Switch Blade

From its introduction in 2004, Honda’s CBR1000RR (labeled in Europe as the “Fireblade”) has always been a light, agile machine with astounding acceleration. In normal street riding and occasional track excursions, the bike produced far more performance than most of us could fully tap, but somehow it was tamed into a real-world package. Make no mistake, this weapon astonished, and delighted all but the most battle-hardened veteran of the superbike wars. One would think that having produced such a beautifully balanced, incredibly fast machine, Honda would have been happy to sit on its laurels and merely tweak the RR for 2006. But, no, that would have been too easy for a company that is so committed to racing and technical innovation.

The genetic material shared with last year’s Laguna Seca race-winner is evidenced by the redesigned and altogether-sharper look of the MotoGP-inspired bodywork and all-black engine. Additionally, the new model finds itself with almost 60 percent of its parts redesigned. A slight reduction in steering head caster and trail makes the steering response quicker and improves overall cornering ability slightly. Even when the RR was first rolled out of the garage, the elegantly carried lack of weight was noticeable. The changes are all in the details, and there is no shortage of fine points that add up to a better, tighter all-around package. Although the Fireblade is 17 pounds lighter and produces three percent more horsepower than its predecessor, somehow this latest iteration of the 1000RR has not lost its original rider-friendly usefulness. (Click images to enlarge)

Buttonwillow Raceway Park in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley offers a relatively tight and twisty track for testing the new iteration of the responsive RR. The turns are laid out in a technical format that challenge both rider and machine. Outfitted with Bridgestone’s all-new BT-015 street-compound tires, the Honda was immediately familiar and reassuring. The feeling of compactness, the silky smooth 4-cylinder engine and the easy-to-read clocks were all there. But, there were differences too. The fast-revving engine starts as quietly as before, but the new exhaust produces a slightly stronger growl that rapidly turns to a snarl when encouraged to do so. The bike certainly appeared to be a bit lighter, but the feeling has more to do with the mass of the machine being carried closer to the center, and that translates to more intuitive handling and easier transitions from side to side. (Click image to enlarge)

Powering out of the very sharp and poorly surfaced Turn 2 and on to the back straight at Buttonwillow, the awesome engine powers the 1000RR smoothly down the track like a high-pressure stream of water. There’s a rise on the track surface about halfway down that I was hitting at high revs in third gear; the front wheel was lifting gracefully and effortlessly as it crested the surface bump. Floating high-speed wheelies are an incredible feeling if you’re on a track and in control and, although I don’t profess to be a skilled stunt rider, frankly nothing the 1000RR did gave me any cause for alarm. The power is so smooth and so controllable, and the weight so balanced, that despite the instant horsepower available, the Honda never felt intimidating.

Helmet: Arai RX-7 Corsair
Leathers: Kushitani
Gloves: Kushitani
Boots: Sidi Vertigo Corsa. (Click image to enlarge)

Entering Turn 3 requires some fairly hard braking, especially following the antics just described. The radial-mounted Tokico calipers, coupled as they are with a radially actuated master cylinder, work extraordinarily well. There’s a lot of travel at the lever and every millimeter of bar-ward movement does something positive to slow down the machine. My preference of “covering” the brake lever comes from years of road riding experience, and is a habit I’ve not yet needed to disturb. On the 1000RR, however, I found that even with the slight pressure from my hand at rest I was actually making the front brakes bind a little, such is their powerful progression. On a track you could not ask for more, but on the road you might find yourself asking for a little less. Experimenting with different grades of pads will help you find something that suits your personal riding style.

Bridgestone fitted their awesome new track-compound BT-002s after lunch and the difference was immediately noticeable. There is nothing wrong with the original equipment tires—actually, they’re excellent—it’s just that, as Bob Graham of Bridgestone explained, “OEM tires have to be manufactured to be good at everything, and naturally we build them to the manufacturer’s specifications. The track tires are actually what we want to build, and they only have to be good at one thing.” Demonstrably, Bridgestone’s experience in MotoGP has trickled down to their products in the same way that Honda’s has. The 002s, as expected, had quite a bit more grip, and excelled in helping the bike turn quickly without any loss of stability. (Click image to enlarge)

Honda’s “nearly all-new” 1000RR has progressed logically and very effectively for 2006. With incredible attention to detail, the Honda CBR1000RR is better than ever, achieving Honda’s goal of providing us with motorcycles we can actually use.