It’s not every day that you get to ride a modern-day racing thoroughbred, a bespoke-built-but-production-based version of Honda’s Fireblade. It's the very bike tha new recruit, Andrew Irwin, will compete on during the 2019 Bennetts British Superbike season, and he was watching. As if it wasn’t nerve-jangly enough already.
Yet there I stood in Monteblanco’s pit lane outside a double garage laid out like it’s a full race weekend, staring at the bikes to be raced by Irwin and his teammate Tom Neave this season, and with a maximum of one other rider on track this was certain to be a dream day.
But what are the differences between a road bike, a Superstock bike and a Superbike? How differently do they feel on track and, even with a limited amount of time to familiarise myself with them, how do the lap times compare?
Firstly though, I spoke to Honda Racing’s BSB Team Manager, Havier Beltran:
The 2019 season lies in wait and you’ve got two new guns in the Superbike class as well as Tom Neave in Superstock – Honda’s first time back Superstock for four seasons – it’s a relatively inexperienced line-up in the BSB paddock, is that of any concern?
No, we had a difficult season (last year) and we wanted to make some changes and bring in a different dynamic. And bringing in young talent, Andrew Irwin, who showed some great potential last year and having the experience, and expertise if you like of Xavi Fores joining us for 2019 has absolutely complemented the team like you wouldn’t believe. The three of them including Tom Neave on the Superstock, and Andrew and Xavi on the Superbike, have worked so well in winter testing program and we find ourselves in a very good position.
In terms of development of the bike from last season to this, has much changed?
Yes, there has been quite a bit of change; we have done a lot of work on the engine, chassis and aerodynamics but I think the key elements are the riders we’ve got, we’ve gone in another direction and the fruits of our work have really shown at Monteblanco and Portimao.
You’ve had those two official BSB tests, at Monteblanco and Portimao, and your boys have been very competitive, running close to the top of the time sheets, you must be happy with how it’s going so far?
We really are. It’s all commendable down to the team, the effort we’ve put in and the direction we’ve gone in. Having had that testing ban that was introduced for 2019, giving us the period to be able to work on the bikes and turn up here (Monteblanco) prepared and ready to go puts us in a very good position for the start of the 2019 British Superbike Championship.
Let’s talk about the bikes; here we are with the standard road bike, the CBR1000RR SP Fireblade sitting alongside the Superstock machine, is there much difference between the two?
Well, from the SP we moved to the SP2 which is our base machine for our Superstock and Superbike. The main changes on the engine with the head and pistons, as well as being an all-around lighter.
The bike is stripped down and rebuilt, it has the HRC kit ignition, Akrapovic exhaust system, Ohlins rear shock, Ohlins internals and bespoke bodywork. That’s the base of the machine. Everything else has to remain standard; the engine, the frame, swinging arm is all standard – production SP2.
And this is the first time we’ve raced the SP2. The last time we raced in Superstock was 2015 and we’re really excited to have this specification machine back in the British Championship, with a young rider like Tom Neave, and the development work we’ve done so far has really come to fruition.
Above: Tom Neave and Harv Beltran listen as I pretend to offer constructive feedback
And Tom is a rider who you’ve worked with before…
Yes, very much so. Last year we had a great encounter with him at Thruxton and Cadwell Park. Cadwell was more relative to what we can achieve and what we can do and following Cadwell Park I said to him “look, I really want to do something with you next year but I want you to learn the trade, get back to grassroots and work with us on the stocker…”. And he’s done a great job and fitted in really well with team.
So you’ve dangled the Superbike carrot?!
Yes definitely, he’s going to work with us and he’ll be our stand-in rider should anything happen. He’ll get to test the Superbike later on in the year. The main thing is he’s got a lot of talent, youth and energy. If we can maintain that and control that, we can get him off on a Superstock bike with a view to developing him onto a Superbike then we’ve got another youngster joining the grid.
With Xavi, Andrew and Tom, it’s a young, dynamic and close trio, they’ve all performed well in pre-season testing and they look like mate off the track too…
Do you know, I can’t ask for a better team, the way they’ve worked together. Xavi has been absolutely phenomenal working with Tom and Andrew and he turns around and says, “I see them, that was me 10 years ago, full of energy, spirit, enthusiasm, hunger and fight”. Xavi has been able to talk things through in a way that Andrew and Tom have really clicked with and that’s great for team morale, all working together. We are Honda and it’s all about the team – sharing and working together to get the best out of everything, and that’s what we’re really going to push this year, to really show what potential the Fireblade has.
