The rumours of a new Honda Fireblade for 2020 were circulating in media outlets, on forums and across social media for months in advance of its official unveil at the Milan Motorcycle Show in November 2019. Not only did the CBR1000RR-R Fireblade and SP make every motorcycle enthusiast sit up and listen, it has already proved itself as a magnificent race machine too.
The philosophy behind Honda’s flagship super-sports bike, the Fireblade, changed for 2020. Out went the idea that an all-around road bike could be transformed into a race winner across production bike-based classes throughout the world, instead winning races became the priority – a statement underlined by the bike’s Large Project Leader, Yuzuru Ishikawa at its launch. This was the start of a whole new chapter.
Fast forward nine months and standing on the top two steps of the podium for both of the first two races at the delayed Bennetts British Superbike season opener were Andrew and Glenn Irwin, the brothers brought together by Honda Racing’s Team Principle, Havier ‘Harv’ Beltran, to provide an answer to Ishikawa-San’s demands. Consecutive 1-2’s in the first two races of a season are rare enough but to have managed it with a bike making its championship debut is as rare as a lottery win. Especially when the series had been dominated in 2019 with a rival manufacturer from Italy taking 23 wins from the 27 races.
But how did we get from Milan to Leicestershire via Louth and Andalusia?
The completely standard but new-look Fireblade SP machines landed at Honda Racing’s UK Headquarters in North Lincolnshire in late December 2019 while still in their shipping crates, leaving the team little time to turn it into a competitor in the Superbike class with the Irwin brothers at the helm, as well as the Superstock 1000 class with Tom Neave and Davey Todd piloting, as well as preparation for the Isle of Man TT with G. Irwin (due to be making his debut) and Todd.
In the middle of January 2020, one of the first steps with the new bike was to get Andrew and Glenn up and running as quickly as possible and rather than rely on the UK’s wettest winter in recent times, the team skipped off to Andalusia in Southern Spain for an initial shakedown on a near standard road-going version. The key focuses revolved around the exhaust and bodywork development.
"It was a completely standard road bike but with no mirrors, indicators or tail tidy. We tried some of last year’s rear-sets for positioning. It was more like an evaluation where we experimented with wheelie control and traction" said Andrew.
The seating position data earned from the test lead to the in-house production of bespoke handlebars and footrests for racing. Andrew and Glenn both stand 6ft tall and were an integral part of the bike’s transition into a British Superbike competitor, after all getting tucked-in is a critical part of the aerodynamics of the bike and rider package.
A week later, Harv, Andrew and Glenn joined UK journalists at the Fireblade’s world press launch in Qatar which provided a second opportunity to ride the bike and, despite being in completely road format, the Irwin brothers gained valuable insight at a world class Grand Prix circuit, and sharpened their own race game too. Though it was already clear the race machines weren’t going to be ready in time for the subsequent official BSB pre-season tests at Monteblanco and Jerez.
No sooner as the team were knee-deep in the ‘blade build, as we all know, the coronavirus pandemic subsequently took hold affecting human life across the globe. Those resulting disruptions meant the BSB season and the Fireblade’s development naturally had to take a back step.
The heavily revised 2020 Bennetts British Superbike season restarted with an official test at Donington Park, which ten days later hosted the first of six triple-headers, and it was the Honda foursome who were right at the sharp end of their respective Superbike and Superstock time sheets, to the surprise of many rivals. But the 2020 Fireblade’s race debut was about to get even more sensational…
From a race debut perspective, few outside Honda could have expected wins, podiums and general ultra-competitiveness so soon, not only in BSB but in the World Endurance Championship and World Superbike Championship too.
In the British series, the Irwin brothers, Todd and Neave have all been pushing championship contending rivals hard and strong in the Superbike and Superstrock classes respectively, with the new CBR1000RR-R being the bike to be on. And, after several years of Ducati dominance, some would argue the change is refreshing. It’s in the pit garage where moral is high and motivation is at an elevated level with early season success bringing obvious joy. Yes, in recent years there have been flashes of the required performance on track to match the blood, sweat and tears lost in the team’s headquarters, but no BSB title since 2013 and just four race wins over the six seasons since is not the sort of objective an outfit like Honda Racing aspires to.
The ‘blade is back, sharper than ever and it’s making the racing world sit up and notice.