First Ride: 2004 Honda CBR1000RR Motorcycle

Mr. Baba's Baby becomes Mr. Hara's Hellfire Missile -- and quite possibly the most technically advanced open-class sportbike ever launched. By Mitch Boehm

I'd had the feeling all morning that Honda's all-new CBR1000RR was hooking up exceptionally well -- transferring its 172 (claimed) horsepower to the track efficiently and letting me get on the throttle sooner exiting corners. But now I had proof.

For several laps I'd been shadowing Cycle News Editor Paul Carruthers during the new CBR's world launch at Arizona Motorsports Park. And as I watched him repeatedly trail-brake his CBR deep into corners, lever the thing over on its side, clip the apex and begin to feed in lots of throttle while still leaned way over -- the fat Bridgestone radial leaving a faint-but-noticeable stripe of rubber in its wake -- I could finally see up close and personal what I'd been feeling all morning: That the load of RC211V-spec MotoGP technology Honda engineers had force-fed into the CBR1000RR was obviously much more than ad-copy effluvia.

All day long, whether wheelying wildly out of corners, scything left-right transitions, running dead-stable in the ultra-fast sections or braking hard from 140-mph-plus into the circuit's slower turns, the CBR1000RR performed with near-flawless precision -- and far better than I'd expected. After all, little technical or development information had been released since the bike's debut in September '03, and rumors of, er, "disagreements" among Japan, Honda Europe and American Honda as to the bike's performance parameters and track worthiness were rampant. Who knew?

No doubt: This is a huge motorcycle for Big Red. Not only because of the lucrative, high-profile niche the bike occupies (open-class sportbikes account for 50 percent of all sportbike sales these days), and not just because it represents Honda's Superbike platform for the next several years. There's credibility at stake here. Suzuki and Yamaha have owned the open-class sportbike scene with the GSX-R1000 and YZF-R1. And while Honda's CBR929RR and CBR954RR were excellent motorcycles, R1s and Gixxers are pretty much what everyone's been talking about -- and riding -- since the R1's release in '98. Honda needs some open-class cojones here. Honda needs a winner.

To do that, Honda went all-out with the CBR1000RR. It not only committed vast R&D resources to the project, it also borrowed technology from HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) and its MotoGP program, a program that features the fire-breathing, V-five-powered RC211V upon which Valentino Rossi won two successive MotoGP titles.

Position the CBR and RC side by side sans bodywork -- as Honda did in its press kit -- and the family resemblance is striking: The frame, swingarm, fuel tank, exhaust, rear suspension and other componentry are highly similar in design, even if cylinder layout isn't. "For the 1000RR we used even more RC211V technology than [in the] CBR600RR," CBR Large Project Leader Kunitaka Hara told me between sessions. "We worked very closely with HRC," Hara added, glancing at HRC Chief Engineer Hiroo Takemura, who nodded and grinned in the direction of Assistant LPL Kyoichi Yoshii. Hang with these guys for a spell and you get the distinct feeling they've worked very closely during the last two years. Now they were clearly enjoying the results.

Look at an undressed 1000RR while absorbing some of its technical specs and you'll see that what will end up in the sales brochure -- and what we'd been told at the tech briefing by American Honda test pilot Doug Toland -- is far from ad fluff. It all begins with the engine, a tiny, clean-sheet, liquid-cooled 998cc inline-four that uses a triangulated crankshaft/mainshaft/countershaft layout (like Yamaha and, now, Kawasaki) to dramatically reduce engine length. This shorter engine was then mounted in a new alloy twin-beam frame closer to the front wheel for better handling via optimum weight bias and mass centralization, while at the same time allowing what Hara-san told me is the CBR's chassis-design lynchpin: a relatively long swingarm (nearly 1.5 inches longer than the 954RR's) that not only houses Honda's patented Unit Pro Link rear suspension -- which Honda says isolates rear suspension forces from the main frame, allowing the fork to do what it was designed to do -- but also gives the bike huge high-speed stability and astounding, 211V-like corner-exit grip.

Hara-san told me the tech-sharing between the RC and CBR-RR prototypes continued right into the early part of the '03 racing season, an amazing fact considering that the design of production streetbike components must be finalized many, many months before production can begin. All this seems to confirm Honda's claim that the CBR benefited from significant real-time development with its MotoGP racer.

This emphasis on ultimate track performance underscores a bit of a strategic flip-flop for Honda's RR line. Unlike previous open-class CBR-RRs (beginning with LPL Tadao Baba's first-generation 900RR back in '93) -- which were designed first and foremost to be superb streetbikes that could also be raced and used as track-day machines -- the 1000RR was designed primarily to get around a race circuit faster than any other street-legal motorcycle while remaining reasonably comfortable and rideable on public pavement. Some enthusiasts will bemoan the potential decrease in practicality, but in this day of street-smart, big-horsepower repli-racers, you play hard or sit on the sidelines.

Climb aboard and there's nothing obvious to tell you the CBR sacrificed too much comfort for lap times. Yes, the clip-ons are mounted nearly two inches lower than the 954RR's, and the pegs are slightly higher and rearward, but the rider is positioned closer to the triple trees, and the ergos don't feel any more radical than other track-sharp repli-racers -- the GSX-R1000, for instance -- that work well enough on the street.

Thumb the starter button and the engine fires instantly, revving willingly and settling into a controlled burble behind the EFI system's auto-enrichener. Once rolling, clutch action and shift engagement are typical Honda, smooth and glitch-free, while slow-speed handling is immune to the bike's HESD (Honda Electronic Steering Damper) mounted atop the triple-tree assembly; the system sidesteps the trade-offs inherent in mechanical designs by varying damping force relative to vehicle speed via a connection to the bike's electronic control unit (ECU). It's unobtrusive at slow speeds; at higher ones it squelches untoward bar flappage. Neat.

