IT’S impossible to be certain one bike can live with another without testing them back-to-back. But it’s been three hours since I stepped off Honda’s new FireBlade, which has just been launched at Estoril in Portugal, and I’m more sure than ever what I’m about to claim holds true.
The Blade’s rivals have problems. I’m trying to tell myself such a statement is a bit rash, but the proof is in the pudding – in this case six hours flat-out around the GP circuit. The 2002 Blade is a whole new beast and it kicks serious arse.
The GSX-R1000 and R1 are unbelievable bikes. Maybe a bit too unbelievable. They leave many people wondering just who is in control – them or the bike. On the Blade, you are the boss – but if you want it can still scare you senseless.
I’ve been to Estoril a couple of times before and managed OK lap times. In fact, the 2000 CBR900 was launched here. But this time, the experience is different, even though the track is exactly the same. The world, through my black visor, is going ballistic. Everything is speeded up three or four per cent on previous efforts and I couldn’t be having a happier or better time.
On paper, the new Blade’s changes seem moderate. But on the track, the bike has just moved into a whole new world – a realm where any rival had better be well prepared.
The vast improvement over the Y2K Blade, which is already a mega bike, though it does have some shortcomings, is mainly down to four changes.
The first is a 1mm bigger bore. This has increased capacity from 929 to 954cc and upped power by 2bhp. Big deal? Well, the other attribute bestowed upon the motor thanks to the mod is masses more torque. And that is a big deal.
Figures aren’t available yet – it’s a bit hard to pack a dyno in your luggage – but my body is telling me all I need to know. The extra pull makes itself instantly known as the bike exits the circuit’s myriad slow, medium and ultra-quick corners.
Gas it in second out of the uphill, off-camber chicane and the back squats as the tyre hooks up and propels me forward. Blast out of the final corner before the start/finish straight, a long, long right-hander that seems to go on for ever, all the while building up speed, and the bike is propelled, almost flat-out in fourth, on to the straight, up into top gear at an indicated 160-odd mph and past the pit lane’s unforgiving walls. The old Blade did this as well, of course, but without half as much stomp.
The second modification to make a major difference is what Honda has done to the front brakes. The bike retains the same 330mm discs as last year and the master cylinder has the same internal ratios, too. The clever bit is inside the calipers – but the change isn’t complicated at all.
Honda has simply made the pistons bigger – both the leading and trailing ones on either side of each caliper, resulting in around 10 per cent more force.
That means two-finger application is all that’s needed to slow from 160mph to 40mph or 50mph for the right-hander that signals the start/finish straight is at an end. I didn’t need to slam on until the bike was close to the 200-meter warning sign before the bend. And there was no fade – ever.
The third change to have significant effect is the riding position. All Honda has done is shorten the petrol tank by 10mm, putting the rider 10mm nearer the headstock. And that has transformed its ability to turn by getting the front end to do more work.
As Rocket Ron Haslam, who was also on the launch, put it: " It turns like a proper 600 now. It flicks from side to side with so little effort, it’s not tiring to ride fast at all. I’m seriously impressed. "
Finally, Honda has bunged in a new rear shock with a new body, new internals, new oil reservoirs and a new spring. And it’s delightfully compliant, predictable and fade-resistant. Even Haslam, who looked like he was on a mission to set a new lap record, couldn’t get it to fade after 30 minutes of flat-out riding at race pace on stock settings. That’s an achievement in itself.
So let’s go out for a couple of laps and get a feel for this new Blade. Every bike is in pure road trim with one exception. As is normal for the track, the tyre pressures both front and rear are down about 5psi on what the handbook recommends.
The compression and rebound damping settings are textbook, as is pre-load at either end. The rear is set to position four of seven – ideal until you break the 14 stone barrier. Then you need to hit number five, fine-tuning the handling by tweaking the compression damping at the rear more than anything else.
The shock is highly sensitive to alterations, as I found out. At just over 16 stone, number four was too soft for me. I went straight to six. I didn’t need it. Five plus half-a-turn of compression damping was pretty much ideal.
The bike’s fuelled, the motor has 1000 miles on it and the Bridgestone BT012 tyres are freshly scrubbed. I sign the indemnity form that basically says I can’t sue anyone, even if an Afghan in a Sherman tank enters the circuit, and I’m handed a solitary key – to bike No1, as it happens.
I’m the first journo of the first group, so I waste no time. I whack the starter button, rev the motor, see it’s already warm, lift the sidestand, clunk into first gear and go.
Down pit lane, observing the strict 40mph limit which, if broken, gets you banned or forced to snog the fat female marshal and I’m out on hallowed Tarmac, immediately entering turn two (the pit lane bypasses turn one).
The track is slippery. It’s been raining. Damp patches nestle on every bend. Warning signs are out on all but two of them.