Just before we move on, are you able to divulge any power and weight figures?
Yeah, I think it’s clocked in on the scales at 175kg, so she’s quite a light beast, with 207/208hp, so it’s a great package. The great thing about the Fireblade is the lightness and the agility of the machine.
Moving onto the Superbike, this is Andrew Irwin’s example, but what are the differences between this and the Superstock bike?
With our Superbike it starts off life as the SP2 and is stripped right down. We retain engine, throttle bodies and airbox, that’s it. Everything else is bespoke. We’ve got aftermarket Ohlins front and rear… we’ve got new suspension forks for 2019 which Xavi needs to do a bit more work on but Andrew’s got on really well with them. We’ve got GPMS swinging arm, Akrapovic full titanium exhaust system, bespoke carbon fibre bodywork, bespoke subframe with low centre-of-gravity fuel tank with the MoTec controlled system electronics (same as everyone else in the championship – M170) and a wire harness to suit. So, the package is all there but started life as an SP2.
You’re in a fairly unique position by being able to make these components on site…
We are, we’re very lucky and we’ve got great facilities at the workshop and we’ve got great capacity within the team to draw, design and manufacture components, for example we’ve had to go slightly bigger diameter on the new forks, introducing new handlebars, new top clamp, new bottom clamp. We’ve been able to design our own subframe, seat unit – multiway adjustable – and all those components all complement to what the team’s doing.
Above: Firing time with the Fireblade SP
First up was the opportunity to find a benchmark. The Fireblade SP is the standard road bike that I’m pretty familiar with having spent the majority of 2017 with one on both road and track. It meant that even at Monteblanco, a track I’d not been to before, I was able to bed myself in quite quickly; I can put plenty of faith and ability into the tyres, I know how the chassis, electronic suspension and Brembo brakes were going to react and I even recalled my preferred rider mode configuration for circuit riding. And that gave me an ideal marker when riding the Superstock and Superbike.
The SP is an excellent production machine, available for less than £20k and has been developed to be desired and ridden by those who don’t race but feel like they can. The classy easy-to-ride chassis and suspension are designed to cope with road use as their primary function and are naturally much softer than any race bike. The brakes are excellent but not in the same league as a Superstock machine and fade a little after a couple of sessions of hard use, so an earlier brake marker was required, whereas the road-pattern gearbox coped perfectly with the two track sessions with precision. Not as powerful as its sportsbike rivals, the Fireblade still has a boatful of urgency and the four-cylinders sound like they mean it as the bark instantly on throttle command. Here in Southern Spain the bike is as keen as its rider to plough through the tighter chicanes with dexterity and squat down under hard acceleration between the array of second and third gear corners at the stop/start Monteblanco circuit.
When it comes to the trio of power, torque and weight figures, we all know by now the Japanese manufacturer concentrated on making their litre sportsbike the lightest and most agile but here I was, able to try the next two levels up of Honda sports machinery in this fictional world that had, for one day, become reality.
Best lap: 1m56.36
Above: Superb Superstock is so rewarding
Two twenty minute sessions lay in wait on the very bike Tom Neave competes in this season, which contained his very set-up. Now, I’m a little taller and a fair bit heavier than the 23-year old Lincolnshire farmer but even before getting on the bike I was told they’ve managed to save around 14kg from the standard road bike which sees it tipping the scales at 175kg plus eeked a load more power, up by 18bhp so now making around 207bhp on the dyno at Honda Racing HQ. But it’s not like my extra kg’s would be the reason I wouldn’t be threatening his lap times.
It was a sensational experience, like an ‘ultra’ version of the SP – lighter and faster is the holy grail every manufacturer looks for when improving what they’ve got, so when the figures are as good looking as a 14kg saving and an 18bhp increase then I was metaphorically rubbing my hands together. The Superstock bike gives you a whole host of power right through the rev range, it allows you to run into the corners a lot quicker because you can get on the brakes later and run more corner speed courtesy of the improved components and racing set-up of the chassis. My style of track riding is nowhere near the standard of the professional racer so I tend to run more corner speed at the apex as opposed to getting the bike stopped while upright, turned quickly and back up again which allows the rider to get hard on power rather than feed it in slowly as the bike gets up onto the fat part of the tyre.
