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The father of modern sports bikes

Published: 21 January 2000

THERE is one man among Honda’s team at the all-important launch of the FireBlade for whom the bowing goes on longer and deeper than any other. When any Japanese technician goes near him they speak in the hushed tones of reverent respect.

If you should ever be lucky enough to bump into him you could do worse than bow deeply, too. This man, perhaps more than any other, is responsible for the sports bikes we ride today. A deep bow is the least he deserves.

If it wasn’t for him we’d probably be riding around on heavyweight machines that go pretty quick in a straight line but tickle corners rather than attack them.

The latest ZX-9R and Yamaha’s R1 would never have been built if he hadn’t shown the way. Even the project leader of the Yamaha R1, Kunihiko Miwa, looked to this man for inspiration.

His name is Tadao Baba, executive chief engineer of Honda’s Research and Development plant in Asaki, Japan, and it’s more than ten years since he dreamed of building the bike we all know and love as the FireBlade.

He said: " Our rivals recognised the CBR900RR was special. Without us there would never be a Yamaha

YZF-R1. I am proud to have been part of the FireBlade, having followed its development through all five generations. "

And it’s easy to see where the influences from the first FireBlade on sale in 1992 to the new 2000 model came from.

He’s not your typical senior Japanese suit, he’s a hard-riding, heavy smoking wild man who enjoys playing football, loves nothing more than a few beers and some karaoke and can’t stop himself riding.

Jeans, trainers and a paddock jacket are more his thing than a suit and tie, despite the fact that he’s now getting on for 56.

He was the first man to realise there was a new direction to take sports bikes in. The money men kept telling designers and engineers to build bigger and faster bikes, but Baba realised there was a better way. And he had the force of character to convince Honda to back him.

He wanted to build a sports bike that could do more than just go fast in a straight line. He wanted one which could turn quickly, too.

The power-to-weight ratio was more important to him than the total power of a bike.

The Blade’s development started in the late ’80s.

" Until then we called the current bikes super sports, but they didn’t deserve this name, " said Baba.

" All the big bikes at the time, like the FZR1000 EXUP, GSX-R1100 and CBR1000F were not good enough to be called sports bikes. They were fast but were also heavy and dull. "

His experience as a test rider and engineer for Honda developing the CB400, CB350 and CB750, a bike some say was the first true sports bike, gave him the experience to back his claims.

He joined Honda in 1962 and raced various bikes until he was 25, at the same time studying to make a career out of engineering. And that’s partly what made the Blade and continues to make it so good. It’s created from a passion rather than a marketing team.

In an unusual twist for the generally secretive Japanese business world, he even spoke to other manufacturers.

" Many of them told me they wanted to create a bike like the FireBlade but were told by marketing men that it would not sell.

" After watching our success it allowed them to develop their own bikes and they bought our machines so they could test them and build their own bikes. "

After six months of development by HRC – Honda’s racing arm – Baba was handed the project and the real work of turning his fantasies into a production reality began.

He said: " We all worked through the night many times and we all suffered from stress. Many of the engineers were younger than me but they all had different skills in chassis, engines or suspension. My job was and still is to use the best ideas and make them all work together. "

There were frustrating times. Some younger engineers found it hard to understand just how far Baba wanted to go. He admits he was like " a thunderstorm " when he got angry. He said: " As a tester I used to shout at the engineers when they made me ride a dangerous bike. " Now he had to be prepared to listen to the shouting from his own group of testers.

But there was little to complain about. Baba even crashed an FZR1000 trying to stay in touch with an early Blade... though he rarely admits it.

At its world press launch in Phillip Island in 1992, the assembled journalists were gob-smacked. At the time, it was hard to believe this was a genuine road bike and not a race bike with some lights attached.

It’s no surprise we bought them by the thousand. The first twin-headlamp bikes made a claimed 123bhp and weighed 185kg (407lb) – around 15kg (33lb) more than the latest Blade. But at the time it was revolutionary. It was up against bikes like Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 weighing 226kg (497lb) and Yamaha’s FZR1000EXUP at 209kg (460lb).

It was lighter than 600s of the day and had styling a race bike would be proud of. Who would have thought that drilling holes in the fairing would make a bike look so cool?

But it was more than that. Monster acceleration and a big top-end pull meant it was a real challenge to ride and certainly not the most stable bike of its time. Many riders discovered the trauma of a tankslapper.

But we still couldn’t get enough of the Blade.

It was more than just the most amazing and maddest bike ever, it had storage under the seat and was built as well if not better than anything else at the time. Like the

GSX-R750 and RD350LC, the Blade earned itself a place in history as the kind of bike that would make anyone who rode one feel like a hero... and a bit of a loon.

Rivals came and went but Baba wasn’t sleeping. In his pursuit of biking excellence and fulfiling his own dreams of how a sports bike should be, he has taken the Blade through each key stage of its development. Perhaps even more legendary than the original is the foxeye 1994 bike. In fact the phrase foxeye never even existed before the updated FireBlade in 1994.

The new lights was one of a handful of tweaks, another was a new metallic bronze, gunmetal and orange paintscheme, officially known as Urban Street Tiger. You and I know it as the Urban Tiger. Rarely has there been a more fitting nickname for a motorcycle.

In 1996, the Blade moved the goalposts again. It got even more power, a little less weight and a new look. It had started to grow up a little and was more comfortable and user-friendly than it had ever been before.

By 1998, the softening process had reached crisis level. Even though that year’s bike made the most power and weighed the least of any Blade so far, the competition had taken things on to another level – notably the 141bhp Yamaha R1. The Blade simply wasn’t enough of a sports bike to compete at the very highest level any more.

Even as the criticism started to bite, Baba was already working on the year 2000 Blade.

And no matter how much praise the new bike gets, he’s already getting cracking on an update for 2002.

" When we introduced the original 1992 bike we made it very strong, perhaps too strong in some areas for some people. Every new model we improved and made better.

" Using the 2000 model as a base, we will follow the same path with this bike as the others. This is designed to be a bike for everyone and very easy to ride in all conditions.

" But we will listen to riders who may not like certain things when we are developing new models. My dream is for the Blade to never end. In 50 years time, I hope it will still be in development. It’s sad I won’t be around to see it. "

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