The electric Lightning LS-218 remains to this day the fastest street legal production motorcycle on the planet. But not for long. Tired of hearing how the track-only Kawasaki H2R managed to beat it by 2 mph at Bonneville, Lightning has made another bike that's much, much faster. We spoke to Lightning CEO Richard Hatfield about the terrifying prospect of a bike faster than his last one.
Who makes the fastest production bike? That's a question that's sold a lot of motorcycles over the decades, although since bikes started hitting north of 180 mph (~300 km/h) out of the crate in the late 1990s, it's fair to say it's long lost its relevance to real-world riding. But that doesn't mean people don't care. Not by a long way.
The Kawasaki H2R is, more or less, a production bike. But it's not road-legal. And while we've seen video of it allegedly breaking 248.5 mph (400 km/h) on tarmac, that was an advertisement shot by Kawasaki and thus far from a controlled test. On the salt at Bonneville, where everyone's timed on the same course with the same equipment, and where the LS-218 got its name by recording a 218 mph pass, the best the 310-horsepower H2R has managed thus far is 220 mph (354 km/h), at last year's Speed Week.
Even if the H2R can't be registered for road use, it's still the bike that people hold up as the fastest thing in the combustion world. And, much like the Top EV Racing dragster we covered last week, the Lightning bike was designed to show the world that the combustion engine's dominance is well and truly over.
So Lightning founder/CEO Richard Hatfield has decided to build his own "R" version. The LS-218 I had the terrifying pleasure of testing in California had a mere 200 horsepower –that's on an electric bike, mind you, which feels vastly stronger than on a gas guzzler due to the instant, Earth-shaking torque electric motors can put out. The new R bike currently makes around 250, but Hatfield believes it'll be closer to 300 in a week or so, when Lightning takes it to Bonneville to find out how fast it goes, and thus give it a name.
Currently referred to as the LS-2??R, this animal of a thing just hit 212 miles per hour on a mile-long course at El Mirage – on dirt. So with several more miles of flat salt to run on, team Lightning has an excellent chance to set a new production bike record in the next couple of weeks that'll erase all doubt about who is whose daddy ... if everything goes to plan. Which isn't always the case at Speed Week.
We spoke to Hatfield about the new bike, the El Mirage run, the LS-218's true range when ridden hard and the upcoming land speed run at Bonneville – as well as a few extra tricks he's got up his sleeve. If you enjoyed watching me soil myself on the LS-218 (video embedded below), then you may soon have a chance to watch me re-soil myself on a vastly quicker one. Woohoo!
A transcript of our conversation follows:
Loz: So how's things going with your new R model bike?
Richard Hatfield: Yeah, the LS-2??R … We don't know how fast it can go yet, so we've left the question marks in until we see how it goes at Bonneville. We just did our first run at El Mirage with it. It's everything we hoped it would be.
Loz: I seem to remember you having a figure of 380 horsepower as a target.
We're not there yet. I don't think we're going to be over 300 horse at the rear wheel. But already, we're looking at the data from El Mirage and it's pulling half a G of acceleration from 100 mph to 120, and barely slowing down from 200 to 210. It's a pretty ferocious thing.
Loz: What's the deal with El Mirage? I haven't heard of it.
El Mirage is a dry lake bed outside of Los Angeles, outside of Mojave. So it's basically a very flat dirt section. And yeah, it's dirt, so we're still getting some wheelspin. You're looking at the data, at 190 miles an hour, there's some wheelspin. It's flat, similar to a salt lake, but it's dirt instead of salt. It's a standing start, and you run to 1 mile, and that's it.
So it's very different from Bonneville Speed Week.
Very different, yeah.
Loz: Acceleration is of the essence.
Yeah. So last time, when we ran the bike that you rode, it went 189 at the end of the mile. And this one went 212. And that was the first run, we didn't really get a chance to dial it in at all. We're very encouraged.
Loz: So at the end of just one mile, you're nearly up to the outright top speed of the LS-218.
Yeah, we're getting very close.
Loz: Dear god. What sort of horsepower is it running at the moment?
We're still dialing the power up. When we were there, we were just under 250 hp at the rear wheel. I'm pretty sure there's still another 20 or 30 horsepower in it.