The modern-day Fireblade, born in 2017, has never been one for the larger rider given the lack of weather protection from its small fairing, and the Superstock machine is similar. Aerodynamic enough for the more athletic Mr Neave but I made it look like one of those rotund German chaps at the seaside in his Speedo’s. The high pegs with narrow and lower handlebars aren’t designed for comfort, but more like 20 laps, although Neeve mentioned that a wider set of bars were coming and would suit his turning style.
The Superstock bike has impressive corner speed with its mechanical grip and the treaded Pirelli’s that heat up quickly to offer excellent levels of grip boosting ability to roll on through the corners with such confidence even with such a limited amount of electronic interference. A new HRC ECU dedicated to Superstock racing allows for alteration to the throttle maps specifically for traction and wheelie settings, and it works in the background keeping things relatively calm while I was busy holding on. As well as improved tyre performance, the brakes and suspension settings are fierce too. A stronger initial bite thanks to the different discs and pads over the standard Fireblade, and shorter wheelbase plus stiffer racier fork settings don’t agree with strong braking and Monteblanco bumps – the rear of the bike feeling a bit too keen to lift.
The whole package just takes the road-bike-on-a-track-day scenario to the next level. It’s like you’re one step above, feeling quite at home. And it wasn’t even as harsh as I’d expected.
When you think that a modern day top-class road-legal production bike has the ability to match the Superstock Honda for bhp, they can weigh-in around 20kg heavier thanks to the electronics, road-legal and Euro-4 compliant paraphernalia. So, for out-and-pout raw speed the Tom Neave machine might be matched by a road bike but for cornering and braking ability the more diet-friendly machine has a significant edge.
Best lap: 1m55.57
Above: 230+bhp at my beck and call
And then we come to the Superbike. The crew whip the tyre warmers off, drop it down off its paddock stands and roll it off the Honda carpet and out into pit lane. Spyder, my temporary Crew Chief tells me the bike is already in first gear to protect the clutch/gearbox mesh from neutral to first, then he kindly reminds me to whip the clutch in before hitting the action button, knowing that my mind is likely to be scrambled. The ensuing roar feels so good on my ears and as I trundle down pit lane on this stiff-as-a-board rocket ship, I tell myself three things; firstly, it’s a race shift gearbox. Secondly, don’t chuck it down the road, you’re not here for lap times. And finally, Xavi Fores, Irwin, Neaves and the entire Honda Racing BSB squad were watching. Eek.
The slick Pirelli’s had only just come out of their blankets and no matter how much I tried I was never going to retain the same temperature especially on a circuit where the air temperature was in the twenties and the surface was getting more slippery as the heat rose. The first session passed too quickly but by sharing the circuit with only one other rider at least gave me the chance to concentrate on how I should approach riding such a different machine. OK, on paper you’ve got at least 6kg less weight than the Superstock machine but an astonishing and approximate 28more bhp, taking it towards 235bhp. Now that’s a heck of an increase in power-to-weight ratio, and because so much more of the bike is bespoke the machine’s silhouette is a clever and rather beautiful disguise for the ferocious animal that lies beneath.
It’s like riding a completely different machine and requires resetting your brain, the gap between Superbike and Superstock is far larger than the Fireblade to Superstock and having spent my two x twenty minutes trying not to be scared of its ruthlessness, I have found a whole new level of respect for any professional rider who tries to tame these beasts. The guys who are running around at the back of the grid, one second to two seconds per lap off the quickest chaps, are still highly talented riders that would kick anyone’s a*s at a trackday. They are the ones who have to manhandle a super quick, super fesity superbike around tracks like Cadwell Park and Knockhill for 25 laps against 25 other chaps all vying for the same piece of tarmac. They deserve more accolades than they receive.
Above: the tricky off camber and uphill exit of the last corner
There’s little point familiarising myself with the MoTec dashboard – I wasn’t going to have much time to look down! The first tell-tale sign is just how stiff the bike is, with a hard seat and hard suspension, and pitched forwards onto its nose with plenty of weight over your wrists. Andrew Irwin had been riding that very bike earlier and every setting was bespoke to his requirements in terms of seat and peg position, head angle, suspension stiffness, wheelbase geometry and more. I was just grateful for the experience and while Andrew is a tall rider, his BMI is far lower than mine. Not to worry though because 235bhp would mask the size of my gut.
