We rode the Honda Fireblade SP at the track launch in Portimao back in January. But what’s it like on normal UK roads? And how does it do on the dyno? We found out…
It’s amazing how fast a reputation can come crashing down. Look at Theresa May. Two months ago, she was queen of the hill, ready to be Prime Minister for the next twenty years, if she wanted to. Now, having been giving a doing at the polls, and making an arse about just about everything, she’s a dick, and heading for the exit.
Meanwhile, in the same period, just about, Honda’s flash new CBR1000RR Fireblade was undergoing a similar fall from grace, at least in the racing world. A high-profile spill at the NW200 put Honda’s top road racer, John McGuinness, into an external fixator and a wheelchair: a snapped leg ruling him out of the TT.
Things only got worse for the big H though – its headline-grabbing second rider, Guy Martin, crashed out of the TT Superbike race, after his Blade missed a gear at Dorans. Martin escaped serious injury, but the bike wasn’t so lucky – a post-crash interview put the boot into the bike, and with, apparently, zero confidence in the machine, the team pulled out of the Senior race. Amateur footage of the bike crashing, then slamming into gear as it sailed along the Tarmac rubbed salt into the wounds, and it was an ignoble end to the 2017 TT for Honda and its fabby new superbike.
But what about the other side of the Fireblade coin? How does it go on the road, for a steady old street rider, looking for kicks at a far lower level than the TT heroes? Well, as the TT was kicking off, I was just finishing my UK roads experience on the new Honda, having done almost 1,000 miles in two weeks on a gorgeous new SP version of the Blade. I’d had it to Wales and back, ridden it through the hottest week of the year so far, trawled it through town and along motorways, dynoed it on the Big CC Racing dyno, and, generally, lived with it like it was my own. And I’d had a ball…
The first thing to say about the new bike is that it’s properly gorgeous. It’s not quite at the Ducati level of build quality and sexual design as yet (despite approaching it in terms of price). But it’s not far off. The SP has some headline differences that stand out – chief amongst them the electronically controlled Öhlins suspension, superbike-spec Brembo brake calipers, and a single-seat subframe and tail unit. And under the exquisite tri-colour bodywork lies a titanium fuel tank and lithium battery, all the better to shave the weight off…
It’s a beautiful summer’s day when I collect the bike, and it glints like a jewel in the sun. I sign the paperwork and the man gives me the key. Do I need a rundown on the bike? Well, actually, no I don’t – the world riding launch at Portimao is only a few months ago, and I very well remember the flash colour LCD screen, the menu navigation buttons, the settings menu for power, traction, suspension. Steady away though – we’re just going to get the hundred-odd mile motorway journo home out the way first. So we stick with the settings in there – full power, a low level of traction control, and automatic suspension put on the middle ‘road’ setting.
I’ve been riding a GSX-R1000 for the past week or so, but I came to the Honda fleet centre on my mighty Burgman 650. So the first couple of miles are the usual frenzy of re-adjusting to a 200bhp litre bike… Yes, it makes everything else on the road seem like an asthmatic snail. Yes it does a wheelie if you ask it nicely. Yes, you catch yourself every ten minutes or so, slack-jawed, staring at a lovely colour readout of your speed, imagining it being read out in a court room, and then having to recount it later to Big Denzil, your cellmate in the open prison.
Because the new Blade is, of course, fucking fast. Queasily quick. Seriously speedy. Vastly velocitous. Hit the gas hard, say as you’re coming down one of those extra-long M1 slip roads, the ones designed to let HGVs get up to speed, and your breath is snatched away at times by the acceleration. Great giggling gobbets of grunt catapult you forward in an instant, and though I’m not convinced it’s a match for the super-torquey GSX-R I rode recently, it’s still an incredible experience all the way down through the East Midlands and into the Home Counties.
