Andrew Irwin: “As a rider, you worry…”

Security and excitement are the key to Andrew Irwin’s planned bounce back from a difficult first season on his return to Honda

Andrew Irwin, Dean Harrison, Honda Racing UK 2024.

Andrew Irwin’s first season back with Honda in the British Superbike Championship certainly didn’t go to plan, and was over almost before it had started. Despite the difficulties of 2023, Irwin looks to 2024 with optimism thanks to security and the promise of new opportunities.

The 2024 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade was one of the notable inclusions at this year’s EICMA show, and this was the case for Andrew Irwin as much as - perhaps even more so - the general motorcycling public. 

“I’m excited for 2024, with the new Fireblade,” Irwin said. “[It’s] a bike that I think is going to have a lot of potential.”

Irwin won’t get to try the new bike in BSB-spec until the BSB preseason testing programme starts in March, but he knows what he wants to find from the new machinery, and it mostly concerns the engine, and acceleration coming out of corners.

“Whenever I raced with some other bikes in the past, I would say that’s where we lost out a bit," Irwin said of the 2023 bike. On 2024, "We’ve got a lighter crank now,” Irwin said, “so it’ll pick up out of the turns faster,” thus solving corner exit issues.

If you want more punch out of the corner, reducing crankshaft weight is a relatively simple way to go. However, failing to install stability-improving measures to counteract the livelier crank can mean that power is brought at the cost of rideability, and you can ask Jorge Martin about his 2022 MotoGP season if you want to verify that. 

Honda has considered this and brought a two-motor throttle-by-wire (TBW) system to the 2024 Fireblade. One TBW motor is for cylinders one and two, and the other is for three and four. Making this kind of split in throttle application means that each pair of cylinders can be opened and closed independently of the other, depending on throttle percentage, which allows for smoother throttle pick-up from low engine speeds as only one bank of cylinders will be opened on the first touch of the throttle.

“Now we’ve got splits,” Irwin said, “so the throttle should be nicer. I’ve used it in the past on different bikes, and you notice it a little bit. We’ve got some really smart staff at Honda, and they should be able to make them work in a really good way. So, I think that’ll be a step.”

Quite famously, BSB prohibits electronic rider aids such as traction control and anti-wheelie and, along with the expectedly smoother throttle response, Irwin reckons a more visible update to the 2024 Fireblade will aid its riders’ performance next season.

“Whenever you’ve got no traction control and no anti-wheelie I think a big step is always to have better wings,” Irwin said, “and that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got more downforce now, so hopefully we won’t need to use that rear brake just as much.” 

The rear brake is a tool for riders to use on corner exit just as much as it is on corner entry because it helps reduce wheelie in a more effective and time-efficient way than closing the throttle. But, it still slows you down. You want to be able to use as much power as possible from as early as possible in the straight in as unprohibited a way as possible, and adding downforce to the front is helpful in this regard because it is effectively anti-wheelie that is unrestrictive to the motor.

There are still almost four months until Irwin and the rest of the BSB field can get out on their 2024 race bikes, but the timing and severity of Irwin’s injury meant he faced the possibility of an even longer stretch off the bike. Fortunately, he was able to return to BSB in the final races of 2023.

“There’s a testing ban now until March,” Irwin said, “so if I didn’t race then it would have been 10 months [off the bike] until March, between racing a bike, like a proper superbike.” He did those races despite feeling that he “knew then that I still wasn’t right, but I just wanted to race.”

Certainly, Irwin’s results on his return were not what he goes racing for. He took a best result of 13th in the second race at the Brands Hatch season finale. But, by then, Irwin was already long-assured of his position for 2024. 

“As soon as I was injured…of course, as a rider you worry because it’s your job,” Irwin said. “We literally lay in hospital thinking ‘what’s going to happen?’ especially because it was so early in the season, you do have that.”

