Blue Monday might well have been last week – but I’m having a tiny depressed start to the week today. Because I’m a on a bit of a come-down from a fantastic weekend riding the new 2017 Honda Fireblade.
There were two big firsts for me – it was my first time riding at Portimao, as well as the first time anyone outside Honda had swung a leg over the new CBR1000RR. We were on the first group of world press to have a spin on the bike – and it was pretty impressive.
The first thing to hit me was the track though (not literally, luckily). Portimao is an intensely serious piece of circuitry – enormously long, very fast, tremendously varied in elevation, and with a sometimes-terrifying selection of blind bends. It’s a very serious, slightly intimidating thing.
As is the new Fireblade. Honda’s gone in dry on the old one, tearing out mass from engine and chassis, like a pack of thirsty journos emptying out a hotel minibar. The engine alone is 2kg lighter than the old one, and the whole bike is 15kg down, thanks to such gizmos as titanium fuel tanks, lithium batteries, and featherweight cast subframes. Then, they’ve installed half an Epsom Derby of extra horses, enough computers to fill a Russian hacker’s bedroom, and given the SP version a plutocracy-spec Öhlins setup front and rear. Phew!
There are plenty of bikes I’d not like to be riding on my first go round Portimao. But Hondas are generally excellent for this kind of job. The old CBR600RR, and the old Blade, were one of the easiest ways to learn a new track. User-friendly performance, smooth power, predictable handling and braking – all the hallmarks of a Honda. Would the new Blade be the same?
The signs were good early on. Honda had lined up a fleet of stock RR bikes for the first couple of sessions, and while they were running stock road Bridgestone S21 rubber, they were clad in tyre warmers when we arrived. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and while that meant there was a tiny nip in the January air, it also meant the track was warming up fast.
As was I. New leathers on, a quick stretch to get the blood pumping, and we’re ready to go. There were a few folk who hadn’t been her before, like me. So we got the ultimate trackday instructor for the first session – no less a legend than Fast Freddie Spencer. Off down pitlane, and a few steady laps to bed ourselves in.
If you’ve been to Portimao, you’ll know about the fearsome climbs, blind corner entries and the balls-out final bend. My brain’s just about managing to take it all in, building up a wee map of the place. And the Honda underneath me is making it all as simple as possible. The new ride-by-wire throttle gives you just what you’re wanting, braking is powerful and controllable, the quick shifter is exquisitely sharp and precise, and the chassis responds quickly and accurately to your inputs, intuitively putting you where you wanted to be. It’s all just getting out of the way, letting me build up pace and knowledge round this formidable, but beguiling racetrack.
Freddie brings us back into the pits, for a short break. I take in a load of water (gasping already!), cursing my lack of bike fitness and that last box of Celebrations over Xmas… Then we’re ready for another go, and this time I’m on me own. A short blast down pitlane and out for the last time on the stock bike. I’ve got a better idea of where to go now, and the pace ratchets up with every lap. The Blade is still novice-easy to ride, but it’s also clear that it has loads left in the locker. The Showa suspension and Tokico brakes might be the budget option in the new Blade range, but they’re working beautifully here. And the new engine is strong and progressive everywhere in the rev range. Every time you ask for a little more in terms of braking power, rear grip or top-end power, it’s there – almost.
The base bike does nearly as well as the SP in terms of electronics. The engine and ABS ECUs both have help from a Bosch IMU inertial measurement unit to work out lean, pitch and yaw angles, and the engine has a wide range of power options (five) and traction/wheelie control (nine levels of intervention, plus ‘off’). Add in options to adjust engine braking and quickshifter sensitivity, and you have a fairly comprehensive suite of ‘helper apps’. It’s not as in-depth as some – the ABS can’t be switched off, and the wheelie and traction control are linked together. No launch control or pitlane speed limiter either – and the cruise control that’s easily facilitated on a ride-by-wire bike is also missing. They’ve got to have something for the 2019 update though, eh?
Of course, the stock bike doesn’t have the suspension control ECU of the SP and its Öhlins kit either. But for these early riding sessions, I’m perfectly fine with the rider aids we have. The stock bike is running on the factory ‘Track’ setting, so there’s full power, traction control on ‘2’, and the engine braking is on minimum, and it’s a decent compromise between safety and performance. The little yellow ‘T’ traction light flashes a bit on the scary last bend – strangely soothing on a 110mph knee-down bend – and the only fly in the ointment comes a little later, when the bike wheelies off the crest on the pit straight. Most times it’s fine, but once or twice I hit it right (or wrong?) and the computer says no, unceremoniously slams down the front end, and smashes your crotch into the back of the tank, ark. Some of the racers at the test (we had the pleasure of Dan Linfoot and Jason O’Halloran, as well as Jenny Tinmouth and Steve Plater to help out) were finding the limits of the ABS on track – although I never found it an issue. Euro 4 rules mean Honda can’t fit an ‘off-switch’ to the system, so hardcore trackdayers and racers will need to bypass it altogether.
