When Honda launched the CBR600 project in late '84, Large Project Leader (LPL) Satoshi Ishikawa's goals were simple yet ambitious: to produce the lightest, most powerful and best-performing 600 ever on the track and street. Not much has changed, as that's basically the mission statement adopted by LPL Norikazu Maeda for the '07 CBR600RR. Although the bike is entirely new, the design doesn't stem totally from clean-sheet engineering. Honda says the bike was developed in parallel with the 800cc RC212V MotoGP racer being built to replace the 990cc RC211V for the 2007 season. Some critical numbers bear this out: The CBR's 53.8-inch wheelbase, for instance, is nearly an inch shorter than the '06 RR's. Weight was pared everywhere-nearly 4 pounds from the engine and another 13 or so from the chassis. Honda says the bike is 20 pounds lighter than the '06 RR, and our scales agree, putting the '07 bike's wet weight at 412-19 pounds lighter than the '06 model.
The CBR's new inline-four anchored much of the shrinkage. It's not only lighter than before, but also shorter by more than an inch thanks to even tighter spacing between the crank, output shaft and countershaft. This allowed the frame-and, thusly, wheelbase-to be shorter, which helped minimize the bike's overall size. Chassis geometry is radical, with 23.7 degrees of rake (vs. 24 degrees for the '06 bike) buffered by a 2.7mm increase in trail for stability.
These days, top-shelf sportbikes get tweaked every two years, but it wasn't always so. Throughout the '80s and '90s, new-model gaps were typically four years, which meant the original '87 Hurricane would be redesigned for '91. Work on the second-generation CBR began in early '89, about the time I moved from Motorcyclist to American Honda's product-planning department. Hurricane LPL Ishikawa would lead the development of the new bike, known internally as MV9, but which we also called the F2, an alphanumeric that would become its official name: CBR600F2.
I found Honda's development process plenty fascinating, if sometimes overly political. For a sportbike nut like myself, it was the ultimate behind-the-scenes fantasy trip. Work on the F2 began with meetings between U.S. and Japan staff to discuss the concept in detail and view various design sketches. What would the bike look like? How much power would it need? How light could it be? Later came meetings to view photos of clay mock-ups based on our choice of styling direction, or to hear how much power the prototype engine was making. A couple months later I spied an early F2 prototype running at Tochigi. Even painted black, the proto looked meaner and swoopier than the blocky first-generation bike, and from what I was hearing from the team, it was way faster. Seeing and hearing a motorcycle that had existed on a designer's sketch pad only a year earlier was hugely thrilling, even if I'd had only a tiny hand in its makeup.
The thrill returned a few months later during final prototype testing, where staffers Dirk Vandenberg, Joe Boyd and I joined with the Japan R&D team to determine the F2's final suspension settings. (Tragically, Vandenberg and Boyd would be killed during CBR600F4 testing in 1998.) We tested the bike extensively in Southern California on roads we knew magazine testers would use to evaluate it. Our motto was simple: Make it work for the magazines and sales success will follow.
The results were spectacular. The F2 wasn't just a far better sportbike than the original Hurricane, its overall balance and flexibility outdid its competition by a fair margin. Here's how Motorcyclist summed things up in its March 1991 comparison: "The CBR600F2 wins not because it was the best in every category, but because it struck a balance no other bike could achieve. Few motorcycles have the ability to do as much as well as the latest CBR." Dealers couldn't get enough F2s, even at $4998.
An interesting dichotomy was emerging at the time, something we at Honda called "the two-pronged middleweight strategy." Kawasaki employed it in '91 by offering two 600s: the '87-spec Ninja 600 and a newer ZX-6. Suzuki would join in shortly thereafter with the soft-edged Katana and narrowly focused GSX-R600. Honda, conversely, felt strongly it could build one bike that would bridge the gap between all-around street flexibility and the racetrack capability that would let it win races and magazine shootouts. Internally we called our way the F-concept (as opposed to the R-concept, meaning Race Replica). Part of this approach was simple pragmatism, as building, selling and supporting two 600s was expensive. The other part was pure moxie; R&D chieftains said on several occasions, "We will build one bike that will beat the competition everywhere!" That attitude would eventually change as the category became more sharply focused, but not for years. There were plenty of F-spec 600s left in Honda.
The next iteration of the CBR600-the F3-came in '95, an evolutionary change rather than a complete redesign. I was back at Motorcyclist by then, and figured the F3 might not have enough punch to counter the stiff competition that had emerged in the F2's wake. Honda's F3 print ad recognized this, saying, "When does it stop looking like last year's CBR? The second you turn the key." True, there were important upgrades, but the F2's steel perimeter frame and basic engine design remained.
"Personally, I would like to design a CBR600RR using an aluminum frame," F3 project leader Satoru Horiike told us at the F3's launch. "Our research, however, said such a bike's sharper edge and higher price would narrow the bike's appeal."