But Irwin’s mind was put quickly at ease by the Honda team manager, Javier Beltran, who “was able to tell me straight away that I had a job again.," Irwin said. "That took a massive weight off my shoulders, especially through the injury, that I knew that I would be carrying on, [and] not have that negativity, [thoughts of] ‘What am I going to do? Where am I going to be? What if I’m working for Eurosport every weekend instead of racing bikes?’

“He didn’t have to sign me again, but he obviously sees something there.”

The 2022 season had ended better, though, for Irwin, with four top-fives in the last six races, including three podiums. 

“Some people might forget, in the end of 2022 I had three or four podiums in the last three rounds,” Irwin pointed out (he didn’t have the benefit of a results sheet during the interview that I had while writing).

It’s this that Irwin wants to focus on. “The speed’s there,” he said, “it’s just being able to put it all together. I think the main thing is to bring some consistency. [I want] to be inside the top five as much as possible. 

“When you look at the championship, how many people had a chance at the last round, just by being consistent? Not even having that many podiums, just always being [competitive] week in, week out. I think that’ll be important.” 

It’s an interesting point Irwin makes - Kyle Ryde finished third in the 2023 riders’ standings having scored 13 podiums in 33 races, a hit rate of just over one-in-three, and six wins. The two main title rivals - eventual champion Tommy Bridewell and Glenn Irwin, Andrew’s brother - finished the season with 18 podiums each and separated by half a point. And, although that went in Bridewell’s favour, it was Irwin who had the more wins - 10 to Bridewell’s eight.

So, does that mean that Irwin - we are considering again Andrew now - fancies his chances of the title next year, because he knows that winning every week is not the only answer to winning a BSB title? “I think [being in title contention] is a big ask, coming from where I came from in the past year,” he said. “But the goal, for me, [is] to be in the top five. At the end of the year, if I’m in the top five, that’ll be a decent job; but if I’m in the top five for nine rounds and the last two or three rounds I start to be a bit more competitive, we’ll not be too far away.”

Honda has certainly made its mark on the 2024 British Superbike Championship already, and it doesn’t even start until the end of April. By signing Tommy Bridewell, it announced its intention to be challenging for titles. We spoke to Irwin before the Bridewell news had been announced, so we didn’t get a chance to ask him about welcoming the reigning champion into a team he has spent a couple of years with by now.

However, Bridewell is not the only interesting arrival at Honda for 2024, though, as Jack Kennedy arrives to front a British Supersport campaign. 

As both Irwin and Kennedy have arrived at the British Championship from across the Irish Sea (BSB races at Mondello Park were distant memories by the time either arrived in its paddock), and as they have both been in it for significant periods, you might expect that they had formed some kind of relationship a while ago. Not so.

“He’s probably a rider that I’ve not been overly close with in the past,” Irwin said, “but we spent a bit of time together last week, we were doing photos, and he’s a brilliant lad. He probably fits in with me, he’s a bit of craic, doesn’t take life too seriously- for sure when he’s racing, he does, he’s a four-time British Supersport Champion, he definitely takes it seriously - but he’s able to have a laugh as well, and I think that’ll be important inside the garage, to have that.”

Irwin chooses a different word to describe the presence of Honda’s other signing of interest for 2024: “nice”. This time, he is talking about 2019 Senior TT winner and current road racing star Dean Harrison, someone he has more history with.

“I’ve known Dean for a few years now,” Irwin said, “and I think he’ll be an asset to Honda because he’s kind of like a ‘happy-go-lucky’ kind of character.

“He’s a phenomenal racer as well - a top 10 BSB guy now, and also probably has the potential to be a Senior TT winner (again), too. To have that in your garage is really nice.”

The 2024 BSB season kicks off, unusually, in Navarra, Spain. Irwin’s goal from now until then is “to make sure that when we do arrive at the first round I’m in the best shape that I possibly can be. Not just physically, but also mentally, and make sure that I’m ready for the challenge that lies ahead.”