The Fireblade Fights Back

The Fireblade has enjoyed immense racing success around the world, but a WorldSBK title has eluded it for fifteen years. An aggressive, all new line-up riding the CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is proof that Honda are determined to win again.

When the Honda Fireblade was launched 30 years ago it was a game changer. The CBR900RR was an instant cult classic on the road, but racing regulations meant that it would take years for Honda to have any success on the race track. 

When the Honda Fireblade was launched 30 years ago it was a game changer. The CBR900RR was an instant cult classic on the road, but racing regulations meant that it would take years for Honda to have any success on the race track.

WorldSBK regulations at the time were skewed towards twin-cylinder machinery. Even though Honda were racing with the fabled RC45 in the 90’s, it took switching to the twin-cylinder VTR1000 to win the title in 2002. However, with the introduction of the CBR1000RR in 2004 it seemed that finally success was within touching distance for the Fireblade.

The bike was an instant hit on the track with rookie sensation Chris Vermeulen winning four races for the Ten Kate squad. Honda was second in the manufacturers championship, and with Tohru Ukawa winning at the Suzuka 8 Hours the bike had a stunning introduction to the world stage.

“I first rode a Fireblade in 2000 in the British Superstock championship, it was the 929 model, and I liked the bike,” said the Australian. “I won a couple of races on that and then spent a few years on the 600 Supersport bike. When I jumped back on a 'blade in 2004 it was the new 1000cc engine Fireblade, and that was an eye opener! It was my first season in WorldSBK and we had a brand new bike to develop.

“These bikes were the first racing Fireblades in the world and you could tell in those early rounds! Our electronic steering damper didn't work with the ECU, the fairings didn't fit the bike and we even had the bike being held together with ductape for a couple of races! We did a great job though and even by Round 2 we had two podiums at Phillip Island. I won at Silverstone and ended up winning four races that year, leading the championship with three races to go.

“The strengths of the bike were its brute torque and power. At that time it was before electronics so we had no traction or engine brake control. I had over 200hp in each gear to play with which was fun when I could get it to the ground, and a handful when I couldn't! At Monza in 2004 we were the first Superbike to do 200mph down that straight. The bike wasn't perfect though and it was a bit heavy, which made it difficult to change direction, but it was always a stable bike.

“The bike improved a lot over my 2 years there and by the end of 2005, I think we were the strongest package in the field even though Troy Corser won the championship. That bike is still one of my favourites ever, partly because it was my last raw bike and because it was so fun and easy to ride.”

Having narrowly missed out on the 2005 title to Troy Corser, MotoGP came calling for Vermeulen and former World Champion James Toseland would take his place. The Englishman would go on to claim the 2007 crown before following Vermuelen to the MotoGP paddock.

Team HRC CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP

The ethos of the Fireblade has stayed true over the years; a high-powered engine, arguably the strongest in the Superbike class, aligned with a nimble chassis that gives teams a great base to work from. Despite the Fireblade enjoying great success in endurance racing, road racing and domestic superbike championships over the years, a return to success in the WorldSBK championship is the target with the new CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP.

Honda Racing Corporation’s return to WorldSBK is now moving into its third year, and the project has now taken on a very different look. With two rookie riders, HRC has gone aggressive in 2022. Iker Lecuona comes in with two years MotoGP experience while Xavi Vierge has over 100 Grand Prix starts under his belt. The switch is not one without risks but with Leon Camier in charge of the project, he’s confident that talent can win out over their inexperience on a production based machine.

When the rider announcement was made Camier, a veteran of over 200 WorldSBK starts, said that “a bike is a bike and a fast rider can adapt. Both of these riders have shown their talent so now we need to get them ready for the new season.”

That process started at the end of 2021 but it also offered Lecuona a painful introduction to the series. A high speed tumble left him with a fractured finger and forced him to sit out the final day of testing. Lost track time is a heavy burden to bear at this stage of his Superbike education but the Spaniard, who turned heads in the second half of the 2021 MotoGP campaign, should impress this year.

When HRC returned to the paddock the garage was filled with Grand Prix experience and short on Superbike know how. The decision was always a risky one but now with the experienced Pete Jennings working as Lecuona’s crew chief, Camier is starting to introduce more and more Superbike experience to the project. This can only be a good thing.

Two Team HRC CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP's

Honda is not afraid of forging their own path to success in racing. Countless projects over the years have featured unique designs and decisions. The 2022 WorldSBK line-up is another departure from the norm with two rookie riders replacing Alvaro Bautista and Leon Haslam on the bikes. Talent is not in question for both riders but there is a very different sense of expectation on them now.

Riding with HRC brings with it a lot of attention and pressure. The expectation is that you’ll win. Racing is in Honda’s DNA and the expectation is always that HRC will win. WorldSBK is currently enjoying a Golden Age with top class machinery from five manufacturers, and the deepest grid of riding talent that has ever been assembled in the series. It will be a hard nut to crack and the pressure is on everyone to perform.

What is for certain is that as always, Honda will rely on its tenacity and racing spirit in its bid to make it back to the top step of the podium.