The sensation of having to adjust your natural riding style to compensate with the amount of power is baffling at first, gently feeding in it on the exit of a corner and learning how vicious you can be before it starts to bite back. You know the brakes are going to be strong, but how strong? With Monteblanco’s long start/finish straight as one of the only parts of the circuit where you can use full throttle, you’re essentially just hanging onto a rocket and praying the brakes work at the 200m board. The elevation coming out of the last corner makes the front wheel light as the weight transfers to the rear as the throttle ferocity pushes you back in the seat. There’s no wheelie control, there’s no traction control – and I’m fully aware of the potential issues if I try to expand my ability. To control the front wheel you have two options; roll off slightly or use the rear brake which on Andrew’s bike is thumb operated – a device I’d not used before - so deciding how much pressure to apply while wanting to feed the 4-cylinders who sit there begging for more throttle as they plot to warp your senses was tricky to balance. I get myself tucked in as much as possible while all hell is breaking loose below me. The revs build so, so quickly yet just as you’re making that split-second decision when to change gear, there’s a whole new power band at around 11 - 12,000rpm – even though the bike is screaming there’s what seems like a turbo that smashes in and hammers through more revs. Pinch another gear from the oh-so slick race-shift gearbox and the mind-bending acceleration continues as I’m careful not to hit the limiter as I pass the pit lane where the Honda team are stood listening and crossing their fingers, as one of their most prized processions is in the hands of one of those pesky journalists with just two weeks to go before Round One at Silverstone.
As peculiar as this sounds, it’s a difficult bike to ride quickly. As I mentioned in the Superstock section above, race bikes have extraordinary amounts of power so the rider needs to be upright to be able to use it all, and that’s the quickest way around the circuit as opposed to running long sweeping corner speeds, so it works against the way in which I’ve been taught to ride on circuit. With no electronics to keep the machinery rubber-side down, there’s sense into making the tighter corners into a ‘V’ shape. Get on the brakes late, hard and in a straight line for stability then get the machine down, turned and up as quickly as possible to get back on the throttle and use that bhp. It’s the smartest way of getting a quicker time in because the bike can go faster when upright than it can when leant over. So much so that when at lean the bike is seemingly not interested in performing, like it’s cutting the throttle until it’s back up and ready to fire you towards the next braking zone.
Ahead of my second run, the team slipped a brand new rear Pirelli in and told me to take it steady for the first couple of laps but not let too much heat out of it. Oh god, more pressure not to bin it! I was too tentative into the braking zone of T1 on my first flying lap and ran way wide of the apex which was quite the reality check. I still pushed on knowing this was an opportunity that wasn’t going to present itself each week. I began to get more confident with the brakes, adjusting myself into the race-spec suspension and using the throttle less gingerly. Not once in my life has twenty minutes seemed like five and while the theory of me being able to cope in a race situation on a BSB bike, the reality was clear in the form of datalogger evidence. I remain eternally grateful to the Honda BSB team for trusting me with their Superstock and Superbike only just ahead of the 2019 Bennetts British Superbike season and before the first round at Silverstone.
Best lap: 1m 54.87
Above: Full-factory set-up in the pits and even an RC213V-S for company
The basis of the Superstock and Superbike weapons are of course the CBR1000RR Fireblade SP and SP2 models, and without the painstaking hours, weeks, months and years of development into what is a friendly yet focused sportsbike, the Honda Racing team wouldn’t have had the base bike to utilise their skills, knowhow and technical capability to turn a handy road-going machine into such capable track monsters. As exciting as it was to experience two race bikes, to ride them back-to-back with the SP was equally as interesting to feel the Honda ‘way’ running through each bike. Yes, they’re purposes are different but there’s a synergy between them, a bloodline connecting the Premier League bike with the Champions League bike and the World Cup bike. Right, I’m off to put a fiver on Mr Fores or Mr Irwin to stand on the top step of a BSB podium this season.
PICS: James Wright (Double Red) and Lee Stern (Honda)
VIDEO: Dom Read-Jones