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EXCLUSIVE | Two-Time TT winner Gary Johnson tests BSB Honda Superbikes!

To find out how close the bike you can buy in a Honda dealership is to a BSB race bike, we went to Oulton Park to ride three very special Fireblades

CBR1000RR-R SP Gary Johnson Oulton Park

MOTORCYCLE manufacturers are always banging on about how their latest and greatest 1,000cc sports bikes are as close to their racing siblings as you can get. And with Honda coining the RR (Race Replica) moniker, you’d have to assume the Japanese giants’ bikes are closer than most.

But rather than taking the assurances of some decals on a fairing, Honda extended Visordown the chance to find out for ourselves, as they invited us to an event at Oulton Park to ride three new generations of Fireblades.

First up, we had to acclimatisation sessions on a road-going CBR1000RR-R SP, followed by a couple of sessions aboard Tom Neaves’ National Superstock bike, followed by a single session at the end of the day riding Glenn Irwin’s full-fat BSB Superbike.

Before we get into the meat of the feature though, a quick disclaimer: You’ll notice that it is not me riding for this one. I like track riding and would normally jump at the chance to ride bucket list bikes like this. But to really get the best out of this feature, we needed to find a rider who could really exploit the limits of the three machines. To put it frankly - that rider isn't me!

Introducing two-time TT winner Gary Johnson 

I’ve known Gary for a while now, get on with him well and really his riding credentials speak for themselves. He’s lapped the world’s toughest road race at over 130mph, won two Isle of Man TT’s, countless road races, and even hung out at the pointy end of the BSB. If you wanted somebody to exploit a road or race bike, CV’s don’t really get much better!

Round 1 – Honda CBR1000RR-R SP road bike

Fast Facts

Weight

Power

Torque

201kg

214bhp

83lb-ft

After the necessary health and safety briefings were out of the way, Gary got suited up and headed out on track for his first sessions on the latest generation Honda Fireblade. Having spent much of his early career on Honda-built bikes, this was Gary’s first chance to sample the new generation ‘Blade. Interestingly, it was his first taste of electronically adjusted semi-active suspension too, so I was keen to hear his thoughts.

“That is one of the best 1,000cc chassis I have ever ridden. Stability-wise, corner entry and on the side of the tyre, it’s like getting on a GP bike,” he beamed on returning after session one. “It’s very flat on the tank and the ergonomics are fairly small, you feel like you sit very much on it rather than in it, but once you get it in a corner, all its problems are solved!”

“The engine and gearing combo though, with the Euro5 there, the tall gears just highlight that peaky power. It’s such long road gearing, you’d not ride it around on the track like that for long. But that said, I’m wanting to go out next session and drag my elbow, and I’m a fat old road racer not some teenage GP wannabee!”

Round 2 – Honda CBR1000RR-R SP National Superstock bike

Fast Facts

Weight

Power

Torque

190kg

227bhp

89lb-ft

Just starting up the Superstock bike in the pit after riding the road bike, the difference is immediate. The engine character is completely transformed, with the muted tick-over of the road-going ‘Blade now replaced with a gravelly and slightly belligerent demeanour. Even at idle, Tom Neave’s race bike seems pissed off that it’s not been ridden!

After a quick chat with Honda Racing’s engineers before heading out, the bikes head off down pitlane, Glenn Irwin leading the way, with Gary following and Tom behind him. The first time seeing the bikes pass from the pit wall is a phenomenally impressive thing. The three bikes were split by less than a have a second, and to all intense and purposes, this could well have been a qualifying session.

After 20-mins Gary returned to the pits so I could get his initial impressions.

“Firstly, all those dips in the rev range have gone”, Superstock rules allow an exhaust, filter, and Power Commander to be used which will go some way to explaining that. “Other than that, the gearing is shorter, so you’re not falling out of the power band so much. On that front it was easier to ride.”

