First Ride

First ride: Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade/SP review

It's lighter, more powerful and packed with technology but is the new Blade back in the fight for litre-bike supremacy?

THE LAST TIME I was heading out on a new Fireblade launch, America was about to vote for a very new, very different president. Back in 2008, Barack Obama was heading to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the first black POTUS and I was heading to Losail circuit in Qatar to have a spin on the heavily-updated CBR1000RR.

Two presidential terms later, Obama's been replaced by a new model. It's loud, brash, powerful – but the handling seems like it might be a wee bit suspect… Donald Trump was taking his oath of office as we arrived at Portimao circuit for the launch of the 2017 Honda Fireblade. And while this new bike also looks to be very different from the previous incumbent, it all looks very good, on paper at least.

For 2017, Honda has given the legendary Fireblade its first proper update since 2008 – it’s dropped a load of mass, added a stack of grunt, and baked in a full-beans ride-by-wire engine management system with IMU oversight of ABS and electronic suspension too (on the flash SP version). Phew. Would it be enough to put the big H back into the serious litre bike fight it's been missing from lately?

Next morning dawned bright and early, and although there was a tiny nip in the air, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The sun was shining hard on the Portimao tarmac already, and as I changed into riding gear for the first session, confidence was high. A line of standard RRs was parked up on paddock stands, tyre warmers cooking the stock Bridgestone S21 tyres – and there was a host of Honda stars waiting to help out folk like me who were at the track for the first time. Fast Freddie Spencer was assigned for this sighting session – who better than a genuine GP legend to take us through the perplexities of Portimao?

The Portuguese track is a challenge in every way. It's very long – over 4.5km – and very fast, with loads of elevation changes, a few blind bends, and a savage mix of corners.

But I started to feel at home straight away – and much sooner than I'd hoped for. Freddie was the perfect instructor, and the Fireblade was just the friendly helping hand you need when you're learning a new circuit.

The stock bike has conventional suspension and Tokico brakes – and all the launch machines had the optional quickshifter fitted. The Bridgestones felt grippy and communicative, the suspension supple and controlled, the brakes strong and as the pace picked up, I began to settle into the new Blade experience.

I was left to my own devices for the second session, so after a fast blat out of pit lane, I was into the groove. At the end of the straight lies a pair of bends that lead into the first slow bend, a second-gear uphill right-hander, followed by the first blind entry, onto a short straight and as I clicked up through third to fourth, the excellent quickshifter snicked away like a robotic arm on a Japanese assembly line.

Then it’s back down to second for a left-hander, and up and over another rise, downhill into a faster right, then back uphill again before you take off from a big old drop, a little like Paddock Hill, only straight (ish). My brain was fried trying to take it all in – and that’s only half the lap…

… but the Blade is like an old pal egging me on round a massive pub crawl. The engine feels strong, lusty, but not monstrous in the way that a less-refined litre bike can do. And it definitely made me feel in control: the new ride-by-wire throttle has no surprises, and always delivered what I wanted round Portimao.

The quickshifter is exactly as you'd expect from the big H – it works extremely well, particularly on downshifts. Only a big firm like Honda has the resources to spend the thousands of man-hours needed to perfectly map a quickshifter function into an ECU and it shows here.

The ABS and traction control electronics are there in the background of course, keeping a careful eye on things – but they might not save you from absolutely everything. When pushing on a bit, I had a slight moment on the bumpy section coming out of the turn four - the back wheel stepped out and I was out of the seat. It was more down to the road tyres getting a bit hot and bothered than anything else, but was a gentle reminder to watch my step.

The stock bike has the same ABS and engine management electronics as the SP – with the SP getting the Öhlins electronic suspension system. I was on the factory-recommended 'Track' mode for the early sessions, which gives full power (from five options) and the traction control is on '2' (from nine options, plus off).

It’s a good balance – on the last bend, a super-scary fast right hander onto the straight, I noticed the wee yellow light flashing a couple of times, which is weirdly reassuring. On the other hand, just a couple of hundred yards down the straight, there's a bit of a rise, and if you catch it right (or wrong…) the front end comes up, and the traction control cuts savagely, dropping back down and bouncing your genitals into the fuel tank. Ouch.

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