I’m home before I know it, and I spend the next few days trundling around. It’s not quite as useful as the GSX-R for home duties, since there’s no pillion accomodation (although it looks like you could do a conversion, the subframe has the bolt holes for pillion pegs and the tail unit looks similar to stock). So to transport the little treasures about, I stick with the GSX-R. I’ve got a big trip planned for the Blade though – a 500-miler to mid-Wales and back for the Geraint Jones Yamaha Offroad Experience.
Now, the obvious problem here is I want to take my own offroad kit. But there’s nowhere near enough space to pack a pair of Alpinestars Tech 8 boots on a Blade. I considered blagging a bike trailer, but decided instead to just wear my offroad gear for the 250-mile ride to Lake Vyrnwy from London. The Alpinestars textile gear is comfy, packed with vents for the early summer heat, and while the boots are a real pain for gearchanges, with a quickshifter and mostly-motorway miles, I was fine with the compromise.
The Blade is comfy enough, though I have a snafu with my tank bag early doors. The fuel tank cover is of course, plastic, so I couldn’t secure the magnets properly. A couple of bungees and the securing strap held it in place, but a buckle slips down and jams between the top yoke and the frame. I pull out of the drive, go to turn left, and the steering locks up and I topple over like a novice wanker. Fuck. There’s nothing worse than seeing a bike slowly tumbling to the deck– except maybe seeing a £20k bike slowly tumbling to the deck. I’ve got a foot underneath it though, and my trusty Tech 8 helps keep most of the bike off the ground. A couple of minor scuffs on the exhaust heat guard and some teeny stone chips on the lower fairing is the only evidence of my minor catastrophe – a lucky escape.
You need to get straight back on the horse, of course, and I’m soon in the long-distance groove. Down the A3, round the M25, M40, M42, M6, M54, then it’s onto the smaller A-roads. The new CBR makes much of its smaller stature, and the top fairing and screen are appreciably svelter than before. That means minimal space of course, and I couldn’t really fit my Satnav/iPhone mounting setup anywhere on the bars. If you had a smaller satnav, with a bespoke top yoke mount, that might work, but the space is really tight.
On the move, the wind protection worked okay for me at 5’8”, with enough pressure to lift weight off my wrists yet not enough to be pulling my head off at cruising speeds. Sitting at 80-90mph, you’re sitting pretty, more than comfy enough for a full tank of gas.
Speaking of which, the Honda fuel system looks poor at first, but is actually excellent, and very well thought out. There’s no fuel gauge per se, but you can keep an eye on how much fuel you’ve used since the trip reset in numerical form – 0.1 gallons, 0.2 gallons, and so on. So once you work out that the tank holds about 3.5 gallons, you can easily see exactly what you have left (providing you brim it and reset the trip properly). Once you get onto reserve you then get a ‘range remaining’ readout, so no excuses for running out.
The dash has plenty of other readouts too, and you can while away the miles scrolling through fuel consumption and the like. You can also fiddle with the riding mode and suspension settings on the move, so there’s plenty of scope to explore and try out all the options. The Öhlins suspension is always excellent, and you can feel the changes between the three automatic settings, for firmer sporty riding, normal, and comfy. I leave it in the touring mode for most of the trip, switching to sporty for the Welsh A-roads, and it’s always spot-on.
I make it to Wales and back on the Blade, with total efficiency and ease. It’s good on fuel, if you keep the heid with the throttle, and you can easily do 150+ miles to a tankful on the motorway. The only real complaint I’ve had is the gearchange. Now, much of that is down to my footwear – and this bike also had just 200 miles on the clock when I picked it up. But even allowing for that new, barely-run-in motor, and the heft and clunk of my Tech 8s, the Blade misses more than a few shifts, far more than I’d expect. I put it to the back of my mind, and the gearbox was far better when I had proper shoes on, as it were. But with the high-profile gearbox woes at the TT, it seems that the CBR1000RR may well have an issue with its transmission, and care is needed with your shifting. It’s a shame, because when it works right, the quickshifter is awesome, certainly on par with the best of the competition.
