We’re way too far down the line in terms of lineage to think that any of the groundbreaking tech that wowed bikers back in 1992 still exists on the current model. Being only 12 years old at the time, I’ve always maintained the impression that its arrival was similar to the first time someone with a machine gun strode onto a battlefield full of bows and arrows and silly wooden helmets. Carnage, followed by complete domination. Put simply, the Honda Fireblade changed everything.
Over two decades later however, the litre bike fight is a much fairer one. In fact, without wishing to offend anyone’s intelligence (or purchase decision), I’d say the current Honda Fireblade is up against the ropes, struggling to maintain traction and looking at the ref with wide eyes and a heaving chest. I don’t need to list the competition, we all know who they are. We also know that in certain areas they appear to be better bikes. The current Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade has received little in the way of updates since 2008. We as buyers on the other hand, have never had it so good, the choice of bikes in this sector is huge and the poor old Fireblade seemed in danger of being left behind two years ago, let alone next year. Those that have ridden one know full well how good they are, if you read our 1000s test last year it did a sterling job against newer and more desirable machinery.
There is an all-new Fireblade coming that much was clear within five minutes of the presentation of this one. How far away that bike is from your bedroom wall or garage floor is a question for another day. Today, people, we’re going to talk about the 2014 Fireblade SP. We’ve never had an SP version before and I was fascinated by the idea of a factory hot rod model of the new for this year Fireblade.
So, what have they done? The frame benefits from changes over the 2013 version and the SP benefits further still thanks to the addition of Ohlins suspension front and rear. The footpegs have been moved back by 10mm, the handlebars are wider and lower by 1 degree as well as being five degrees further forward. The rear sub frame is all-new, with no need for pillion pegs and a sweet looking cowl over the pillion seat. The seat has also been firmed up. Up front Ohlins NIX30 forks sit in a steel (rather than aluminium) steering stem. The surface area of the top yoke has also been increased to improve rigidity. The TTX36 shock may look like an off the shelf item, but Honda and Ohlins worked together on this one particular piece for more than three years, testing and developing it on the same Japanese roads and circuits that the ’92 bike was ridden on. The intention with the chassis was to improve rigidity, but also to engineer in flex, which can be translated into rider feel. The monobloc Brembo brakes run the (optional) combined anti lock braking system (C-ABS) that has been developed on track by the TT Legends world endurance team, as well as Karl Muggeridge, who won the German IDM championship on a Honda in 2011. The system operates off its own ECU and has been developed to eliminate that pulsing feel that you might have experienced on other systems. Honda were very proud to show us the bike, but the brakes in particular seemed to be one area that they felt we would really feel an improvement.
Another area that has clearly improved is the aesthetics. The decision to ditch the pillion pegs and the addition of a speed focused (rather than upright wind protection) screen help the bike look ready for the track, the gold wheels and tricolour paint job set the bike off a treat and I guarantee the first time you see one parked, up you’ll forget the shape of this bike is nearly seven years old.
Power wise, the SP has little to shout about over the standard version and if you base your opinion on numbers alone, you’d be forgiven for assuming that there’s little difference between the two. The head has been gas flowed and the valve seats have been slash cut to match the improved flow. Further down the motor, the pistons have been batch matched, meaning that each piston and con rod is weighed and matched to within a tighter tolerance than the standard version. The net improvement is a peak power figure of 178 bhp at 12,250 rpm and a peak torque figure of 84 ft lb at 10,500 rpm. 178 claimed horsepower is anything but shabby, but more important was Honda’s aim to make that power as linear as possible in its delivery. The fuel injection has been remapped to suit the changes in cylinder head and exhaust, again the aim was to maximize smoothness and response, rather than hunting huge numbers.
Still no traction control, still no quick shifter, no anti wheelie and no multi mode riding choices. After spending a fair portion of 2013 convincing myself that we’d be getting all these things, I was surprised and annoyed in equal measure when I saw the spec on the SP. I view these missing pieces as features and benefits. When a new buyer is looking at the spec of the bikes they are considering, all of the competition offers more features which the buyer will benefit from. If the power and price are the same, electronic rider aids help the other bikes stand out by seemingly offering you more stuff for your money. Honda clearly see things differently to me and the fact that they’ve sold over two hundred thousand Fireblades shows that they know a thing or two. Like I said, it didn’t stop me from feeling short changed after ripping into the press pack. Maybe a ride would change my mind…
Losail international circuit in Qatar is big. Massive, even. Over five kilometres long and with a start finish straight that’s over a kilometre long, it was clearly going to be a very fast day at the office. My guides were Ron and Leon Haslam and some guy called John McGuinness, all on hand to show me the right line, the odd front wheel and generally laugh at my efforts to ride quickly. The first session was more of a chance to figure out which way the track went rather than put the bike under any scrutiny. As well as riding Fireblade test bikes on and off fairly regularly, I also lived with a Fireblade fulltime back in 2010, I felt confident that I knew the foundations of this bike enough to be able to jump on and ride respectably straight away. Within two laps, I was paddling across the AstroTurf, wondering where the track just went and getting the wanker sign from two generations of racing idol and my road racing hero as they rode past. I put it down to getting carried away (it was December, the sun was out, you would too) and wound my neck in. The wake up call meant that I settled into doing what I’ve been taught to do on any new track, lift my vision, ride comfortably and let the pace and the track come to me.
