of dirt, right up against the haybales. 

"I had a race with Halbert the first few laps, but then I checked out. I knew the top would go away, and I was hoping that when it did, I’d have enough of a lead that I could still hold on to win it.

"As fast as the top was going away, everyone was riding down low and getting the groove going. At the end, I tried to get down on the groove too, but I wasn’t that good on it, because I’d been up in the cushion all day. By the time I gathered up my marbles, it was too late. It’s a bummer leading a national that long, and not winning, but I was giving it everything around the top. I thought about it afterwards, and I was really taking a lot of risk.

"Looks-wise, Ricky Howerton’s bike looks like a MotoGP bike, and Werner’s looked like Werner’s. [The Howerton bike] was designed in this century. It’s got a lot of tech in it, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. The biggest thing is, it’s consistent lap after lap. Werner’s bike was different every time I rode it; I rode it blind every time, just on instinct, and it bit me a couple of times.

"The lines I use on the Kawasaki aren’t that different. The groove is the groove. The Kawasaki has a little more power, so I could make the track a little bigger, but it’s not as big a difference as you might think. There are videos on YouTube where people are saying, Smith’s Kawasaki blows past three Harleys... But that video is misleading. Those guys were three-wide in front of me; it was like drafting a U-Haul truck. Our bikes have no streamlining, so they’re extremely sensitive to the draft; if I was on a Harley I’d’ve gone past them just as fast.

"There are six or seven other Kawasakis out there, but I don’t think any of them have led a National this year. If they were that fast, other guys would be up front. I bleed orange and black, but the truth is the truth, the Harleys are just too expensive to run."

Smith told me, "I think it's a little ironic that Sammy -- he's been disciplined for dangerous riding -- is complaining about this. Anyone who knows me knows I don't ride that way."

But in some ways I sympathize with Halbert. I've heard far worse racer whinges. Remember Nigel Mansell, in F1? His constant litany of complaints would make a guy like Halbert seem positively stoic. And some of the shit I read on Facebook in the fallout of Halbert's complaint/Carruthers' editorial (which was not mean)/Halbert's rebuttal (which was not irrational) was out of line. 

I read some bus driver refer to Sammy as "lil' man". I thought to myself, "Dude, whoever you are... you're a bus driver. Halbert may be short, but no one who's seen him ride doubts his manhood." 

Bryan Smith is probably my favorite active racer. I think he represents the best of contemporary flat track, and I'd love to see him win the title on a gorgeous new bike like Howerton's Kawi. But that ain't happenin' this year. On the other hand, Halbert could win the championship, and it might not be bad for the sport if Slammin' Sammy was to carry the #1 plate in 2013. America loves to hate a badass, aggressive champ with a chip on his shoulder. (Think: a 3/4 scale Dale Earnhart.) 

If Sammy can pull off another win or two and win the title, he'd set up a great rivalry for 2013 -- the year of the Kawasaki.