The early 90’s weren’t exactly setting the world alight in terms of superbikes. Suzuki’s GSXR 1100 had been around a while and Kawasaki’s ZZR 1100, like Honda’s CBR 1000, although capable of a good turn of speed was still more tug boat than speed boat. The Yamaha FZR 1000 had been named ‘bike of the decade’ by Cycle World only three years previously but had rested on its laurels. But the common denominator between all the big bore sports bikes was weight.
In the spring of 1992, the cat was well and truly set amongst the pigeons. The new 900cc Honda Fireblade, which was originally designed as a 750, quite literally kicked the opposition into the weeds. Instead of piling on the horsepower and the pounds, Head of Large Projects at Honda, Tadao Baba used cutting edge computer technology (cutting edge for 1992 that is) to design the bike from front to back.
Unlike the other big Japanese manufacturers and even fellow designers at Honda, Baba decided that the key to success lay not in increasing cubic capacity, but in reducing the weight of the entire bike at the same time as centralizing the mass to improve balance. A philosophy he followed with almost fanatical zeal.
The result was a machine that put the super back into super sports. Weighing in at just 185kgs, the 893cc engine produced a healthy but not over the top, 122bhp. Just to give you an idea of how these figures stacked up against the other behemoths of the day, the Yamaha FZR 1000 kicked out 125bhp at 236kgs, Kawasaki’s ZZR1100 produced147bhp at 228kgs and Honda’s own CBR1000 130bhp at a colossal 254kg. Even Suzuki’s cutting edge GSXR1100, a bike that had undergone stringent re-design to shed weight, couldn’t come close – tipping the scales at 221kgs dry.
Tadao Baba’s obsession with the Blade’s overall weight paid off, and in head to head comparisons with its peers in motorcycle publications of the day, the diminutive Honda’s razor-sharp handling and lightning-fast engine destroyed everything in its path.
Honda had produced a bike so ahead of its competition, it took the other Japanese manufacturers another six years to catch up. A staggering amount of time in the cut-throat motorcycle world, with top of the class is directly related to showroom sales.
In the same way that the Fireblade had decimated the opposition, in an ironic twist of fate, the 1998 Yamaha R1 did the same. The mighty Blade’s reign was over. Yamaha’s engineers had been given a clean sheet and a blank check to come up with a world-beater, and they’d done it in spades. The R1 re-wrote the book on radical engine design. It was super light, blisteringly fast, and handled like nothing on the street. A worthy successor, but without the Blade setting the benchmark, the R1 would possibly never have existed.
Praising the Fireblade, project leader of the R1 Kunihiko, Miwa was even gracious enough to admit, ‘I originally doubted that a machine with that specification would be satisfactory to customers, but I realized my mistake as soon as I rode it. It was created by people who enjoyed bikes. It was an alert to the rest of the world to create bikes that satisfied riders, not just design teams.’
It took Honda another two years and a complete redesign, for the Blade to give the R1 a good run for its money but just when it looked like a two-horse race, Suzuki introduced the GSXR1000 to snatch the crown.
Fast forward almost 17 years, in the intervening years, the crown for top superbike had changed from manufacturer to manufacturer, with the likes of the BMW S1000RR, Ducati 1299 Panigale and Aprilia RSV4RF all wrestling the title away from its former Japanese domination. But in 2017 we have probably the most radical new Fireblade since it burst onto the scene in 1992.
The Honda CBR1000RR saw its world test debut at the 2.9 mile Portimao track in Portugal’s Algarve earlier this year, drawing test riders from around the globe. But is the new Fireblade worth the wait?
Staying with their tried and tested 998cc liquid-cooled four, a 2kg weight saving on the engine block and engine mods such as a higher compression ratio (from 12.3:1 to 13:1), have squeezed an extra 11hp over last year’s model. This pushes peak power up to the 189bhp mark, which maxes out at 12,500rpm with the redline elevated 750rpm to 13,000.
