One of the most iconic names in motorcycling is now 25 years old. Honda’s Fireblade (née FireBlade) burst onto the scene in 1992, but how has it evolved into its current guise? Insidebikes tells all…
In the beginning
In the late 1980s, when Honda conceived the FireBlade concept, sports bikes generally followed a formula of having 750ccs and four cylinders. It was a format defined by racing regulations of the time: Kawasaki had the ZXR750, Suzuki the GSX-R750 and Yamaha the FZ750, and all three could compete in the then new Superbike World Championship.
Honda’s offering in the 750 class was the VFR750, a sporty all-rounder that was hugely popular but no race replica so, at the tail end of the 1980s, Honda set about building its own inline four sports bike. Using the CBR designation (which at the time was the company’s code for a sporting inline four), project leader Tadao Baba set about developing the lightest and sharpest sports bike on the market – a bike with the weight of a 600 and the power of a 1000 – a bike, as Baba-san said would truly deserve the title ‘super sport’.
The FireBlade could well have been a CBR750RR. Early prototypes were reported to run an industry standard 750cc motor, but Honda had an ace up its sleeve. The new sportsbike would not need to meet race regulations. Honda already had its expensive V4 RC30 homologated as a race bike so the new model didn’t need to play by those rules. What became the CBR900RR FireBlade featured an 893cc engine (the largest that could be fitted within Baba’s compact frame design) and was obsessive in its weight saving, even going as far as specifying a 16” front wheel in order to shave off a few grammes. Honda claimed 122bhp and a 185kg dry weight – making the ‘Blade good for over 165mph. Although never intended as a racer, the FireBlade also enjoyed a number of successes in production bike events, winning numerous Isle of Man TT races and proving highly competitive in the new superstock classes.
The CBR900RR enjoyed an 11 year lifespan, gradually increasing its engine capacity to keep it competitive against the new generation of full-on litre bikes from Suzuki and Yamaha. By 2003 the sportsbike landscape had changed once again and, after five generations, the CBR900RR was no more. Goodbye FireBlade, hello Fireblade…
2004 Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade
A lot had changed in the superbike landscape since the FireBlade burst onto the scene in 1992.
Yamaha had taken over the mantle of top dog with the 1998 YZF-R1, a full-litre 150bhp rocketship, and although the FireBlade remained competitive through its trademark agility and controllability, the writing was on the wall.
Alongside that, there had been some seismic shifts in the racing world. Ducati had taken full advantage of the superbike rules giving twins a 250cc advantage over the fours and utterly dominated production based racing, leading Aprilia, Honda and Suzuki built 1000cc V-twins of their own as the 750s became increasingly obsolete.
More than that, Grand Prix racing had switched from irrelevant 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-stroke and Honda was head and shoulders above the competition in this new class, called MotoGP. In 2003 the Big H introduced the stunning CBR600RR. This new 600 shared its styling with Valentino Rossi’s RC211V MotoGP bike and introduced several new technologies and the following year saw the introduction of the all-new CBR1000RR Fireblade.
Such was Honda’s intent, the new model was developed by the team behind Honda’s MotoGP bike. The decision to drop the capital B in ‘Blade’ was reportedly in honour of the recently retired Baba and although the new CBR1000RR was very much a direct competitor for the R1 and GSX-R1000, Honda still managed to retain that traditional hallmark of being that bit more manageable and cohesive than others in the class.
With over 170bhp, the 2004 bike claimed almost 20bhp more than the outgoing 954cc motor. The all-new engine was neatly packaged and featured a race style cassette type gearbox, while the chassis was all about controlling the power. The longer swingarm, centrally located fuel tank and engine placed as close to the front wheel as possible were all aimed at reducing wheelies and maximising traction, while the electronic steering damper reduced headshake under acceleration.
The underseat silencer followed the fashion of the time and echoed the V5 MotoGP bike. Further creating the MotoGP link, the new Fireblade also came in Repsol replica colours.
On the race track, Chris Vermeulen won 10 races in two years of racing a privately-run Fireblade in world superbikes, finishing as runner up in 2005, while Honda’s main factory effort came in the British championship – where Ryuichi Kiyonari also finished as runner up in 2005. In the Suzuka 8-hour race, the most important one off race in the eyes of the Japanese factories, the 2004/05 Fireblade was undefeated, winning the race in both years.
A number of small updates kept the Fireblade competitive in 2006 and 2007, with changes to the chassis, engine and styling. The Fireblade still lacked the outright power of the GSX-R1000 and Kawasaki’s ZX-10R, but in terms of all-round usability, it was still the bike to beat.
On the track, the revised bike proved a massive success. Kiyonari won the British championship in both years on a full-factory HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) prepared bike, while James Toseland took his second world superbike title in 2007 on a Ten Kate Racing prepared Fireblade.
Another new model for 2008
Visually, the 2008 Fireblade didn’t look too different to what had gone before it, but under the skin there was a virtually new bike.
Where the competition got more aggressive in both the looks and on the spec sheet, the Honda brought a more refined and mature look to it – especially with some of the dark single colour options.
Unlike most of the competition, the ‘Blade still didn’t feature electronically controlled rider modes or traction control. The engine was, however, all new with a bigger bore, shorter stroke, titanium valves and a slipper clutch. Power output was more or less the same as the previous generation bikes, at a claimed 170bhp, despite increasingly tight emissions regulations.
ABS came as an option in 2009 and another update came along in 2012, with Showa Big Piston Forks, new wheels, an LCD display and small aerodynamic tweaks. A single seat SP version, with Ohlins suspension, came in 2015 but overall development slowed down as demand for big sports bikes slowed down.
Despite this, the Fireblade still scored some successes on the race track. Alex Lowes won a British Superbike title on one and at the TT, John McGuinness continued to rack up the wins on his CBR. But for road riders, there was still massive demand for an all new model – and their prayers were answered when not one, but three, new Fireblades were announced for 2017.
The 2017 trio
Honda unveiled three eagerly anticipated new CBR1000RR Fireblades at 2016’s autumn motorcycle shows. As well as the standard bike, there’s also a single seat SP, featuring Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes, as well as a limited edition SP2 that adds Marchesini forged wheels and a bunch of trick engine internals that have been incorporated to allow further tuning by race teams.
In a first for a Fireblade, the new trio are dripping with the latest electronic rider aids with multiple modes, traction control and wheelie control all infinitely adjustable.
What remains true though is the philosophy. Just as Tadeo Baba obsessed about weight, packaging and all-round ability when he developed the first FireBlades some 30 years ago, so the team developing the 2017 incarnation have obsessed about ‘Total Control’.