Loz: What sort of things are you changing to bring the power up?
The big thing is current, but you also change the timing of the magnetic flux. A lot of small parameters, trying to get everything as tuned up and happy as we can. But the big one is current.
Loz: You mean just purely trying to suck more power out of the battery?
Yeah. The batteries are not even close to their limit, but being able to take that DC power and convert it to AC power and control it, and not let all the smoke out of the electronics if you get something wrong. We have to kind of inch up on it a bit at a time. It's a lot of power, so when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way, and pretty fast.
Loz: So it's an upgraded battery pack, an upgraded … motor?
The motor hasn't changed a lot. The electronics have changed a lot. The battery's changed. So yeah, it's mainly the battery and the electronics that control the battery power and feed it to the motor. The motor, we don't have to change a lot.
Loz: Even as you head up over 300 horsepower?
Yeah. We can get 300 horse out of the motor. It's just packaging it all on a bike, and making it controllable and repeatable. I guess kind of the gasoline analogy is boost. We just keep adding boost to it and then tuning the timing and the mixture and all that, making sure it stays within safe parameters.
Loz: So what do the dyno curves look like on this bike?
Ha. The horsepower is pretty much a straight line from 0 up to 9500. At 9500, it just decreases the angle slightly and hits the redline and falls off. That's a big part of it. We were just looking at the data tonight. I think 110 to 120 mph was like 1.3 seconds. And 200 mph to 212 was just under 3 seconds.
Loz: So it's pulling like a monster, even at those speeds.
Yeah. Even at over 200 miles an hour, it's accelerating at pretty close to the same rate it does at 100. We couldn't get the throttle above 50 percent until we were at 94 mph. Even at full throttle above 94, it lit the back tire up a couple of times.
Loz: You've got a brave man on that bike. Who's riding it for you?
Jim Hoogerhyde, the guy that's been doing all the stuff at Bonneville for us. The amazing thing is, you can datalog his throttle, and he didn't even let off a full percent. He just breathed on it less than a single percent to get it to hook back up, and then he was right back into it again. And it lit up again, and he breathed on it that 1 percent and just pinned it again. (Laughs) My mind just wouldn't think that way, you know?
Loz: God bless people like him.
He has a different way of looking at things than I do.
Loz: And you're gonna start putting this crazy powertrain into customer bikes?
Yeah. We're gonna do the same thing all the major manufacturers do, which is you make it available with all the best parts and sell it for twice as much.
Loz: So you're talking about a 70-something grand bike now for the R version?
I think so, yeah. For a couple of reasons. One is, it needs to be a lot more profitable, because it's going to be a lot more … Well, not everyone should have a bike like that.
Loz: I'd be struggling to name 5 people that should! Is it fair to say this is a bit of a reaction to the Kawasaki thing?
Yeah. When they came out with the H2R, there were a lot of people who compared our bike to that one, including you. We wanted to make a response to it.
Loz: And at the end of the day, that's not a road registerable bike.
Yes. But at some point we're going to do a comparison. We'll get a guy to bring an H2 and an H2R out, and we'll bring a LS218 and this new R bike, and we'll see what happens!
Loz: What top speed is the bike geared for?
When we did that El Mirage run, we were geared for somewhere around 230 at 10,000 rpm. The GPS data showed 212.8 mph at 8800 RPM.
Loz: So there was still another thousand RPM before it'll even start tailing off.
Loz: So you're expecting something in the 230s range at Bonneville?
You know, I hate to make predictions, because the universe tends to punish me when I make predictions. Let's say this: if we manage to go faster than we did before, I'll consider it a success. If we get into the 220s, I'll consider it a big success, and anything over that will be whipped cream and ice cream on top of it.
Loz: What's the fairing you're running?
It's the same Bonneville fairing we ran before, so it's an aerodynamic fairing that lets the rider get out of the wind, and makes the bike slippery. It's the same kind of fairing that most of the bikes that go out to Bonneville and try to set sit-up records run.
Loz: Right. So you can get a production bike speed record with a modified fairing.
Loz: What else can you change, and still have a production record?
The SCTA, the Southern California Timing Association, they basically have one class right now for anything steam powered, gas turbine powered, or electric powered. So basically, anything in that class is legal.
