More grip, Vicar
I waited until the afternoon sessions before taking to the track again. Firstly I thought a bit of sun might warm the track up and news filtering through that the Honda mechanics were fitting Bridgestone R10 race tyres during the lunch break sealed the deal.
Turned out it was worth the wait. Grip levels were massively improved and on a track that punishes mistakes so brutally (it's all gut-churningly fast) grip is your bestest friend forever.
It wasn't just grip that improved with the change of tyres, either. Even during the gentle out-laps the steering was noticeably better. There are plenty of corners at Portimao where you need to hug an apex for slightly longer than normal or tighten your line to position yourself for the next bend. On the stickier, lighter front Bridgestone R10 tyres every aspect of the steering was improved - turn-in, feedback, accuracy and braking stability - the latter a really noticeably attribute when you're having to brake from 160mph+ (downhill) at the end of the back straight.
Warmer tarmac and soft-compound, sticky tyres may have been Honda's anti-crash insurance but it didn't make the Fireblade feel any better - or worse. Good fuelling is good fuelling rain or shine. If anything, the extra grip just meant you could use bigger handfuls of throttle so Honda's claimed improvement of 'up to 25% throttle performance' was less relevant and largely unnoticed because the time spent at less than quarter throttle was markedly less.
So what about the other changes? The dash? The lighter wheels? The suspension?
Well I'm massively long sighted so the dash is kind of wasted on a non spec'-wearing me. The swanky new LCD dash does lap times (starter button activated), will give you progressive rev limit LED light warnings (all programmable to personal choice) and other stuff like horoscopes, Radio6 music and shipping forecasts. The latter three points may not be true.
The shift lights were only any use to me on the long main straight to time the selection of fourth, fifth and sixth gears to perfection. For other blind, old, late forties (target customer) people, you can't miss the dazzling blue LED lights. The rest of a lap of Portimao is all about riding a torque curve on feel alone while you feel for grip. This, the new Blade does as well if not better than the old one. Don't need a fancy dash to do this...
The suspension? I dunno, really. On a race track, any suspension system is only as good as the rider is at setting it up to suit his/her riding style. Despite unprompted lunchtime tweaks my bike got worse and worse as I got more and more used to the grip levels, the bike and the track. In the braking zone at the end of the straight I was eventually bottoming the forks so hard that I was convinced something was coming loose so mighty was the 'thunk' I felt through the bars. Much need for more spring and more compression damping - but no time to do it.
The front forks were also misbehaving at in a couple of the corners where you're forced to carry a lot of front brake to the apex. The moment you let go of the brake lever to get all your fingers back on the throttle, the forks would extend too quickly, taking much wanted weight off the front tyre in an altogether alarming way (when you're already floating around the edge of grip). Again, no time to sort this out.
The back? Well, despite someone else deciding what settings were best for us all there were still a couple of places where it was hard to control because the back end seemed to have a mind of its own. The fast, downhill, third gear approach to turn seven was one such area. On a trailing throttle with the front tyre all loaded up, the back end of the bike was topping out and bouncing around in much need of more rebound damping. The same too at the downhill approach to turn five. Ba-doing, Boing, doing....
All the above was probably a question of a few clicks here and there but it's hard to comment on new suspension when my own 2011 bike (with its old suspension) is better in every respect because I've had the time and the inclination to get it all sorted to suit me and how I ride. We're assured this new big piston stuff is all better and I'm sure it is - with time and a bit of fiddling.
The 2012 Fireblade improvements might be hard to quantify (and justify) with just sixty minutes on track but sat on pit lane, in the dying embers of a late November warming Algarve sun, the best bit about the new Blade is pretty bloody obvious. It looks gorgeous in the flesh. Pointy-nosed, aggressive and ultra-compact. Like Porsche's iconic 911 there's a lot to be said for evolution rather than revolution when form mirrors function so closely...
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