A small increase in bottom-end torque, a re-worked slipper clutch and lever pull 17% lighter, also provide improvement where its most likely to be used, out on the street. Overall power output, however, is the same as the more track orientated, higher spec CBR1000RR SP, which sells for over 3k more.
Additional weight savings in the chassis department (including an insane 0.2mm off the fairing plastic thickness) have also resulted in reduced curb weight of 430lbs, upping the power-to-weight ratio by almost 15% over the outgoing Blade, and an astonishing 65% over the very first bike to bear the legendary Fireblade tag.
The last of the big four to embrace the world of electronic rider aids, Honda has finally jumped headfirst into the fray. The new Blade is the factory’s first across the frame four-cylinder engine to have ‘Throttle by Wire,’ which is driven by an Acceleration Position Sensor in the right handlebar switch.
The bike’s electronic package is also the same as that first seen on the RC213V-S, Honda’s 180,000 Euro MotoGP inspired road bike, so it is easy to see that Honda has not skimped on kitting out the Blade. Instrumentation is courtesy of the all singing and all dancing full-color TFT (thin-film transistor) display, which automatically adjusts to fluctuations in light.
The system gives access to three power delivery modules, ‘Street’, which displays riding modes, power settings, HSTC, engine braking, and suspension. You can also find average and trip consumption, average speed, and remaining fuel after the reserve light illuminates.
‘Circuit’ mode, as the name suggests, gives information on lap times, the number of laps, and comparison between best and worst lap. Whilst ‘Mechanic’ displays a battery of technical information including digital rev counter, gear indicator, coolant temperature, and even grip angle! All of which can be altered on the move.
Further adjustment of each of the three modes is available via ‘Power’, which governs engine response and power output and ‘Torque Control’ which includes anti-wheelie intervention. Three stages of engine breaking are also available, all of which can be adjusted via a rocker on the left handlebar switch.
The result of all this onboard ‘electric key’ may sound daunting, but on the move, translates to an electronic aids package that dramatically improves the speed, handling, and stopping performance of the bike during every phase.
Take, for instance, the all-new Bosch braking system (the same system used by the more expensive SP model), gone are the days of ABS merely preventing the wheels from locking up. The Blade’s version, which is linked to the IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), constantly monitors pitch and lateral movement, making minute adjustments 100 times per second. And which also offers adjustment to rear wheel lift and wheelie control.
Rather than being intrusive, or kicking in when it reaches certain limits, the bike’s electronics work throughout the range, giving a level of performance response and tune-ability previously only experienced on factory race bikes.
As for handling, the rake is the same at 23° with trail similarly unchanged at 96mm. The aluminum, hollow, die-cast, twin-spar frame has been tweaked to improve steering response and stability. Whilst Honda engineers have followed the original Blade’s manic weight-saving habits and thinned frame walls without affecting rigidity but saving 500 grams.
On the front end, the 43mm big piston Showa forks are the same as the SP minus the semi-active internals, with twin 320mm Tokico radial calipers slowing things down. Hidden behind the steering head is the HESD (Honda Electronic Steering Damper), which does a top job of calming post-wheelie twitch.
Pushing out just short of 190bhp and with a flat-out speed of around 185mph and a 10-second ¼ mile (with the right settings), the Fireblade’s power delivery is pure Honda. In other words, staggeringly fast, yet remaining linear with predictable surges that will still try and hoist the front end at 9000rpm in 3rd gear.
The engine charges hard in all six gears and thanks to the Fireblade’s quick shifter (optional on the RR, but standard on the SP), clutchless up changes are perfect. With the bikes IMU sending information to the ABS, anti-rear lift control and slipper clutch, braking hard, and kicking down the box without the back end locking up is made scarily easy, leaving the rider to concentrate on punching the bike out of the turn.
The 1992 Honda Fireblade was so cutting edge, it heralded a turning point in the history of sports bikes and forced the competition back to the drawing board. Almost a quarter of a century later and the latest incarnation of Fireblade, whilst perhaps not setting the world on fire in quite the same way, has certainly set the bar reassuringly high.