It’s all about control. If you go into the first of the esses at Port Elizabeth’s Aldo Scribante circuit right on the outside edge of the track, it sets you up perfectly for an effortless flip-over into the second, left-hand, turn and after that it’s continuous acceleration, modulated by ultra-fine throttle movements, about a third of the way around the circuit, right up to the point where you stand the bike on its nose, braking for the hairpin.
And that’s what the Honda staffers had been emphasising all morning: control. We were at Scribante for the South African launch of the 2012 Honda CBR1000RR, almost exactly 20 years after the release of the original Fireblade in November 1991.
That bike was the result of some inspired lateral thinking by Honda development engineer Tadeo Baba and his team – one of whom, Hirofumi Fukunaga, is the project leader for this model, two decades later.
The idea was to build a bike with the power of a litre-class machine in the chassis of a 600cc midweight, and what they achieved turned the world of sports motorcycling on its ear – a shrieking 893cc transverse four that was good for more than 90kW, in a motorcycle no bigger and very little heavier than the current 600cc Honda, its fairing full of holes to aid cooling.
It was very much a bike of its time, with a 16” front wheel that made it twitchy under stress, and it would bite if its tail was injudiciously twisted.
MAKING THE POWER MORE ACCESSIBLE
Ever since, the Slide Rule Samurai at Honda AD in Asaka have been working to retain that explosive performance, while making the power more accessible by making it more controllable.
The 2012 Fireblade has no more power than its 2008 predecessor, and is in fact about 12kW down when compared to its major competitors, but it is how that power is applied to either a race circuit or your favourite Sunday morning twisties that makes this bike what it is.
The eighth-generation CBR1000RR has new suspension at both ends, new wheels, a revised slipper clutch, a second-generation electronic steering damper, and completely re-written fuel-injection mapping developed with the aim of eliminating jerky take-up at small throttle openings – the notorious ‘spritzer snatch’ that affects almost all fuel-injected motorcycles.
The previous model was styled to be as compact as possible, leading to comments from customers that it looked a little stubby, so the nose of the new ‘Blade is a little longer, a little more pointed, the tailpiece slimmer and more elegant – but it’s not just for looks.
The new Fireblade uses a layered fairing, as first seen on the VFR1200F, to create a pocket of still around the rider while drawing fresh air through the cooling system – hence the longer nose.
Inside that fairing there’s a new, all-liquid crystal instrument pod with a bar-graph rev counter across the top that offers four display modes: conventional, reverse with the bars retreating as the revs rise, peak hold with one bar staying lit to indicate your highest revs during that session, and single segment with one bar moving around the face like the end of a conventional needle.
Below that you’ll find digital readouts for your speed, distance, clock/lap time, gear position, coolant temperature, how much fuel (in litres!) is left in the tank and fuel consumption.
I’ll admit I was too busy riding the bike to fiddle with them; that will have to wait until we get a 2012 CBR1000RR on review, as promised by Honda SA.
SPACE AND TIME BEGIN TO BEND
Honda quotes 131kW at 12 000rpm and 112Nm at 8500 for the 999cc, four-cylinder engine – but that’s only half the story. There’s useful torque from 4500rpm onwards, by eight the engine is beginning to shriek as the power comes on strong and from 9500 space and time begin to bend as the bike throws itself at the horizon.
Yet you can pull out of a slow corner at 4000rpm and the ‘Blade will pick up speed smoothly and accurately, responding gently and predictably to the tiniest throttle input.
The only time I ever got the slightest jerk was when I suddenly closed and then opened the throttle, going into a downhill corner a little faster than my sphincter was comfortable with, and even that wasn’t enough to unsettle the chassis.
The 2012 Fireblade is the first Honda to feature Showa’s ‘big piston’ forks, the beautifully simple front suspension system pioneered by Kawasaki a couple of years ago.
The set-up does away with conventional valving in favour of smooth-flowing channels inside the dampers, preventing cavitation and reducing heat build-up in the oil, making the forks at the same time more compliant at the beginning of their stroke and more consistent throughout.
The result is a superbly planted front end that will stand up to kamikaze late breaking without losing its cool, letting you balance the bike on the brakes going in to a corner without pattering.
By the way, to let you control this aspect of the bike’s performance more accurately, Honda has listened to its top riders and dialled back the amount of rear-pedal pressure that gets fed to the front brakes via the combined braking system.
BALANCE FREE REAR CUSHION
The rear suspension, by contrast, sends its fluid on a complex journey through a maze of channels and sleeves (also without valving) to achieve a perfectly smooth transition from compression to rebound without a dead spot in between.
For reasons known only to the inscrutable Nipponese the system, unique (for now) to this motorcycle, is called a balance free rear cushion. Whatever that means, the effect is to banish rear-wheel chatter under braking almost entirely while keeping rear-end squat during acceleration to a minimum, without relying on super-stiff springs like a 1980s Italian bike.
Not only does it work, but the compression and rebound damping adjustment screws are on the gas reservoir of the monoshock, offset to the left and easily accessible for fine-tuning between track sessions.
For 2012 the wheels have 12 narrow spokes rather than the previous three big, hollow columns; they’re no lighter but the rim is more evenly supported, helping the tyre to retain its shape and do its job of sticking to the tar.
All of which adds up to a superbly controllable motorcycle; a few laps to get used to just how hard it can brake and how accurately it turns in, and you’re flying by the seat of your pants, listening to the engine’s high-pitched wail, feeling the almost linear connection between right wrist and rear-wheel revs, aiming at the perfect exit from every corner rather than surviving the entry – and the smoother you ride the better it works.
The bike almost seems to adapt to your riding style.
Don’t get me wrong; you never get used to the top-end rush as this thing shrieks down the main straight with the shift lights flashing in your face, but the entire back section of the circuit becomes a flowing pas de deux as you and the Fireblade do what motorcycles were invented for – carving corners with a precision that car drivers can’t understand, let alone appreciate.
It’s a beautiful thing, total control.
Price: R141 999 (R151 999 with ABS).
Engine: 999cc liquid-cooled transverse four.
Bore x stroke: 76 x 55.1mm.
Compression ratio: 12.3:1.
Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 131kW at 12 000rpm.
Torque: 112Nm at 8500rpm.
Induction: PGM-DSFI electronic fuel-injection with four 46mm throttle bodies.
Ignition: Computer-controlled digital transistorised with electronic advance.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension: 43mm inverted Showa “big piston” cartridge forks adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Rear Suspension: Gas-charged Showa ‘balance free rear cushion’ damper with 10-step preload and stepless compression and rebound damping adjustment.
Front brakes: Dual 320mm discs with Tokico four-piston radial-mount monobloc callipers and (optional) ABS.
Rear brake: 220mm disc with single-piston Tokico floating calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 120/70 – 17 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 190/50 – 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 820mm.
Kerb weight: 200kg (211 with ABS).
Fuel tank: 17.7 litres.
Fuel consumption (claimed): 5.6 litres per 100km.
Price: R141 999 (R151 999 with ABS).