The first time I rode a Honda Fireblade was back in 1992, the year it was launched. I had just bought myself a Suzuki GSX-R750, one of the ultimate sport bikes of the time, because I wanted a bike whose handling wasn’t compromised in the name of big horsepower.
I loved that Suzuki, for a couple of months anyway, until a mate of mine let me spend a day on his new Fireblade. What a cataclysmic mistake that was; my GSX-R subsequently felt about as exciting as afternoon tea with my grandma.
Honda’s Fireblade was that revolutionary, it had abandoned the overriding design principle of the time, which was to generate as much horsepower as possible and only then attempt to make it deal with those irritating obstructions the rest of us like to call corners. It didn’t even attempt to join the horsepower war, but instead shed weight like Colin Chapman on the Atkins diet and proved wrong the doubters who insisted that power trumps everything else.
During the years since its debut the Fireblade has maintained this approach, eschewing those power wars and instead concentrating on ease of use. As a result Honda’s superbike has always been one of the best for road riding, but when the stopwatches came out the Fireblade suffered. World Superbikes is the ultimate competitive arena for production bikes, and apart from a handful of wins the Blade hasn’t come anywhere near challenging for a championship.
An update of this rapidly fading legend has been long overdue, but the wait is now over. The Portimão circuit in Portugal’s Algarve region was the venue for the launch, a track more demanding for man and machinery than just about any of the world’s top circuits. A combination of severe elevation changes and a wonderful mix of high- and low-speed corners serve up a challenge that will rapidly reveal any weaknesses in a bike’s handling.
A day of pounding out laps revealed the only weaknesses were in my cardiovascular system which struggled to keep me supplied with oxygenated blood. That’s not to intimate that the Fireblade is hard work, in fact, as always, Honda’s flagship is very easy to ride; but any machine that can accelerate and brake like this is always going to be a beast to hang on to when you’re really going for it.
Wheelying in 4th gear over the crest in Portimão’s main straight rams home that this is a quick bike, but at 142kW it’s a touch down on the opposition. Will it be the quickest in a straight line? Probably not, but I’d wager that other developments might have made the new Blade the most rewarding option for those keen sport riders who aren’t professionals racers.
In conjunction with suspension specialists Öhlins, Honda has devised a new way for riders to interact with the ever more complex suspension and engine options available for refining a bike’s performance.
Ask anyone, no matter how experienced, how to set up a bike’s suspension and be prepared for a deluge of delusional garbage. This is the blackest of black arts, an area of technology that requires a degree in magic from Hogwarts rather than any understanding of physics and engineering.
Honda’s new interface removes the need for wizardry and puts the rider back in control — no need for a MotoGP technician every time you go to a track-day. As a mere mortal you will now be able to set your bike up with the aid of logic, rather than relying on an implausibly large dose of luck.
The Fireblade may not have rewritten the superbike rulebook. It may not have even matched the current crop of contenders in terms of sheer power, but just like the original Blade you need to look beyond the bare numbers. I had a blast at Portimão when by all rights I should have been cowering in a corner of the pits, beaten into submission by too much horsepower and a track that seems intent on tricking you into making mistakes.
The bike will arrive in South Africa during the next few weeks, and I’m desperate to ride it again. Honda’s Fireblade is one legend that is very definitely living once again. – Mat Durrans