Loz: Do people bring those Y2K turbine superbikes down?
Yeah, they could.
Loz: They're making, what, 400-odd horsepower now.
That's what they say, yeah!
Loz: I think they used to say 400 km/h or you get your money back … I don't know if that's ever been tested.
It's interesting. We know a bunch of people that run big, turbocharged Hayabusas and Hondas and all that. And they're finding on those boosted bikes that they're actually going faster when they turn it down a bit. You can only put so much power through the tire. If the boost comes on too quickly, you just lose traction.
Loz: And do you feel that's less of a problem for an electric?
Yeah. And so do all the old land speed guys. Because it's just much more linear, and you don't have the power pulse. If you've driven on snow, you'll know that once the tire starts spinning, you just don't go anywhere. But if you just gently feed the throttle and keep it from spinning, you go. Each time you have a power pulse, that's breaking traction, and you have to let things settle to get traction again.
Loz: So the plan is to head back to Bonneville on August 12, and take a run at speed week to work out what name you can give this LS-2??R bike?
Yeah, to figure out what those question marks should be.
Loz: What's next after that?
Get some bikes ready to deliver to customers. We're in the process of setting a factory up in Asia, so we can build bikes a lot faster.
Loz: Will that bring the price down as well?
It should, yes.
Loz: How are things going in terms of batteries and charging? Are you seeing the drop in cost that you were hoping for?
We are, yeah. Since we started this 10 years ago, I think battery prices are about 20-25 percent of what they were ten years ago. Charging… I mean, especially here on the West Coast, you can ride anywhere and charge, with a decent battery.
Loz: We get some questions about what sort of range your bikes do under full load.
Well, we built a bike with a 23 kWh pack, and took it to Laguna Seca and let a former MotoGP rider, Gregorio Lavilla, do laps on it. He was able to do just under 50 miles at full race speed. Which was unheard of even a couple of years ago. I think he was very surprised.
We also had Loris Capirossi ride it at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Again, he's just a different kind of rider. We talked to him about how the power comes on, and the torque, and he kind of nodded his head and agreed … Then he went about 50 feet down the paddock and just banged the throttle open, stood the bike straight up and accelerated in a wheelstand up to turn one at the top of the hill, then dropped his knee and started doing laps ...
That's an interesting way to get to know a bike. The film crews were there, the cameras were rolling, the top brass of the FIM and Dorna were there. It wouldn't have been a great time to have a mistake, but he wasn't concerned about it!
Loz: More brown underpants in the pits than on the bike eh? And what was his reaction when he got off?
He said it was really fast, faster than the Moto2 bikes. He said he was on the back straight, and he looked down, and saw 170, and was surprised he was going that fast. He said he really enjoyed it.
Loz: When do you plan to start delivering the LS2??R bike?
We're planning on delivering one to a customer a bit later this year.
Loz: Cool, and when are you going to have one I can shit myself on again?
Let me know when you're around, and we'll find a way to make it happen! Your video of the LS-218, we watch that all the time and just laugh our heads off. When you go full throttle on Skyline … Everybody loves that bit. Everybody who sees you do that run, they get it at a deep emotional level.
Loz: I'm looking down at my hands now, and they're starting to sweat, just thinking about it.
(Laughs) We're looking forward to having you ride this new bike, because looking at the data, it's accelerating at half a G at 150 mph. It's just a different thing altogether.
We're hoping we can have our mid price bike ready for you to ride as well. Oh, and we're also working on a little electric version of a Grom.
Loz: Well, if you wanna make it look really tiny, put me on it.
(Laughs) So the Grom's a 125cc, and it's got 9 and a half horsepower. It's a good fun bike to ride around. This is the same basic size and everything, but it's over 30 horsepower at the rear wheel. So it's a Lightning version of a Grom. But it's a really interesting little product, because everyone who gets on it has a great time.
People who have never ridden a motorcycle can just get on it and go and enjoy it. And people who've had #1 number plates get on and love it. I think it's a product.
We wish Hatfield and the rest of the Lightning team all the best at Speed Week – and indeed the same to Kawasaki's Team 38 if they're planning to go back and take another shot at it with the H2R. Both the Lightning and the Kwaka are truly special machines. Bravo, guys.
Underpants donations to Loz are welcome.
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