The hallmark of all Honda's bikes has always been that they're very easy to ride and live with, and its 2006-spec CBR1000RR Fireblade superbike is no exception.
The new bike is even more polished than last year's example. And though none of the numerous changes made to it aren't especially radical, they do add up to make the new Blade even more of a complete package. Only time will tell whether the Honda will be able to ultimately match or beat its superbike opposition. But I'd stick my neck out and say that the vast majority of riders will be able to get more from the Blade than the others - simply because it's so useable and friendly.
The new bike doesn't look too much different, retaining a very similar overall shape to the current bike. It might have been slimmed down and sharpened here and there, but it still has the current Blade's visual identity as we know it. Changes to the engine and chassis are just as subtle.
Weight paring on stuff like the cams, radiator and engine covers, along with a lighter exhaust, and ECU help account for the claimed 3kg saving overall on dry weight. And changes to the intake and exhaust ports, combustion chamber shape, and two, rather than a single inlet valve spring, contribute to the claimed boost in midrange power and a 550rpm-higher red-line.
With a very slightly steeper head angle, and marginally shorter trail and swingarm lengths reducing wheelbase by 10mm, the Honda engineers told us to expect a sharper turning motorcycle. And while they were at it, they also pointed out a stiffer crank and redesigned gearbox for greater reliability, some bigger brake discs for extra stopping power, and lower gearing to make acceleration a bit brisker. None of those changes suggest a very different bike to the current model. But believe me, the new Blade is noticeably improved.
For starters it's a bit lighter up top, and you can notice that just from hauling it up from its stand. And it's definitely got sharper steering too. I hadn't even gone to the end of the pit lane to join the track, before I could tell the response was sharper. And this trait was something I was going to notice a lot more throughout the day.
Losail is a new track to me, and it's a tricky old place to learn. It has a wide variety of corners, and the flat and featureless nature of the place means it's quite easy to get some of those corners mixed up. But 'ignorance' of a track can actually do you a few favours, and really helps you to assess how easy to use a bike is. And sure enough, the Blade is still very much that sort of bike.
The boost to the midrange and torque is evident, and that combined with the higher redline, means the power is now more broadly spread, easier and more forgiving to use. This means you can hang onto the same gear for longer and the new bike definitely doesn't need the same number of changes to keep the pace as high.
Now the most debateable point is whether, as Honda claims, the new bike can keep up with a GSX-R1000. And though the new bike's engine is undoubtedly stronger than last year's, it certainly doesn't feel as powerful as the Suzuki. But, and it's a very relevant but, feel isn't necessarily good enough to assess the actual acceleration and speed an engine gives. A smooth and linear delivery like the Blade's can sometimes disguise its true potency, and give the impression that it's slower than it really is. The only way we'll find out if the Honda's motor is up to the pace of the Gixer's, is when we test them back-to-back.
Where it will compete closely with all other superbikes however is round corners. The Blade's chassis has always been up there with the competition, and the latest bike is the best version yet.
The slightly reduced weight, and sharper steering really paid dividends round the Losail track, and the old bike's tendency to run wide at times has gone completely. The 06 bike's steering is lighter and sharper and it can hold a line perfectly no matter what the speed or sharpness of the corner. It's amazing just how much small changes in geometry can make such a difference, but that's just what they've done.
It's a similar story with the brakes and the increased disc size has added extra power while retaining the same levels of feel and progression. I certainly never wanted any more stopping power whichever of the track's corners I was charging into.
After two sessions learning the circuit, we were allowed to stiffen the suspension from the standard settings and it really helped with the composure of the bike overall. And then in the afternoon sessions, to really see what the bike was made of, Bridgestone BT002 race tyres were fitted to the bike.
The specially-made BT015 road tyres had done everything asked of them up to this point. But the grip that the race tyres offered was in another league and allowed you push the bike much, much harder than before.
It was an excellent way to find out just how good the Honda was under extreme pressure, and the Blade passed the test superbly. The final verdict on the bike's handling is quite simple. It's a lot better than me and it never got anything less than my full approval.
And that's the story of the bike overall. It's better by being gruntier and sharper, making it quicker and easier to go faster on. The changes to the engine and chassis might be subtle but they do add up to give a noticeable improvement.
The latest Blade is even more well-mannered than its predecessor and all the more rideable because of it. And that's a very good thing when you've got so much power and speed on tap.
The only real concern for some will be that it doesn't feel as fast or thrilling as it is. Not everyone wants refinement and civility from a superbike. But Honda it seems, can't make bikes any other way.
Not many changes at all for the 06 Yamaha flagship. But then again not many were needed. Like the Blade, the R1 is a very sorted and civilised piece of kit and easier to use than ever. An awesome motor and near perfect handling are its main strengths, backed up by comfort, civility and excellent build quality.
A complete revision by Kawasaki has smoothed out the ZX10-R's rough edges. Its engine is more powerful but some extra midrange punch has filled in the power curve and made it less intimidating to use. Similarly, alterations to the chassis have made the bike much less scary to ride harder. It's much closer to the GSX-R now, though only a back-to-back test will tell if it's better.
Suzuki GSX-R 1000:
The original hooligan bike is an incredible superbike that could easily stay top of the class, even if it's not been altered for 06. The Suzuki's amazing speed and accurate handling will be very hard for its rivals to beat on either road or track. As will its good manners. Our bet is that it will still be THE one to buy. Though only just!
Price: GBP 9,000 otr (tbc)
Power: 170bhp @ 11,250rpm
Torque: 85ft/lbs @ 10,000rpm
Engine: 998cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-stroke, four-valves per cylinder, inline-four
Seat height: 831mm
Dry weight: 176kg
Bore x Stroke: 75 x 56.5mm
Compression ratio: 12.2:1
Available: February 2006