My big Welsh trip is over, and the Fireblade is due back in a few days. I grab the chance for some pics with my local snapper hero, Phil Steinhardt, and spend a lovely hot morning on the Surrey roads. Trundling along in the heat behind the snapper’s car, the Blade isn’t in its element of course, and the riding position and hot engine are putting me through the mill a little. Once the pics are done though, I blast off, and head down to Wokingham, to Big CC Racing, for a dyno run.
The back road from the M3 to Wokingham is a corker, though like the A272 or similar, it’s dangerous too. Lots of blind corners and summits, slow traffic, pedestrians, hidden driveways – it’s a minefield for a fast bike. Get it right though, and you have a proper ball.
When I left home, I set the traction control off for some wheelie practice, but just before I arrive at Big CC, I give it too much of a handful out of a mini-roundabout, and the back spins up on a shiny polished metal manhole cover. No panic – it was a minor step out. But as I look down at the dash, the traction control is now on. Hmmm. Did I switch it back on myself earlier in the trip? Or does the Honda system work like some car setups, and only really switch itself ‘off’ until it senses something really really bad happening? I convince myself I must have turned the traction back on again a little earlier – but would you be surprised if Honda had put in an extra level of safety net?
On the dyno, and I’m expecting the numbers to be significantly down on the Suzuki. The Blade is fast, but doesn’t have that urgency in the midrange, or the ‘big engine’ feel that the variable-valve-equipped GSX-R has. But lo! The peak power figure isn’t a million miles away from the GSX-R – the Honda is 8bhp down at the top end, 169bhp vs 177bhp. But the curve is flatter and fatter on the Suzuki, as you’d expect from a variable valve setup, and the GSX-R is around 10bhp stronger through most of the midrange.
Now 10bhp is only five or six per cent of 177bhp – a rounding error in some ways. But I had the chance to do a back-to-back roll-on test at Bruntingthorp a few weeks after this, and the GSX-R1000 utterly trounced the Honda (and all the other 1000s) in a 40mph top-gear roll-on. No doubt, the Fireblade is still lower down the power pecking order than most of its peers, in stock form certainly.
All of this was rendered pretty moot as I took the CBR on the long, mellow ride back to Honda’s press workshop in Corby. It’s a decent 120 mile ride up there from London, mostly motorway, but with a nice sprinkling of A roads at the end of the run. I used to live up this way, so bashing my way along the very familiar A43 and A6003 was a blast on the Blade. Meeting some old, old friends again, on a new, old friend, as it were.
As I handed the keys over to the very nice men at KCS Honda, I was a bit sadder than I normally am at this stage. The SP, in particular, is a fantastic thing to ride, and would be even better to possess I imagine. It attracts the right sort of attention everywhere – non bikers love the bright tricolour paint and golden forks and wheels, while the two-wheeled cognoscenti nod knowingly at the superbike Brembos, the electric Öhlins and the HRC logo on the tank.
It’s all spoiled a little when you tell them the price – nearly £20k is the biggest downside to this bike I’d say – but even that passes. An SP is going to be pricier, of course it is. And them Ducatis are nearer £30k these days eh?
So, there you have it – the Fireblade’s reputation was, for me, very much intact, afer a fortnight and nearly 900 miles in the saddle. It’s not the fastest, nor the cheapest, nor the best at being a racebike. But as a premium, top-spec superbike for the road, it’s very much a genuine contender…
Engine: 16v inline-four, DOHC, liquid cooled, 999cc
Bore x stroke: 76x55mm
Compression ratio: 13:1
Max power (claimed) 190bhp@13,000rpm
Max Torque (claimed) 86ft lb@11,000rpm
Transmission: six speed, slipper clutch, chain
Frame: cast aluminium diamond-type
Front suspension: Ohlins SEC electronic NIX30 fork
Rear suspension: Ohlins SEC electronic TTX36 shock
Brakes: Brembo M4 four-piston calipers, 320mm discs (front), single disc rear
Wheels/tyres: five spoke cast alloy/Pirelli SuperCorsa, 120/70 17 front, 190/50 17 rear
Kerb weight: 195kg
Fuel capacity: 16 litres
Colours: HRC red/white/blue