Red Star Raceway, Delmas – Right at the end of the 1980s Honda set about re-inventing the sports-bike, as it had done two decades previously with the 750 Four. And in this case the brief was deceptively simple: the new bike was to be no bigger or heavier than a current four-cylinder 600cc sportster, with the power output of a litre-class bike.
The result was the 1992 Fireblade – 898cc of pure venom, its twitchy handling exacerbated by its then-fashionable 16 inch front wheel, prone to unplanned wheelies and quicker than a flying rodent leaving a hot place. Unsurprisingly, it became an instant cult bike.
Honda, however, seemed a little embarrassed that it had produced such a badass machine, and subsequent generations of its halo sports-bike were focused on giving it superlative high-speed road manners rather than class-leading performance.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the South African launch of the 11th-generation CBR1000RR Fireblade at Red Star Raceway, east of Pretoria, where the buzzword was Total Control – through selectable traction control with no less than nine levels, wheelie control and stoppie control (which can however, be switched off entirely), selectable engine braking (no, we’re not kidding) slipper clutch and, on the R60 000 more expensive SP version, selectable electronically adaptive Ohlins suspension and a quickshifter.
But some of the old hooligan DNA is still there; the 999cc transverse four gets a tougher crankshaft, new conrods, pistons, valve, cams, and cylinder head, and a significantly higher (13:1) compression ratio, while its throttle bodies have been bored out from 46 to 48mm.
Every component has been scrutinised with a view to weight-saving – to the extent of thinner-walled frame castings, shorter bolts and replacing steel with aluminium, aluminium with magnesium, and stainless-steel with titanium. The SP even has what Honda claims is the world’s first titanium fuel tank on a production bike.
The result is a power increase of 8kW, up to 141kW at 13 000rpm, and 15kg less weight, down to 196kg ready to go (or 195 in the case of the SP), giving it (still) one of the hottest power-to-weight ratios in its class.
The new titanium tailpipe has a flap that opens just as the engine comes on cam – so marked is the difference that you’ll think another bike has just come up from behind you – and then, as the the rev counter goes into double figures and the horizon bends towards you, it lets out an unearthly shriek that'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Exploring the last 3000rpm on the bar-graph rev counter – even on a racetrack – requires nerves of steel and exceptional riding skills, which is as it should be.
The new Fireblade has a full-colour liquid crystal display derived from Honda’s MotoGP machines, with three modes – Street, Circuit and Mechanic. ‘Street’ displays riding modes (three preset and two individual) plus the settings for Power (1-5), Traction (1-9 and off) and Engine Braking (1-3).
The three preset modes simplify all that down to ‘Fast’ (full power, minimum traction control intervention and full engine braking), ‘Fun’ (controlled output in the first three gears, medium traction control, strong engine braking) and ‘Safe’ (controlled output in the first four gears, high traction control, strong engine braking).
'On the fly'
Or you can store two full sets of individually preset parameters to suit the way you ride on the street and on track days. And yes, you can adjust the settings ‘on the fly’ using the very complicated left-side switchgear, although it’s not recommended.
The upgraded ABS uses input from the wheel sensors, lean angle and two-axis accelerometers to keep the front wheel turning rather than sliding and the rear wheel on the ground under hard braking, while the traction control modulates the power output of the fly-by-wire throttle under acceleration to keep the front wheel on the ground – or at least close to it.
Mention must be made of the electronic twistgrip; a lot of work has apparently gone into weighting the return springs to make it feel like a conventional throttle, rather than a Playstation control, and it works; throttle control is smooth, linear and perfectly weighted.
The ‘Circuit’ screen also displays lap time, the number of laps you’ve done and the difference from your best previous lap, while ‘Mechanic’ shows you the rev counter, gear position, twistgrip angle, coolant temperature and battery voltage. The SP version also gets Brembo radial-mount monobloc brake callipers as per the MotoGP machines, and Ohlins adjustable adaptive suspension, which uses a five-axis Bosch gyro, wheel speed, engine revs, brake pressure, and throttle angle to reset the damping 100 times a second for optimum wheel contact with the ground.
It also adds another column to the dashboard display for you to choose from three preset (Fast, Enjoy and Safety) and three manual modes.
Honda’s design philosophy of concentrating all the heaviest components as close to the centre of effort as possible and reducing the weight of those it can’t, pays off in tight cornering with superbly predictable, very agile handling. This was especially apparent on the ultra-technical Red Star Raceway – which is so twisty that some riders complain of getting seasick!
Once I’d learned my way around (I’d never ridden there before but with the help of Alex the Instructor I soon managed to memorise the layout – if not all the lines!) I was able to relax and just ride the bike, flicking from side to side like a pro and hustling it through with body English when I got it wrong.
The new Fireblade is incredibly forgiving at sane speeds and gives you some room for error even when you’re in a hurry, although the shrieking soundtrack will keep the adrenalin dialled up high and everything happens very, very quickly – this is no pussycat.
I rode both versions at the launch and, apart from the two-way quickshifter (nice to be able to shut the throttle and just push down on the gear lever – auto blipping and the slipper clutch do all the rest!) it was hard to tell the difference on the circuit at my street-focused level of riding.
The Brembo brakes had a bit more initial bite, certainly, and more feel at the lever under hard braking at the end of the back straight, while Ohlins suspension felt a bit more plush (difficult to tell, Red Star is beautifully smooth other than a little dip at the end of the main straight and one patch on a corner) – but you’ll feel the difference more on the open road, where you’ll be able to set the suspension for a plusher ride than you’d be able to with conventional dampers, without losing any stability.
What’s it all about?
I don’t think the new Fireblade is going to set the production-based circuit racing world on fire (there are quicker litre-class bikes out there) but as a weapon for hard riding on real roads, it will be hard to equal, evidenced by its 23 race wins – more than any other model – at the Isle of Man.
Do you need to spend the extra R60 000 for the SP? Other than the quickshifter, which is a R12 156 option for the base model anyway, only if you do a lot of track days – then the selectable damping modes will come into their own – or if your idea of a Sunday morning is to be out there carving the twisties before the sun gets properly out of bed.