After hearing his comments on the riding position of the road bike, I was keen to find out how he’d found the race bike. Given that Tom Neave is a fair bit younger, shorter, and (quite a bit) slimmer than Gary, his response was interesting. “The footpegs have been shifted back and also down a bit, and the clip-ons are now mounted further forwards. Straight away, I just wanted to chuck it into a corner and drag my elbow on the deck, and it was now comfier to ride.”

One point Gary did bring up was the set-up that Tom uses on the Superstock machine. He commented after the first session that the front felt so stiff, with little or no dive on the brakes. It could be the way Tom likes the bike to be set up, although it wasn’t just Gary that picked up on it. Later in the day Glenn Irwin also tried Tom’s bike, he also commented that a slightly more forgiving front end might help him find a quicker lap time.

In terms of lap times, there’s actually not much to choose between the road bike and the Superstock machine. With road tyres in use and only minimal engine mods, the power output of the race bike isn’t far from that of the race machine. From chatting to Gary between the sessions, the biggest change seems to be in the shorter gearing, allowing the engine to pull into the power with greater ease than the road bike. All things told that’s adding up to about 2-seconds a lap on the roller-coaster that is Oulton Park.

Round 3 – Honda CBR1000RR-R SP British Superbike

Fast Facts

Weight

Power

Torque

180kg

241bhp

96lb-ft

Rounding out our day testing some of the finest race bikes in the UK was a single session riding Glenn Irwin’s 2021 British Superbike. The step up from Tom’s Superstock bike is vast, with Superbike rules allowing vast amounts of changes by comparison. The Superbike is lighter 180kg wet, more powerful 241bhp, and blessed with some of the trickest suspension and braking combos this side of a MotoGP machine.

With his eye well and truly dialled into the circuit, Gary wasted no time in getting up to speed, hammering past the pit-wall for his first flying lap. Considering the last time the guy rode a Superbike-spec machine was Macau some time ago, it really didn’t seem to show.

Pulling in, the first thing that’s clear is how physical the Superbike is compared to the other bikes on test. With beads of sweat on his brow, Gary debriefs on the Superbikes session. “The throttle is so well set up. It took a few laps to get used to it, but even then, I could have been getting on the power so much earlier. You can crack the throttle open, and it’s just so smooth. And the engine braking is really nice. The chassis is a little bit soft for me, but even so, it didn’t squat under power. If I had just one more session on that, I’d be able to go out and really push it.”

“The riding position for me was even better still [than the Superstock bike]. Glenn’s about my size, so the peg to seat to bar position was about where I’d like it. I felt good, I just wanted another session!”

Honda Racing BSB Experience | Gary Johnson Compares the Honda CBR1000RR-R SP vs SBK vs STK

Honda Racing BSB Experience | Gary Johnson Compares the Honda CBR1000RR-R SP vs SBK vs STK

To go back around to our original question – how close the riding experience of a road bike to a full-fat BSB race machine is, and I was keen to get Gary’s thoughts. It turns out that if you’re looking at the bike as two parts, engine and chassis, one is much closer to the machine that races on a Sunday than you might think. Despite been massively modified for racing, thanks to extensive weight reduction and stiffening, the chassis of the road bike feels almost as same as its track-focused cousin.

Now that may not have always been the case for this model, as the latest generation Fireblade is much more focused than anything that has come before it. “Chassis-wise, there’s really nothing in it. On the circuit, the road bike performs just as well in a turn as the racer. The engine and suspension are the biggest areas that differ.” Gary went on to comment on the electronics, claiming that even on that front there was little to choose between the two machines. “The throttle is great on the road bike, I can’t fault it. It’s just that Euro5 stuff in the ECU that causes the dips in the power as you go through the revs. But even then, changing the riding mode from road to sport even helped that.”

So, to answer the question, yes, the sports bikes you can buy are pretty close to those that race in the most competitive domestic championship on the planet. In terms of lap times – an average of five seconds across the day – and also in terms of how they feel. But it probably hasn’t always been that way. A customers crave the latest, greatest, and most extreme machines for general road riding, the gap between the two machines in terms of pure performance is shrinking, although in other ways, ergonomics, comfort, and rideability, the sports bikes we can but might have gone in the opposite direction.

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