Tadao Baba, the man who built the FireBlade, talks openly about retirement, smoking and crashing the odd Honda now and then...
Baba-san, how old are you these days?Well the mind is 28 but my body, actually it is 64. I am now officially retired, and have been for four years. In 2004 I retired from Honda and finally handed over the Fireblade project to Kyoichi Yoshii. So now I can relax!
And what did they give you as a retirement gift?I had a big farewell party and Honda gave me a piston from every model of FireBlade mounted on a wooden plaque. It’s on a shelf in my house, I am very proud of it and my time working for Honda.
So now you’re retired, what do you do with your new-found spare time?Some Sundays I play golf, but golf is very, very difficult and motorcycle riding is very, very easy for me. So I like to ride more. I ride a 2002 FireBlade 954, it was the last CBR I designed, and as a total package this was the best Blade I ever made. Lovely handling, engine and power delivery, it’s my favourite bike to ride. But for the image, the first Blade is the best one. It has the best memories for me.
That original 1992 fireblade of yours. Just what was it that made it so special?Sportsbikes of the time were fast. Whoosh! (he mimes going in a straight line with his hands) but sportsbikes were not fun in corners. No flick-flack! I wanted a bike to be fun to ride and more importantly, to go around the corners. I told people at the time this new bike would change the thinking for sportsbike design, that it would be fun both in corners and a straight line. Originally we started with a CBR750RR but we already had the VFR, so perhaps make it a 1000? No. We also had CBR1000F. Instead we saw that if we took the dimensions of a 750, use base motor but keep same bore and increase stroke it came to 893cc - so a new class was born, the 900 class.
And those holes you drilled into the upper fairing - they didn’t really do anything, did they?Of course they did, haha! At the time Honda NSR race machines had holes in their fairings. Some say they worked and helped the machine turn quickly. On my Fireblade it just looked right. The holes that did work were on the front fender on later models. We made holes there for air to pass through and almost ‘suck’ the front wheel to the ground.
When did you start with Honda?I started when I was just 18 years old, and that was back in 1962, haha! My first job was in the machinery section of the factory. I worked for three years making crankcases and cylinder heads for Honda’s CB72 and 77, then at 20 I moved to the R&D department. You’ve got to realise that Honda was only 10 years old when I joined, so it was a very young and exciting company to work for back then.
Did you need serious engineering skills to get into honda back in those days?Well I didn’t go to university, just high school. So I learnt by using the machinery at Honda! All my experience is from working at the factory, learning from the people around me and using the machinery. You could say that my engineering experience was all pretty hands-on.
What’s the best bike you have ever ridden?Well the most interesting model I’ve ridden is the Ducati 916. It was a very simple design and very exciting. I prefer the feel of an inline four, but as an engineer I found the Ducati 916 very interesting to ride and study. Italian bike’s looks are much better than the Japanese. The FireBlade’s design team spent some time studying Ducati when we were making new models. It was an inspiration for us.
So are all Japanese sportsbikes the same?As a package Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki bikes are designed and look very similar. But the character is a little bit different. Each manufacturer studies the competition’s handling and performance, so they are similar. But our technology is different, every year it is stepped up. Kawasaki has a very strong engine, the new ZX-10R has huge power, but I think the Honda is a better package. The Kawasaki has more exciting power, but the handling I think is a little bit slow.
You have a bit of a reputation as a crasher. how many FireBlades have you crashed?Ha, I have heard this as well! Some of Honda’s test riders think I have crashed every model of FireBlade. But I think it’s only four or five. But then I have crashed some bikes that weren’t FireBlades as well. Very embarrassing recently, I crashed a 2008 Fireblade at McLeans at Donington Park riding with Ron Haslam and a group of FireBlade owners.
The latest incarnation of the blade has a controversial look, but do you like it?Ah, a very difficult question. Image is number one these days, and the 2008 Blade’s looks are…questioned. But the handling and character, packaged controllability, means a shorter nose was needed. The new fairing was developed for this and it gave the bike a different character. The looks are questionable, but I don’t know. Maybe next year a new image, maybe it will be more MotoGP style.
What element of the original Fireblade design gave you the most satisfaction, and why?The concept of the first Blade is what still survives today: fun to ride, easy to control, and this is what I am most proud of. We had a sticker on the original bike - Total Control - and that was always the idea. That character, which still lives on today 16 years on, makes me very happy. The key to a good bike is that it must be fun to ride, that’s why the Blade is successful.
Finally, you’re known for liking the odd cigarette. any plans on cutting down?Well, you know I’m supposed to be cutting down, I have made some promises to my family. But we’ll see. Just smoking a few less can’t hurt, I suppose...
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