The Bridgestone S21 road tyres are starting to get a little bit fried now too, and like a teary toddler in a hot car, they started to grumble a bit. Nothing scary, but the back end just stepped out a little bit on one of the bumpier exits, bouncing me out of the seat, and giving me a wee reminder about the reality of riding a litre road bike on a big track.
Luckily, Honda has the answer for the next session – we swap onto the SP version of the bike, clad in saucy Bridgestone V02 slicks. Much of the SP is similar to the base bike – engine power, frame, wheels are all the same. The upgrades are solid though: Brembo calipers in place of Tokico, and Öhlins electronic suspension in place of analogue Showa kit. Those, plus the slicks, move the track performance envelope up a whole level, and there’s no more worries about grip for the rest of the day.
The Öhlins kit makes subtle-but-definite improvements all round over the Showa units. Once or twice in early sessions, I felt the suspension movement lost a bit of refinement – perhaps due to my cack-handed inputs on the unfamiliar Tarmac. Now though, the wheel control is refined and slick all the way round. We’re using the Öhlins gear on its manual ‘track’ setting at first, and for me, it was pretty much bang on. Again, it just takes a whole category of bike behaviour worries away from you, letting you concentrate on the track.
I’m about to get the best rider aid in the world now though. John McGuinness is here for a first spin on the bike he’ll be riding on the roads this year, and he flies past me at warp nine, then scrubs off a couple of Mach and lets me cut in behind him. Now, I have the dream instructor right in front of me, and everything gets faster, yet easier at the same time. Monkey see monkey do lets me hold a better line deeper into the late entry bends, and try to convert my recalcitrant road-rider lines into something approaching a proper racing approach. It’s an amazing experience, and the next two laps are sharper, cleaner and quicker than anything I’ve managed up till now.
Thumbs-up from the Morecambe Missile, and I’m on my own again as he effortlessly jets off again. And then we’re done, and its time for lunch. I catch up with McGuiness in the pit garage, and thank him for the tow round. He’s well chuffed about the bike – he seems sure it has the power he’s been missing on the older bike, and hasn’t lost any of the good stuff either. One thing he does pick up on though is the new smaller front fairing – he’ll be wanting a big old barn-door double bubble windscreen for the TT. A couple of hours of Island Life at 130mph+ average will need a bit more in the way of wind protection he reckons.
Even I’ve noticed this – down the 170-odd mph straight, there’s a distinct lack of places to hide from the wind blast. And it’s even worse in the next session when I bolt on a Drift camera to the fuel tank, and I’ve got even less scope to tuck in. This final blast on track is a huge 45 minute spot, with the bike on the ‘automatic’ suspension settings. Here, the suspension ECU uses all the inputs from the IMU and engine ECU to adapt the damping as we go along, in a semi-active fashion. It’s the cherry on the icing on the chassis cake, and although I’m getting a little tired now, the Honda just feels better every lap. One thing about Portimao is you don’t get the chance for a breather anywhere – every sector works you hard. That, plus the windblast down the straights, is properly draining, and by the time the red lights come on for the end of the session, I’m ready for a nice little sit down…
Gathering my thoughts in the pit garage, I’m massively impressed with the Blade. For me, coming to a new track, and not at the absolute peak of bike fitness, it couldn’t have made life any easier. There’s incredible levels of performance available in all areas - but it’s a piece of piss to access it all, at any pace. From pottering about on the first sessions, to chasing John McGuinness as fast as I could go, the Honda was the perfect wing man. The electronics are intuitive and effective, without being intrusive, and the basic layout of the chassis is spot-on too. The motor is immense, yet forgiving, and everyone on track, from the steadiest foreign journo to BSB heroes and GP legends came off the bike raving about how good they found it.
So should you head straight out to buy one? Well, there is one downside to the new bike – the price. The stock bike comes in at just over £15k and the SP is nigh-on £20k, a big increase on the old bike. A big chunk of that is down to Nigel Farage of course: the pound is worth far less than it was a year ago, so buying a bike made in Japan is suddenly around 20 per cent more expensive for us Brits. And Honda, perfectly justifiably, will want to recoup some of the enormous investment they’ve clearly made on this excellent new machine. If you can afford it though – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with what you get. It’s a lot of cash – but it’s also an awful lot of bike for that cash…
Price: £15,225 (RR), £19,125 (SP), both otr
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: 43mm fully-adjustable Showa Big Piston USD forks [Ohlins SEC electronic NIX30 fork]
Rear suspension: fully adjustable balance-free Showa shock [Ohlins SEC electronic TTX36 shock]
Brakes: Nissin four-piston calipers, 320mm<?> discs (front), ? disc rear [Brembo M4 front calipers]
Wheels/tyres: five spoke cast alloy/Bridgestone S21, 120/70 17 front, 190/50 17 rear
Kerb weight: 195kg
Fuel capacity: 16 litres
Colours: red/black, black (RR), HRC red/white/blue (SP)