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Carbon wheels for private motorbikes: when a material dream comes true

Bernd Overmaat

For many years, high-tech wheels made of the ultra-lightweight carbon material were reserved exclusively for racing professionals. A start-up team at thyssenkrupp has finally made the dream of private motorbike fans come true: carbon wheels approved for road use. It is the story of a unique product that has now returned to the site of its first challenge – the Snaefell Mountain Course on the infamous Isle of Man.

A golden rule applies to the first driving attempts at the legendary Isle of Man Tourist Trophy: approach slowly! Which is not a bad idea, with average speeds of up to 217 km/h. Motorcycle professional Peter Hickman didn’t care: Already at his Isle of Man premiere in June 2014, the merciless backdrop of the most challenging road race track in the world raced past the Brit with an average speed of 207 km/h – a world record for a newcomer. His unemotional conclusion? “I could have gone faster.”

A whole new driving experience: the HP4 Race relies on carbon wheels from thyssenkrupp

Three years later: In 2017, BMW is looking for a suitable rider to test their latest HP4 Race superbike under the toughest conditions. The world’s most expensive racing machine, limited to 750 units, impresses with one thing in particular: both its frame and its wheels are made of 100 percent ultra-lightweight carbon. Also in other respects, the HP4 Race is more like a technology and innovation study than a motorbike. And because the manufacturers traditionally present their latest achievements at road races, Peter Hickman is the perfect test rider. Just as perfect as the notorious Isle of Man as a test track.

215 hp, 999 cubic centimeters displacement and state-of-the-art carbon wheels from thyssenkrupp – this is BMW’s Superbike HP4 Race

At the end of the first drive, Hickman grins as broadly as if he had just won the Tourist Trophy itself. The bike was “really, really light. Easy to ride, especially at high speeds.” So easy that you have to ask yourself if you could ever race again without it, he admits laughingly. It is the beginning of three success stories. That of BMW’s HP4 Race. Peter Hickman’s. And that of the world’s first carbon wheels, made not only for racing professionals, but also for hobby riders on public roads. Its developer? The carbon specialists from thyssenkrupp.

Racing champions trust in thyssenkrupp’s carbon expertise

The HP4 Race was not the first vehicle to feature thyssenkrupp’s high-tech carbon wheels: since 2017, Porsche’s top model 911 Turbo S has also been using the carbon fiber technology of the engineering company, which makes thyssenkrupp the world’s first series supplier of carbon wheels for passenger cars. Together with the exclusive equipment of BMW’s HP4 Race, the company thus celebrated a double world premiere.

Dr. Jens Werner is proud of the highlight product from his team at thyssenkrupp. On a road trip from Dresden to the Isle of Man, he therefore took the opportunity to convince himself of the unique driving experience on carbon

Dr. Jens Werner, CEO of thyssenkrupp’s Carbon Components division, proudly looks back on the eventful year of 2017: “In the show bike segment, there have been motorcycles with carbon wheels for quite some time. However, we were the first to meet all the quality and technical requirements for series production.” Meanwhile, his team of experts in Kesselsdorf near Dresden is supporting Penz13 and other racing teams that are also taking part in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. “We have been putting our bikes through their paces here for three years now – anyone who can endure such tough conditions has nothing to fear.”

According to Dr. Werner, the feedback from the professionals is fantastic. “In the motorcycle sector, the difference in cornering behavior is immense.” This is understandable, because due to the so-called “gyro effect,” motorcycles with classic, relatively heavy aluminum wheels tend to drive straight ahead in fast bends, requiring enormous amounts of effort for the rider.

Carbon wheels for everyone: a revolution in the end consumer market

Despite all the positive feedback from professional motorsport, the carbon specialists celebrated their greatest success just this year. Since March 1, 2019, even ambitious motorcyclists from the end customer market have had the opportunity to experience a completely new riding experience with thyssenkrupp’s carbon wheels.