Of all small changes, I think the extra leverage through the bars was the one that I noticed the most. I found that when I tipped into corners, the bike was rushing for the inside curb faster than I expected, this lead me to make changes in throttle input and I was struggling to get to grips with the bike. Honda was right about the brakes, though. That huge start finish straight was fairly daunting. If you haven’t ridden Losail but you have ridden Brands Hatch, imagine hitting the start finish straight, staying hard on the gas down Paddock, round Druids and all the way to the apex at Graham Hill bend. That’s how long the straight bit is. If you haven’t ridden either, just picture going really fast in a straight line, for ages. It must be the best part of 165mph before you pop up and get on the brakes for a long second gear right-hander. I don’t think I got the entry right once in the morning sessions, each time I dared myself to brake a little later, I also braked a little harder and found myself arriving at the same part of the track at the about the same speed every time. I can clearly remember having a few issues with the ABS on my 2010 Fireblade, namely the lever coming back to the bars and doing nothing every now and then. I’m happy to report that after a full day of scaring myself inside out on more than one occasion, the brakes on the SP felt really classy and performed faultlessly.
It was clear that the bike required different inputs to do the same things as the old bike and I spent most of the morning sessions getting my head around riding it differently. If you’re a current Fireblade rider, don’t expect to hop on and find the same things happening. I managed to get the high-speed direction changes nailed, as well as corner exits. Both felt surefooted and I was comfortable with the bike moving around, not sliding around, just the odd shuffle through the bars when flicking from one side to the other. I was still struggling when it came to getting the first half of a corner right. I made notes to the effect of it feeling like a set up problem, rather than a tyre issue. I was completely wrong, obviously. We ran Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tyres in the morning, it wasn’t until the afternoon when Honda levered on the SC2 version of the same tyre that everything clicked into place for me. The front end felt transformed and it was much easier to make the thing do what I wanted it to do on the way into corners. My entry became less flustered meaning I was able to carry more corner speed and the track suddenly felt twice as wide as it did in the morning. On the SC2 rubber, the SP felt fantastic, really connected and easy to ride.
During the afternoon, riding a long knee down right-hander in the top third of second gear, I had a distinct moment of clarity. Blinking a dot of sweat from my eyes I pictured the scene should I accidentally bang the throttle to the stop. It mostly involved me being fired over the nearest sand dune to the sound of scraping plastic and yet more laughter from the Haslams. Thanks to traction control, it’s not a feeling I’ve had on track for a long time and it was the only time during the whole day that I thought about how big a part TC plays for the average track rider like myself. I’m not talking about needing it, I’m talking about wanting it. The thought only lasted a second or two and it didn’t slow me down, but if you’re a rider that likes to place all your riding eggs in an ECU controlled basket, you might not get on with this bike. I can say this though, apart from me physically riding the bike off the track in the morning, I didn’t once feel the rear break away, nor did I struggle with a wheelying front end, I was more than happy shifting through the unassisted gearbox as well. Were it not for the fact that I’m a spoilt journo that has experienced every other flavor of thousand cc sports bike on track, I’d say that this is as good as it gets. Spare a thought for those owners that you bump into that swear blind that their Fireblade is the best bike on the market, it kind of is. I didn’t kid myself about why this bike exists and why the changes have been made. On the one hand, you could say that the riding position has been relaxed a tad to suit the increasing age of the average owner, and that the addition of the SP is to help clear the decks before an all new bike arrives. I believe there’s more to it than that, the changes made have improved the appeal as well as the accessibility of the performance available.
So, how can a bike seem to have one foot in the grave and one hand on the world Superbike title? ‘It just can’ is the abridged answer. The reality is that this Honda is so refined, so neatly finished and deeply thought about in every single area that this really is the epitome of non-assisted riding. I know it’s not the done thing when it comes to new models, but for me it’d be a real shame if the new bike was ground up new. I’d love to see if this bike is better with factory fitted traction control, a quick shifter, some clever HRC wizardry that we haven’t even thought about yet and a sprinkling of extra power for good measure. Whatever guise the next one comes in, rest assured that this is without doubt the best Fireblade Honda have built to date. I love it.
Words: @JohnatSuperBike Images: Honda