We’re off on the Honda Fireblade launch over the weekend, so while you’re all having a nice time relaxing with your loved ones, our man Alan Dowds will be schlepping round Portimao, trying not to spanner himself on the new ‘Blade.
So we thought we’d get everyone in the mood with a bit of a retrospective on the old Fireblade, which is of course celebrating its 25th birthday this year.
GIANT FIREBLADE GALLERY HERE
Back in 2004, the litre class superbikes were in their pomp. Yamaha’s R1 and Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 were the top dawgs – superb, powerful engines in sharp-handling chassis, with tech and styling to match.
Down in the second division, Honda and Kawasaki were slower to catch on, and both had 900cc-class bikes in the fight. We covered the CBR900RR FireBlade yesterday: by the time we get to the CBR954 Blade of 2003, we have an awesome bike, but one that was just a touch off the GSX-R1000 and R1, and also at the end of the development line.
Ditto Kawasaki’s ZX-9R. Like the 954 Honda, the last 9R was a solid bike: finally dropping the lard, upping the chassis tech and honing the motor to a fine sharp edge. But it was still a little off the pace, and Kawasaki had to come up with something new.
The CBR1000RR and ZX-10R were launched within a few days of each other, both in the US. I went on the Honda gig in Phoenix, at a sweet little racetrack built next to the Luke USAF base, while the Kawasaki was launched in Miami, on the other side of the States.
Both bikes were all-new, litre-class superbikes, with all the bells and all the whistles. But they had radically different characters. The Kawasaki was an ASBO on two wheels: hard-edged, frisky, always looking for trouble. But the new Fireblade (note the lower-case ‘b’ – an important change for the journalists) was much more mature, steadier.
Part of that was down to its mass. For some reason, Honda had gone from having a superlight bike – the 954 – to having the heaviest in class. It was 27 kilos heavier than the previous Blade – almost exactly the difference between the first CBR900RR and the Yamaha EXUP, its closest rival in 1992.
Okay, like everyone else, Honda had to add in a hefty catalyst to the exhaust, and pay attention to the emissions rules. But it missed a trick by discarding the light approach which had served so well in the past.
The first CBR1000RR did well enough though. The man in the Clapham Honda showroom has more on his mind than sheer power-to-weight ratios, and the build quality, Honda backup, restrained styling and ‘Fireblade’ name all counted for the bike. As it happened, it was far better to ride on the road than the ZX-10R or the R1, further underlining its position as the sensible choice.
The engine was all-new, designed with a stacked gearbox to allow a longer swingarm like the R1 did in 98. The dual-injector PGM-FI system was hiccup-free, with creamy power delivery and the cassette gearbox was snickety-slick. Radial brakes and underseat exhaust were on point for the class at the time and the Unit Pro-Link rear suspension was apparently based on the RC211V MotoGP design.
Bad news was on the horizon though: Suzuki’s K5 GSX-R1000 came along at the end of ‘04, and it was time for another one of those rulebook massacres which we’d seen before with the R1 and the original FireBlade. The K5 Gixxer is still one of the finest bikes ever made – super light, massively torquey, tricked up with all the chassis goodness – yet easy as pie to get on with.
Honda stuck with a two-year update cycle at first with the 1000. So for 2006 there was a facelift model: a little less weight, a little more power, higher revs, ramped up compression. Under it all though, it was mostly the same bike, and while it was still a strong performer on the road and in the showroom, it generally propped up the lower end of magazine track tests.
In the right hands, and in the right team though, it could win races. The original FireBlade was never conceived as a racer, and while it was pressed into action in open road races, its 900cc capacity ruled it out of superbike racing. For 2003 though, WSB rules changed to allow litre bikes in, and the Fireblade could go proper racing. Chris Vermeulen did well on the first model with Ten Kate Honda in WSB, then Ryuichi Kiyonari bagged a brace of BSB titles on the CBR in 2006 and 2007. James Toseland did the deed in WSB in 2007 too – showing that in race trim, with a top rider and team, Honda’s steady superbike could be hard to beat.
For 2008, though, we got another all-new Blade. Honda had listened to the criticism, and dropped a stack of weight off the design, while also working hard to centralise the mass there was. An underslung exhaust replaced the high-up underseat silencer design, the mad electronic steering damper improved, everywhere you looked, stuff was better. She was no looker, sadly – but she went like hell. A genuine sub-200kg wet weight, and nearly 160bhp measured at the tyre on a proper dyno: great numbers, and enough to put the Blade on top in many comparative tests.
Bigger things were afoot though. The financial crash of 2007-8 was a slow-motion tsunami of shyte, that cascaded over everything, including motorbikes. Honda, like all the other Japanese firms, seemed to enter a state of panic, as the Yen yo-yoed up and down (mostly up), R&D budgets were slashed, sales plummeted, and our pleas for another 10bhp, Ducati 916 looks and a quickshifter as standard suddenly slipped down the priority list a bit at Honda HQ…
The hangover from that has taken a long time to clear. Indeed, you could convincingly argue that the Fireblade in the shops today (the 2016 model) isn’t really very different from the one we rode in 2008. Okay, there’s been a heap of moderate updates – the firm’s excellent race C-ABS setup appeared in 2009 as an upgrade from the CBR600RR. 2010 gave us a higher-inertia flywheel. For the 2012 anniversary, there were Showa Big Piston forks, new dash, and a few other tweaks. It’s not until the 2014 SP version appeared, with Öhlins suspension front and rear, and Brembo brakes up front, that there was much of a performance upgrade.
By then, though, Kawasaki’s ZX-10R and Yamaha’s R1 had moved on. Ride-by-wire throttle control, advanced traction and leaning ABS setups, genuine 200bhp power outputs out of the crate – they were all available elsewhere. BMW’s S1000RR had also popped up in 2009 – and its combination of high-performance and high-tech knocked the socks off the Blade for most folk.
We expect more from Honda. The big H, the guys who rule in MotoGP, the biggest bike firm in the world – we want them to do better. And, for 2017, it looks like they just might. We’re jumping on a plane tomorrow, and heading to Portimao for a ride on the new Fireblade, and the SP and SP2 variants. The new bike looks, on paper, to have the cojones to get it back on the pace: more power, less weight, advanced electronics, and top-drawer chassis kit on the SP models. It’s all very exciting – and we’ll tell you ALL about it once we’ve ridden the bike this weekend…