Ironically, on one of the corners deemed dry and safe, the first crash of the day, four laps into the session, occurs. It’s the first time I’ve seen another bike on the circuit and the rider has been lining me up for a pass for half-a-lap. We’re all keeping a good 40 per cent in reserve as we wait for the track to dry, but this guy feels it’s safe to push on a bit. On the face of it, it’s a reasonable supposition.
He nudges ahead of me, 20 metres or so from the left-handed entry to the track’s only chicane, touches the brakes, and promptly bins it.
The bike grinds and slides, as do his arse and shoulder. I take evasive action, check there’s no-one steaming up behind and stop to help.
He’s furious – both at the irony of the lack of a warning sign just here and at his own mistake.
In fairness, he’s barely touched the brakes. It’s just that slippery first thing in the morning. The bike sustains moderate cosmetic damage, but none of the expensive bits are broken. He rides off, bathing the track in a shower of gravel.
The red lights around the circuit come on and everyone heads back to the pits. We’re told that’s the end of the session and the second group will go out.
I wander around the pits, looking for a victim to give me some feedback. John McGuinness, winner of this year’s loopy Macau GP on a TT-spec FireBlade, wanders into view. He’s already had a few laps. So whaddya think, John?
" It’s got stacks more torque, it’s quite surprising really, " he says matter of factly. " And the brakes are awesome. It didn’t seem like the bike would change that much on paper, but it’s been transformed. "
Another impressed racer, then. As is Leon Haslam, the newest recruit to 250 GPs, noting it’s easier to ride in the damp thanks to improved fuelling which lessens throttle snatch. And then there’s Niall Mackenzie, grinning from ear to ear. His expression says it all.
The second group pull in 20 minutes later. In the meantime, I’ve stocked up on grub to keep me going. Three Twixes, an apple, two bananas, a litre of water and a fairy cake thing have disappeared down my gullet. Honda’s catering staff, in the middle of preparing lunch, are impressed. I explain I’m an international pie-eating champion. That’s OK then.
The Japanese engineers, mechanics and designers are taking a particular interest in me. It’s not that they’ve never seen a weightlifter before, it’s just that 16-stoners are hard to come by in Japan. They have a test guinea pig on hand, free-of-charge.
We go out again and this time the track is drier. The sun is threatening to appear and the wet patches have halved in size. I concentrate on relaxing and riding the track, rather than the Blade.
I hook third and decide to stay in it the whole way round. The bike pulls strongly from every bend. It’s the same in fourth. Then I try fifth. It makes it round, only getting woolly at the chicane and one other slow-entry, uphill turn. As I go for sixth, the red light comes on again. Another bin. This time, it’s a run into the gravel trap at the end of the straight. The Portuguese marshals have given him a 9.4 for artistic poise and a 9.3 for content.
The excuse in the pits is hilarious. " Er, the bike didn’t slow down enough in time. It went too fast. " Eh?
Honda wheels another glistening FireBlade out of a shuttered pit garage. How many are in there?
The second group goes out and I hunt down Tadao Baba. Baba-san is one of Honda’s chief engineers and creator of the FireBlade. He’s been involved in the project since its birth in 1992, an unprecedented feat considering most project leaders only see out a bike’s conception and one subsequent update. Never happy with today’s news, I need to know about future developments for the FireBlade. Baba-san, through an interpreter, obliges.
Then it’s time for the third session – the final one before lunch. The track is dry now, but it’s not warm. I head into the first corner after pit lane, holding it on an even throttle in second, neither accelerating, nor slowing, a momentary shift into third, before dropping down a gear ready for an uphill, off-camber right-hander that tightens up the further into it you go.
It’s tempting to go in hard, but that runs you out wide, way off line for the left that follows. Instead, I try Ron Haslam’s line, and I’m instantly rewarded.
I stay out artificially wide, line the bike up near the kerb, then pull it in tight about three-quarters of the way through. The revs are higher than they’ve been the last few passes, signalling a good 5mph improvement in exit speed.
Crucially, I’m on a better line for the next bend, the 180° left. This is approached in a similar fashion, out wide, staying slightly wide, until I’m three-quarters of the way round, just before I can clearly see the exit. The peg is grinding, my knee’s planted in the deck and I’m completely relaxed.
The Blade’s new-found manners make riding it easy. It’s not effortless, but it’s not hard, either. Where I might have been holding on, expecting a slide, highside or rear wheel step-out on a GSX-R1000 or R1, I’m confident in the Blade’s ability to keep me out of casualty. And this is on the first lap of the session.
I gun the bike into fourth, revelling in its new mid-range, which does away with the need to screw the engine to the red line in every gear. Again, I note how easy it is to ride and how fulfilling, too.
I squirt past the 200- meter braking point for the double-apex left-hander that follows a high-speed right-hand kink, and slam on the brakes as the 100-meter mark approaches.
