30 YEARS OF THE FIREBLADE
Honda launched the first of its legendary Fireblade machines – the CBR900RR – in 1992 but at that time there was no production race on the TT schedule and Honda was using RC30 and then RC45 machines for the Formula 1 and Senior races.
That all changed in 1996 when the production race returned to race week after a six-year absence. Immediately the Fireblade led the way, with 23 of the 53 starters choosing ‘Blades and Armagh man Phillip McCallen dominating the race, ahead of Scot Iain Duffus, riding another CBR900RR. Seven of the top ten finishers rode ’Blades.
Most impressively of all McCallen’s fastest lap of 118.9mph was faster than the outright lap record from ten years earlier – sure-fire proof that sports bikes were improving at a phenomenal rate.
McCallen won again in 1997 and the year after that Jim Moodie made it a ’Blade hat-trick, taking the production lap record past 120mph for the first time, with a best lap of 120.7mph.
Moodie had started racing production bikes at the TT in the late 1980s, when the handling of many machines wasn’t up to the demands of the Mountain course.
“At the 1998 TT a lot of people were still worried that proddie bikes were too unstable, but I thought my Fireblade was great,” says the Scot. “I’d grown up doing proddie racing, so I was used to bikes moving around a bit – you just locked your arms and got the thing straight as quick as possible.”
Proddie TT racing was very lucrative at the time, with a win in the big class worth around £8,000 in prize money and bonuses. This made perfect sense because the TT is by far the best test for a production bike, so the manufacturers of motorcycles, tyres and other upgrade parts fully understood the marketing gold of TT success.
Honda continued using its RC45 machines in open TT races until the SP1 and SP2 v-twins arrived at the turn of the century. Therefore the Fireblade’s story as a Superbike and Senior machine really begins when John McGuinness re-joined Honda in 2006 and Honda UK got serious about turning the ’Blade into a proper TT race bike.
In fact they didn’t do much to achieve that goal.
“When we saw the performances the bike was putting up in production races we decided, let’s just build a slightly better road bike,” says Neil Tuxworth, Honda UK team manager from 1989 to 2017. “So at first we didn’t build a full-blown superbike. Some people get it wrong and try to build short-circuit bikes for the TT, which doesn’t usually work. We said, we’re racing on public roads in all kinds of conditions, so you don’t need the quickest thing – you just need something that handles well and has really linear power, which the ’Blade had.”
Over the next decade the Fireblade took 20 TT victories across three different events: the Superbike, Superstock and Senior TTs. More than half of those came from McGuinness.
The TT’s second most successful exponent won his first Fireblade TT in the 2006 Senior and his last in the 2015 Senior. During that period he won a total of 12 ‘Blade victories – six Senior TTs, five Superbike races and one Superstock.
“The ’Blade has been a massive part of my journey,” says McGuinness. “It was a consistently good package. I always knew how the bike was going to react, so it was a bit like putting on an old pair of slippers. It was stable and had useable, linear power, which is what you need on the Isle of Man.”
Tuxworth worked with McGuinness throughout his time at Honda, during which Bruce Anstey, Michael Dunlop, Ian Hutchinson and Steve Plater also won TTs on Fireblades.
“One of the comments a lot of riders made was that the ’Blade often felt slow but it did the lap times,” Tuxworth. “It had nice, linear power all the way through, which is much better than an aggressive power delivery, even if it doesn’t feel as fast. John loved riding it because he always knew what it was going to do and it always performed as he expected. It was a very easy motorcycle to work with.”
McGuinness won his 12 ’Blade TTs on several different iterations of the machine. The first few came with the eighth-generation RR, with the under-seat exhaust, including the 2007 Centenary Senior TT, during which he rode the first 130mph lap.
“I won the double-double with that bike [the 2006 and 2007 Superbike and Senior races],” adds McGuinness. “That was such a sweet package – I used to walk towards the bike and think, nobody’s going to beat me on this thing. I always felt really confident with it.”
After that it was ninth-generation ’Blade all the way. From 2008 to 2016 the bike remained essentially the same and that was just the way McGuinness liked it, because confidence is the number-one thing a rider needs at the TT and the more you ride the same bike the more confident you become.
“My 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 ’Blades were basically the same bike! We kept it the same – same ride-height, same wheelbase and so on – all that time, because it worked.”
McGuinness’ favourite TT win is the 2013 Senior on that year’s ’Blade.
“I remember hitting every spot and every apex and the pit stops were perfect. The Fireblade didn’t use a lot of fuel. Everybody thought we were better in the pits, but it was just that we were putting less fuel in, because it used less fuel than the other bikes. Everybody thought we had a magic wand in the pits but we were saving a few seconds because we didn’t have to put in as much the BMWs and Suzukis.”
In 2017 Honda launched an all-new Fireblade, but the machine wasn’t a success. McGuinness had a serious accident at the North West 200 and team-mate Guy Martin was ruled out of the TT after a big crash in practice.
Last year Honda tried again, with another completely new ’Blade, the racetrack-focused CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP. Honda UK signed Glenn Irwin and Davey Todd to contest the TT and other roads events, but then the pandemic intervened.
Irwin has already ridden the latest ‘Blade to victory in BSB and can’t wait to race it at the TT in 2022.
“We’ve not raced the bike on the roads yet, but everything Glenn tells me about the machine suggests that it will be a real weapon at the TT,” says Honda UK team manager Havier Beltran. “Hopefully everything will be pretty much back to normal next year and we can get back to the Isle of Man to continue the ’Blade’s TT story.”