Bringing four decades of racing heritage with it, Italian 3D-printed parts manufacturer CRP enters the world of electric street motorcycles with its high-performance superbike, the Energica Ego.
Throughout Italy, racing pervades the culture. Within a 30-mile radius in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, you’ll find the headquarters of Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Ducati, representing a history of luxury and racing vehicles that stretches back a century.
The city of Modena has ancient origins, but in the 20th century came to be known as “the capital of engines.” Along with Maserati and others, Modena hosts the headquarters of CRP (Cevolini Rapid Prototyping), a lesser-known company but one with more than 40 years of tradition supplying parts for – at one time or another – all the major Formula 1 race teams.
Yet it’s 125 miles south of Modena, in the renowned Tuscan countryside, where CRP chose to officially launch its debut into OEM territory. The product: the first Italian electric superbike, dubbed Energica (ay-NAIR-zhee-khah). The place: Volterra, where in 1853 Eugenio Barsante invented and patented the first version of the internal combustion engine along with Felice Matteucci of Florence. There, in the classically picturesque Priori Square in the heart of old Volterra, CRP held a charity gala and first press test of a prototype Energica Ego.
A Tradition of Excellence
Outside the ancient walls of the fortress of Volterra, parts of which date back to the 6th century BCE, the provincial hotel where we’re staying has unsurprisingly excellent food and walls speckled with black-and-white vintage racing photos. Outside, a small Fiat-dense parking lot overlooks one of the most famous wine regions in the world. In the distance, the Chianti Hills bear the trademark white turbines of a modern wind farm.
Electric vehicles. Wind power. Sure, Italy is ramping up its renewable energy initiative, as is every other European Union country, to meet the EU’s 2020 targets. According to Renewable Energy World, renewables generated 28 percent of Italy’s gross electricity produced in 2011, and around 27 percent for 2012, thanks in part to big growth in solar. And yes, CRP does tout its commitment to sustainable mobility and works with local charging infrastructure companies.
However, there’s more to CRP’s going electric than clean air and good vibes. To assert itself as a formidable Italian OEM before it could match resources with the established names, it had to establish a niche. “Electric is a challenge,” said Andrea Vezzani, CFO of the CRP Group. “We cannot fight against Ducati here, so we need to invent something else.”
This electric challenge was born out of the trial virtually everyone faced at the end of 2008, when world financial markets imploded. While CRP operates off its rich tradition of supplying parts for racing teams competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Formula 1, etc., the company’s workload dwindled down to about three months’ worth of orders, and the brass worried about the future. Diversification seemed like the answer.
“We want to have our own products to sell,” Vezzani said. “We live in the Motor Valley with all these famous brands. Of course everyone here wants to make something nice, so we chose the superbike. We think our vision is the only product that an Italian company could present to the market right now. We could not make a large production run. The volume quantities will be made from emerging markets, not from Italy. What’s Italian is a beautiful bike – a perfect bike from a precision point of view.”
A year after the financial meltdown, an opportunity popped up that would support CRP’s superbike aspirations. At the end of 2009, Azhar Hussain, the organizer of TTXGP, The eGrand Prix, approached CRP about participating in the first zero-emissions motorcycle championship. “He had no manufacturers, so he asked us to become a producer,” Vezzani said.
By 2010, the company entered several races with its eCRP 1.2, the second version of its electric racing motorcycle. It took several first and second-place finishes, including the title of TTXGP 2010 European Champion. CRP came back to enter the eCRP 1.4 into several races in 2011, but has since put the racing agenda on hiatus.
“Actually, after a few months, the real idea was not to sell racing bikes, because the market is too little,” Vezzani said. “All the experience we have in racing is now moved to the road bikes, and we put a lot of passion into our work.”
“If you’re going to race on Sunday, you need to have something to sell on Monday,” said Chris Nugent, the media specialist and motorcycle aficionado-turned-ebike convert whom CRP has brought on to evangelize Energica in America, where the company expects to sell the most bikes. “That’s the whole purpose of racing, really. It’s competitive, but it’s got to have an economic logic to it.”