Out on the track, a 2.25-mile, 16-turn circuit with four medium-length straights and several low-speed 90- and 180-degree corners (perfect, really, for 600s), the Maximum CBR did business seriously and without drama, feeling 600-sized yet with loads of accessible, big-league horsepower. Despite the circuit's tight, technical layout, the CBR felt lighter than it might have; at 396 pounds dry (claimed), it's some 17 to 26 pounds porkier than the 370-pound (dry) GSX-R and CBR954RR, 375-pound (dry) ZX-10R and 379-pound (dry) YZF-R1. Steering effort and transitional quickness felt middle of the range (rake is a steep 23.75 degrees), though steering effort did increase the faster I went due to the speed-sensitive steering damper. Response from the dual-injector FI system was marred only by a lurchiness right off the throttle stop. Vibration was well-controlled thanks to the engine's counterbalancer, and the RR was easy to move around on, providing a surprisingly large bubble of calm air behind the windscreen.

Once up to serious speed, several traits became obvious. The first was the bike's utterly stable high-speed composure, even with a Big Guy aboard. The Honda guys said the bike's extra-long swingarm and 55.6-inch wheelbase (the longest in the class, actually) explained this, along with the bike's extreme degree of mass centralization. I believe them. No matter how ham-fisted I got with late-braking maneuvers (often) or how many weird lines I drew in the fast sections (ditto), I couldn't get the thing to weave, wobble or twitch. Supple yet well-controlled suspension -- a 43mm multiadjustable inverted fork and reservoir-equipped shock mated to the Unit Pro Link system -- surely helped, as did the bike's generous, 102mm trail measurement (vs. just 91mm for the GSX-R) and stock Bridgestone BT014 radials, which gripped tenaciously and steered neutrally. Interestingly, Ben Bostrom and Miguel DuHamel said many of the same things about the CBR a day earlier testing tires at Daytona, where Bostrom came within a half second of Nicky Hayden's lap record.

The CBR's brakes were as superb as its high-speed composure, and quite possibly the best production binders I've ever tried. The radially mounted Tokico four-piston calipers gripping smaller-than-954RR-spec 310mm discs (for reduced unsprung weight) and controlled by a race-spec, vertical-piston master cylinder gave new meaning to the term Utterly Controllable Two-Finger Stops. Simply phenomenal.

Racetracks hide horsepower, making it seem less impressive than it might otherwise be on a stretch of public road with power lines, painted lines and vehicles flying by. Even so, the CBR's engine was a gem, with peak power (measured by my personal hiney dyno) likely in the 150-hp range. Regardless of peak numbers, I can say the bike makes excellent midrange grunt on the

way to its 11,650-rpm redline (lower than the new YZF-R1 and ZX-10R's by virtue of its not radically oversquare bore and stroke dimensions); this impressive middle-rpm boost was perfect for utilizing the bike's uncanny ability to drive forcefully out of corners with the throttle pegged and the rear wheel gripping and driving instead of spinning and sliding. Traction got even better in the afternoon sessions when the Bridgestone folks spooned DOT race-spec BT002 rubber on the bikes. The only thing holding many of us back then was our right hands -- and fear. At that point the bike was way better than I was.

Other details emerged. The CBR is quite sensitive to suspension tweaks; small changes made noticeable differences. Being big, I ended up increasing preload at both ends and adding a bit more compression up front to reduce forward pitching during full-slam braking maneuvers. The CBR was also easy to put exactly where I wanted it; pressure the clip-ons and it reacts right now, sans drama. It's one of those bikes that feels as if it's carved from billet; there's not a bit of slop. Overall, the CBR offered that elusive combination of strength and refinement you find in the very best sportbikes. Will it make a good streetbike? Hard to say. The Arizona pavement was billiard-smooth, so I can't say how the bike will react to pockmarked roadways. Still, its overall smoothness and suspension compliance, combined with typically crisp Honda control feel, should make it plenty liveable. We'll know soon enough.

Is the new-generation CBR the winner Honda needs? Can it outdo the current GSX-R1000 and the new YZF-R1 and ZX-10R? Too early to tell. But judging by the MotoGP technology Honda built into the new 1000RR, plus the impressive all-around performance it displayed at Arizona Motorsports Park on a mid-December afternoon, Big Red is very definitely back in the liter-class race-replica game -- and has no intention of settling for second place.

SECOND OPINION

Don't listen to Boehm. He's got that Honda credit card, ya know? And pay no attention to the way he glorified his on-track adventures...he rode like a pansy at the intro! (You'll pay for that, Tres Vitte! -- Ed.)

Here's the real deal: I'm stoked that Honda has made a literbike that feels and turns like a much smaller bike. It makes riding the CBR much less intimidating than, say, Suzuki's GSX-R1000, and way more fun. All that trickle-down RC211V technology looks to have paid off in the packaging department.

Still, the Honda doesn't have the sense of butt-puckering urgency, the holy-crap-this-thing-is-fast! feeling I get from riding the GSX-R. Whether that's because it's down on power or (as the Honda reps say) the new chassis makes the power deceiving, I couldn't really tell. The CBR is finesse to the Suzuki's brute force, and it could very well signal a change in the way we think of literbikes. I can't wait to get one and start playing.

-- Andrew Trevitt, Associate Editor, Sport Rider Magazine

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