Duke's Den: Decades Of Fireblades

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

From CBR900RR to all-new CBR1000RR

Seeing Honda’s 2017 CBR1000RR get revealed this week at Intermot got me excited in more than the one obvious way. Certainly, learning about the decisions deemed to be necessary by the mighty R&D hands of Honda to compete at the highest levels of sportbike production will always be interesting, and that holds true with this freshly baked CBR1k. An extra 10 ponies is always beneficial, but it’s the trimming of 33 pounds from the scales that really excites me. My old and lazy bones will probably also like the semi-active suspension of the SP version and auto-blipping downshifter.

2017 Honda CBR1000RR SP and SP2 Unveiling

The news of the latest Honda sportbike jogged the rusty wheels of my memory back to 1997 when I was invited on my first media introduction to ride Honda’s latest and best (and last) rendition of the badass CBR900RR. This was only a month after landing my first full-time motojourno job, at Motorcyclist, so I was stoked to get shipped off to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to ride Honda’s headlining sportbike.

Church of MO – 1998 Honda CBR900RR Review

The 1998 Honda CBR900RR was a major upgrade from the 1997 version and really fun to ride, but its 115 rear-wheel horsepower seems quaint by today’s standards. This was back when your superbike could carry your lunch in a handy cavity under the pillion seat!

At that time in my riding career, I was a bit of a Honda fanboy. I had several fun years flogging an excellent CR125 that I bought new in 1985, and I followed that up with a 1987 CBR600 Hurricane. Then it was another CBR600 in 1991, the F2 model in its debut year, which was my commuter sportbike/sport-tourer until it became my first roadrace bike when it wasn’t being ridden to college.

So, there I was at LVMS standing next to the father of the CBR-9, the legendary Tadao Baba, discussing how he and Honda had fashioned myriad changes to the RR that made it quicker and easier to handle, which I got to prove by turning countless laps aboard the new bike and a several on the old one. I had always figured being a motojournalist was the best job in the world, and after this press intro, the job was even better than I had dreamed.

Part of the CBR900RR launch included spinning a few laps in a Legends car, which are small-scale racecars powered by Yamaha FJ1200 engines. Despite admonitions by the cars’ owners that powerslides hinder quick lap times, I did fifth-gear slides out of every corner of the small oval track. Turns out my times were quicker than anyone else’s, including motojournos I’d long admired and the fellas from HRC. It wouldn’t be the last Honda launch that included time behind a wheel.

The CBR900RR was a terrific sportbike, but it was almost forgotten weeks later when the all-new ZX-9R with 133 RWHP was ridden. A month or so later, Yamaha’s paradigm-shifting YZF-R1 was tested, forever extending the headlining sportbike class to 1000cc.

Honda’s engineers, including Baba-san, believed in the balance of low weight with adequate power, questioning the logic in having to add weight to help harness bigger power. He was intrigued by the specs of the R1, but he was skeptical it was going to be a better sportbike than his RR. Honda attempted to keep engine sizes below a liter by introducing the CBR929RR in 2000, then the 954RR just two years later. Big Red finally joined the rest of its rivals by increasing displacement to 998cc in 2004 with the CBR1000RR.

The CBR1k was cool, but it was also kinda heavy and wasn’t super powerful. Then for 2008, Honda tossed out the CBR’s design in favor of a completely fresh one that boasted less weight and more power from its new 999cc motor.

Ah, the joys of Honda’s best-ever liter-sized sportbike being ridden down Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew in 2008.

That CBR1000RR (internally referred to as the MFL, replacing the MEL) became my favorite literbike. It was exceedingly agile and boasted a midrange-heavy powerband that turned out be more satisfying and useful than most of its rivals. It finished no worse than second in every category but price in our big shootout in 2008 and was a dominating winner.

2008 Literbike Shootout: ZX-10R vs CBR1000RR vs GSX-R1000 vs YZF-R1

That’s me again behind a steering wheel at a Honda launch. The S2000 Club Racer was lightweight, agile and fun to rev to redline, not too dissimilar to the ‘08 CBR1000RR.

So now it’s time for the most significant update to the CBR1k in almost nine years, and I’m anxious to find out just how wonderful the new Honda might be. I’m also wondering which car might be at the bike’s launch…

Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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2 of 17 comments
  • 'Mike Smith 'Mike Smith on Oct 08, 2016

    As a R1 owner and someone who has never ridden a CBR, this is a great article.

  • Kirk Harrington Kirk Harrington on Oct 09, 2016

    Can Honda sell a consumer superbike that is still down on power to it's competitors based on balance and handling? With Kawi, Suzuki, BMW & Ducati smacking the 200hp crank hp line with regularity, it seems like a marketing blitz is a must. We old guys can understand the Honda way of thinking, but we old guys aren't out buying modern superbikes with the same intent as younger counterparts. When a guy in his 40's and up purchases that bike there is a greater likelihood that its intent is track day focused. Yet, would we really make that investment? The new R6 is coming and it's going to represent a less expensive option to the modern liter bike.
    Duke, you know as well as the rest of us geezers that you can put a 600 cc bike in the hands of guys like us and make many young riders on liter bikes look foolish. The way I see it, Honda only wins this battle of liter bikes sales if they make a statement in WSBK, MotoAmerica and BSB next season. If they don't bring the hammer of Thor to that party then the new bike sits on the showroom floor being discounted at the end of every season. Nick's going to have to do a lot of PR for Honda over the next several months to make skeptics become believers.
    BTW- nice article.