Optics and quality at the highest level: seamless processing of space-certified carbon fibers increases strength and damage tolerance and enables the lightest and highest quality bikes for motorcycles

thyssenkrupp offers the world's first carbon wheels with road approval in two styles

“That makes us even prouder,” says Dr. Werner. “And we have already received many more orders than expected.” This is not the exclusive reason why the team – founded in 2012 as a “start-up within the company” – is already working on offering high-tech wheels for other vehicle classes in the near future.

Mammoth road approval project: from misuse loads and deformation capacity

At first, taking carbon wheels onto public roads sounds unproblematic to non-professionals. But what does it actually mean to develop a carbon wheel for the consumer market? “In this regard, it is important to know that road approval is less about everyday driving situations but rather about so-called abuse loads: How does the wheel react if the motorbike drives through a large pothole, or the chassis is damaged by a concrete slab on the motorway?” explains Dr. Werner. “In contrast to racing, there are much stricter regulations for such abuse loads in road traffic. Thus, enormous development work was necessary to design the carbon material in such a way that it meets all the requirements for everyday use on the road.”

Carbon wheels in series production: zero tolerance policy for quality differences

In this context, the so-called production tolerance plays a decisive role, says Dr. Werner: “Normally, carbon parts are shaped individually. Each component is therefore unique. However, in order to obtain approval for regular road traffic, we have to guarantee the same quality throughout, so every part must therefore be exactly identical. This is now possible in our production because we produce with the same fibers, the same layers, the same process parameters, the same material systems, and the same connection tolerances.”

Seamless production of rim beds – thyssenkrupp makes this possible for the first time with the world's largest radial braiding plant

Seamless production of rim beds – thyssenkrupp makes this possible for the first time with the world's largest radial braiding plant

In order to achieve this unique manufacturing competence, the team, formerly a five-member start-up, has created great things within just five years. Today, the Dresden location offers several special baking ovens, an ultra-clean manual production, as well as a computer-assisted final X-ray inspection. The showpiece of the high-tech plant, however, is the world’s largest radial braiding unit: Thanks to the impressive system with a diameter of nine meters, thyssenkrupp can manufacture the rim beds seamlessly. This increases the strength and damage tolerance of the wheels and enables us to manufacture the world’s lightest rims for motorcycles,” says Dr. Werner.

Components business of the future: a future pole position for carbon

Dr. Werner is convinced that in the years to come, the material will establish itself as the new standard in the motorcycle sector, above all due to its low weight: “On bicycles, wheels not only accelerate in the driving direction but also rotatory. So when we save 100 grams in production, we effectively save twice as much. In addition, the chassis properties and road grip are much better. And when we look at the potential use of carbon wheels in passenger cars, their high damping capacity helps to make the interior of a car quieter. In perspective, this is absolutely crucial, especially for electric mobility,” says the expert.

State-of-the-art technology: The team at thyssenkrupp’s Dresden site has succeeded in producing carbon fibers for motorcycle wheels that are unparalleled in terms of strength, damage tolerance and weight

Dr. Werner also sees carbon as a pacemaker for many other innovations in the components sector: “We already offer automotive customers such as Audi stabilizers and carbon springs for series production. Further products will follow, both for OEM and end consumers. This will happen step by step.” The decisive advantage of the Dresden site is that thyssenkrupp can flexibly roll out carbon production technology to other product classes – from aerospace to automotive and sports. All of this at a clear price advantage over the competitors.

From Dresden to the Isle of Man: road trip back to the beginnings

This year’s introduction of carbon wheels for the consumer market was a real milestone for the motorbike scene – as well as for thyssenkrupp itself. To honor this breakthrough, Dr. Werner and his team recently returned to the place where the success story began: the Isle of Man.

Expert discussion among racing fans: On the road trip to the Isle of Man, the team from Dresden also stopped at thyssenkrupp’s headquarters in Essen. Clear that the S1000RR quickly became the “Talk of the Quartier”

“We just wanted to demonstrate what our carbon wheels can do both on public roads and in racing. Therefore, we set off from Dresden for a road trip to the Isle of Man, which we also filmed in cooperation with the portal 1000PS. One could say: It was the crowning achievement of all our efforts.”

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