Nugent said that CRP will eventually get back into the racing game, but not until sometime after 2015, when the finished Energica Ego will become commercially available.
“We were happy to participate in 2010/2011 because at that time, we needed to see the results,” Vezzani said. “Races are the best place to practice and to stress the bikes and all the components.”
Although CRP is happy to supply companies like Ducati rather than to compete with them, Nugent sees the same kind of Italian tradition in the two businesses. “When you see this company, you’re going to think Ducati in the 1950s,” Nugent said. Ducati was a father-and-sons business founded in 1926, and by 1953 it split into two divisions to support diverging product lines.
Indeed, the CRP Group has followed a similar trajectory. Founded under a different name in 1970 by Roberto Cevolini, the company established a reputation for the precision machining and casting of parts. By 1996 Roberto’s son, materials engineer Franco Cevolini, started CRP Technology and began developing proprietary Windform materials for use in the 3D printing of custom, small-run parts for CRP’s customers. Today, Franco Cevolini is CEO of the CRP Group, a growing enterprise that includes CRP USA, a North Carolinian outpost creating 3D printed and machined parts for the aerospace, stock car, defense, and other markets.
Whether it’s from America or Italy, a significant part of CRP’s business is creating custom parts from CAD files on 3D printers from 3D Systems in Austin, Texas. The machines are specially modified to work with CRP’s several varieties of Windform composite powders, which offer different characteristics – like tensile strength and flexibility – for the final product. CRP can often accept a new design and ship the part to a customer within 24 hours.
“In the past this was rapid prototyping,” said Federico Barozzi, the rapid prototyping manager at CRP’s Modena factory. “In the last few years, you’re talking about rapid manufacturing – similar to the very final part. For some designers, to have the part the day after is a dream.”
With Energica, which will be spun off into a separate company under the CRP Group in 2014, the 3D printing and electric vehicle product lines merge back together. The Energica Ego uses CRP 3D printed parts for its body, and around 90 percent of its parts are made in Italy (the battery is a major exception).
Alessandro Brannetti, Grand Prix racer (left), and Giampiero Testoni, Energica CTO (right)
At first glance, Alessandro Brannetti looks like your average, leather-jacket wearing, cool Italian guy: medium height, trim build, occasional smoker. What I didn’t know when I saw him hanging around the Energica press event was that Brannetti, the guy that drove the eCRP 1.2 to win the 2010 TTXGP EU, was a former Grand Prix racer and, at 33, had been racing bikes for 25 years. This would also be the guy to give me a taste of the Energica Ego’s power.
The Ego prototype weighs a hefty 569 pounds, significantly more than the 360-420 pound range that ICE “superbikes” tend to inhabit. Much of that extra poundage comes from the 11.7 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the supplier of which hadn’t been announced at press time. However, despite the weight, the Ego’s oil-cooled, permanent magnet AC motor has to be electronically limited to reign in its ample power. Its 165 lb-ft of torque is dialed back to 144 (195 N-m), and the top speed is limited to 240 kph (149 mph). With all that available oomph, the Ego’s range varies by average speed travelled. You’ll get a maximum range of about 120 miles at 35 mph, 93 miles at 50 mph, and about 31 miles in racing conditions near the top speed.
For someone who had only ridden once on the back of a modest street motorcycle in US city traffic, the Ego’s numbers on open Tuscan roads intimidated me, to say the least. When the writer for Cycle World came out for his test ride in full racing regalia, looking like some kind of futuristic road vigilante from a John Carpenter movie, I decided it was best not to think too much about what I was getting into.
When my time came, the CRP engineers briefed me on what to do. Stay low and hang on to the Ego’s “tank” in front of Brannetti, only grabbing the driver if I have to. Try to stay perpendicular with the bike; don’t lean on the turns. Two other riders from CRP driving ICE motorcycles would accompany us on the road at the front and the rear. We took off on the 18-mile road-test loop, and right away my grip on the motorcycle faltered against the massive and immediate pick-up of the Ego. After a few brisk turns, my feet felt slippery against the footrests as well. However, soon enough I was enjoying the exhilarating ride, much more than the iconic Tuscan scenery I barely had a moment of free attention to appreciate. For the most part, Brannetti took pity on me. However, on some of the rare stretches of open, straight roads, he opened up the Ego to show off its smooth and powerful acceleration, easily catching the ICE bike before falling back into line.