The back end squirms under the transfer of weight as the front dives and the tyre grips and allows the bike to slow.
The left is my second favourite bend here as it’s so easy to screw it up. In other words, get it right and you can make a lot of time.
Ron has advised me to take a middle-ish line, like the one I’ve been using, but with a bit more drift, then half-a-foot of tightening-up as the exit appears.
For the first time, the bike’s carrying enough speed to loft the front wheel high over the crest that follows. A change up into third is followed by a change back to second for the next right. It’s the easiest corner on the circuit to lose the front end, thanks to its downhill, off-camber nature.
Ron has advised against grinding everything out through here, but I’m in gung ho mode. The peg scrapes and the bike squirms in protest as my knee, lower leg and toe follow suit. It’s not possible to lean any further and stay on and I breathe a gasp of relief as the kerbing on the opposite side of the corner stops getting closer. I run near to the rumble strip and continue to nail it. Another right follows, then the chicane.
Leon has been experimenting with entering in first, exiting in second and going in and out in second. He reckons the latter is the way to go and he’s right.
The response is smoother as I wind the throttle on mid-corner and the bike is happy, at a speed not much over tickover in second, to grind its peg into the Tarmac. It’s a weird sensation, like there’s not enough momentum to stop it tipping over and I’m reminded of Mallory Park’s Bus Stop, only slower.
A few corners later and I’m reminded of Mallory again as I enter the fearsome final corner before Estoril’s start/finish straight. If you’ve ever tried to crack Gerrard’s Bend, you’ll identify with this. You need to go in tight, avoiding a bump, drift out while getting serious power down, everything grinding, the back end squirming and the bars waggling, then tighten up three-quarters of the way round before catapulting on to the straight.
Estoril’s turn 12 is the same. Again, the ease with which the bike can be ridden devastatingly fast is driven home, as the right side of the Blade is ground against the, er, ground for 200 metres or so.
Yes, the rear is squirming and the front’s complaining, too. Yes, it’s intimidating, scary and exhilarating. Yes, a crash here means a 100mph-plus get-off and, probably, a badly damaged Blade. But I have no doubt the bike will get me round.
Ron is shadowing me and I can feel him breathing down my neck. Even at this speed, with so much concentration on where I’m going, I can see the shadow his front wheel is casting over my boot and leg. He’s inches away, probably less than that, in fact, and he’s watching me intently. He’s interested to see how the bike performs carrying a heavier rider than usual.
Our pit lane chat later goes something like this:
" You had it right over. "
" Yeah, it felt pretty good. "
Ron continues: " There was a right shower of sparks through that long right-hander. Everything was decking out. I was watching to see what the bike did. The rear was squat, sucked into the ground and the tyre was moving about. But the bike stayed on a planted line. There was no drift and your line was pretty spot-on the whole way round. A lot of bikes would have moved about more or run wide with that kind of demand. The handling is awesome. "
I don’t know about you, but when a man of Ron’s calibre uses the word awesome, and he doesn’t get excited like this very often, I’m inclined to accept what he says. It backs up my feelings even more.
There are bikes with more power, but are they as useable? They look good on the dyno and they go well on the track, but how much of their capabilities are you able to tap into?
I’m still pondering this one at the end of the day, two long sessions and 30 or so laps later, when I bump into McGuinness again. He’s been playing with his suspension settings and has managed to get the bike to steer even quicker, albeit at the expense of a bit of back end grip. I ask him how usable he thinks the bike is and he’s quick to reply.
" Hugely, especially for road riders who are pretty quick but not up to, say, a good racing level. Anyone who’s considering buying a litre sports bike can make a lot of use of the Blade. You dial into it instantly. It’s predictable. It tells you what it’s up to. There are no nasty surprises, nothing to catch you out. It’s supremely easy to get on one and lap fast. "
But you’ve found the limit of the bike, right, John?
" No, just because everyone should find it useable doesn’t mean it has less ultimate performance. I’m still not at the limit, and I’ve been riding all day. "
When I said at the start of the test the Blade’s rivals have problems, I didn’t mean it had the power to stomp all over them. In fact, Honda would be the first to admit the bike is 10bhp down on a GSX-R1000. Where it will give Suzuki and, possibly, Yamaha nightmares is in the fact that everyone gets on so well with the Blade.
The consensus is that, ultimately, a racer capable of harnessing every ounce of power would be quicker on the Gixer, and maybe the new R1 (though we’ll have to wait until January to find that out). But for the rest of us, and that’s near enough 100 per cent of the bike-riding population, the focused, well-mannered Blade will be great.
It won’t scare you witless or tire you out and it’s still capable of doing all the other things a Blade is renowned for, like touring, popping to the shops, pulling monster wheelies and posing in a paddock.
And that’s enough for me.