When it was over, I felt like I had to peel my fingers off of the Ego and bend them back into their original shape. For a couple of days afterward, just thinking about the thrill ride would induce a tingle in my hands. They told me our top kph speed was in the 140s, or about 90 mph – not even close to the Ego’s best.
More than a year before the production Energica Ego models are due in 2015, CRP has been in talks with four US dealers, with more to come. Nugent is working with prospective dealers, and he anticipates the $25,000-26,000 price to be more than some electric motorcycles with less power, like the Brammo Empulse R ($18,995) and Zero S ($15,995) but less than more comparable electric models like the Mission R ($32,499) and Lightning ($38,000).
“As the CFO, I would like to increase the price, but I cannot,” Vezzani said with a laugh. “I know my costs, I’m just understanding what is the right price for the market.”
“I think the Energica will stand on its own,” Nugent added. “It’ll have the quality and passion of Italian design, and Energica buyers will be less concerned with range. Their primary concerns are going to be performance and looks.”
The Energica Ego will have anti-lock brakes (ABS) – which Consumer Reports says have the potential to reduce motorcycle crash fatalities – in 2015, a year before the EU makes them mandatory.
It will also have a bit of momentum from the hardcore motorcycle press, which seems to base its evaluation of e-motorcycles fairly on performance and price above anything else. Vezzani told us CRP hopes to sell 150-200 Egos in the first year, and then ramp up to 500 a year, 1,200 a year, and up to 5,000 a year after 5-6 years. The company seems optimistic about hitting those goals, as the Energica website is already teasing its second model, the Eva.
Somewhat counter to their acceptance of electric cars, the racing and high-performance communities seem to be on board with electric motorcycles, although with the usual caveats about battery life. However, if electrics become the top racing motorcycles, bar none, that may also play some part in evaporating resistance to EVs in general. Art Haynie, commercial filmmaker and former Director of Marketing for Lightning Motorcycles, was on hand in Volterra, and sees the rise of e-bikes as just a matter of time. “Once they get the energy density up and the traction control,” he said, “that’ll be the end of gas bikes in racing.”
Energica Ego first drive reports from the two-wheeling experts
“This brief ride showcased the Ego’s greatest attribute: smooth, progressive throttle response. Torque built quickly, non-threateningly, with no hiccups or the slightest hint of wheel spin. As you would expect from an electric motor, vibration was non-existent. The simulated compression braking was eerily realistic, kicking in as I closed the ‘throttle’ the last few degrees. In spite of its prototype status, the bike felt solid, and handling belied the claimed weight of 258 kg. Steering was light and neutral, the brakes were strong and suspension movement was well controlled. Feet-up U-turns made during the photo shoot were a snap.”
Matthew Miles, Cycle World
“If you needed any more evidence that electric power is a game changer for performance motorcycles, the fact that Energica is delivering another unprecedentedly fast motorcycle using the technology should provide it. Range and recharge times are less completely resolved here than they are on the faster Mission, but the Energica is easier to ride and more road-friendly regardless, while getting close in performance. 9/10”
Wes Siler, RideApart.com
“‘Throttle’ response from some e-bikes can feel disconnected and unnatural, but the Energica’s is exceedingly refined for a prototype. In fact, I’d say it’s production-ready now. As is, reactions at slow speeds are perfectly intuitive, delivering exactly what a wrist is asking for…Although an exhaust note is naturally not part of the experience, the Energica definitely is not silent. Power is routed through straight-cut gears that pleasingly sing at various pitches depending on road speeds – at times sounding a bit like a Star Wars tie fighter, emitting a powerful shriek. 86/100”
Kevin Dukes, Motorcycle.com
This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 11 – DEC 2013