2021 Honda CBR1000RR
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2021 Honda CBR1000RR

Jan 13, 2024

Let's be real for a second here: Honda's always taken the über conservative route with what we now know as the CBR1000RR, and this dates all the way back to the CBR's origins with the CBR900RR. When compared against its peers, the consensus usually goes "The Honda is a really good bike, but it's not great." The reason is because Honda's tried to toe the line between racetrack performance and streetable useability because these are road-legal motorcycles after all. And as much as any investor will tell you how important it is to diversify, in the sportbike world, this simply isn't the case anymore.

Truth be told, CBRs are good sportbikes for the street, with usable midrange and tolerable ergonomics, but on the racetrack where these bikes belong, the CBR1000RR hasn't made much of an impression. The last time a Honda production bike really got people's emotions stirring was when Colin Edwards won his World Superbike titles aboard the RC51. That was nearly 20 years ago, and if you’ll notice, it wasn't even on a CBR! Yes, James Toseland bagged a world title on a CBR1000RR a couple of years later, but nobody lusts for that bike like they do an RC51.

For well over a decade the CBR line hasn't tasted much in the way of international success. For a brand that made its name racing – and winning – at the highest levels, enough was enough. It was time for Honda to take the racing thing seriously again. It was time to add another R.

What we have with the 2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP is the raciest CBR to date, with minimal considerations for the street and maximum attention to racetrack performance, thanks to its spiritual inspiration – the RC213V MotoGP bike. While the CBR hasn't tasted much success lately, the RC213V sure has in the hands of one Marc Marquez.

Yes, having a total of four Rs in its name is a little silly, but this clean-sheet design (we’re told the only shared part between this and the old bike is the front wheel, though it uses different rotor carriers) is Honda's response to the other OEMs doing similar things with their sportbikes – building track-focused machines with lights, mirrors, and a license plate.

If you look carefully at the name the additional R jumps out, but read ‘till the end and you’ll also see the SP designation usually meant for the highest-performing version of the CBR. What you see here is the cream of the CBR crop, but this is the point where I reveal the catch, at least for Americans: We’re not getting lower-spec versions of the new CBR like our European friends are. At $28,500, the new Fireblade SP is now firmly in the upper tier of sportbikes from a cost perspective. For reasons I don't quite understand, the previous generation CBR1000RR remains as a base model at a much more affordable $16,499.

Nonetheless, lofty price tags bring with it lofty expectations, and this is the point where we take a deep dive into the nuts and bolts that make up the new CBR1000RR-R SP. From top to bottom, Honda has redesigned the bike to make it as advanced and track-focused as possible. If you’d rather read about how the bike works, feel free to skip to the riding impressions. Otherwise buckle in. It's about to get techy in here.

As mentioned before, the new ‘Blade is a ground-up redesign – it had to be if Honda were serious about making it more track-focused than ever before. As always, it all starts with the engine. In this case, the new engine is narrower, more efficient, and more powerful than its predecessor.

Bore and stroke measure 81 mm x 48.5 mm – same as the RC213V-S – making it much more oversquare compared to the 76 mm x 55 mm of the previous engine. These new dimensions, while conforming to MotoGP's current max bore size, also give the CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP the largest bore size among the current crop of inline four-cylinder 1000cc machines (looking at you, Japanese literbikes…).

The valve actuation incorporates new finger-follower rocker arms, doing away with the shim-under-bucket design of the previous valve train, reducing inertial weight by approximately 75% and allowing for a higher, 14,500 rpm redline. Diamond Like Carbon (DLC) on the cam lobes, just like the RC213V-S, is a first for mass-production motorcycles and reduces valvetrain friction by 35% compared to non-DLC-coated lobes, for increased power. The valves themselves are also bigger than before – 32.5 mm for the intake and 28.5 mm for the exhaust, up from 29.5 mm and 24.0 mm. A 13.2:1 compression ratio squeezes that air/fuel mixture real tight.

The valve train is driven by a new, patent-pending, semi-cam gear-train system. Instead of being driven from the crankshaft itself, the cam chain is now driven by a timing gear located on the crankshaft via the cam-idle gear. The result is a shorter, lighter, and more durable cam chain, which helps the engine rev higher while also making the whole engine more compact.

Supporting the higher-revving engine is a more robust bottom end compared to before. The crank journals are larger and the crankcase wall thickness has been optimized to increase rigidity and resist deflection. Forged, lightweight TI-64A Titanium connecting rods and connecting-rod caps are 50% lighter than Chromium Molybdenum steel versions. The rods also employ HB 149 Chromium Molybdenum Vanadium steel-bolts designed to eliminate the need for fastening nuts. To ensure durability, the same internal friction-reduction methods found on the RC213V-S are utilized. The small-end bushings are made of shaved C1720-HT Beryllium copper (because of its high-rpm reliability), while the surfaces of the big-ends are also DLC-coated.

Sitting atop the conrods are new pistons forged from A2618 aluminum (the same as the RC213V-S) for light weight, strength and durability. Each piston is 5% lighter than those found in the previous version, and the piston skirts now feature an Ober coating (Teflon and Molybdenum base) and nickel-phosphorous plating in the piston-pin clip-groove for increased high-rpm wear resistance.

As with all engines, but especially high-performance ones, combating heat is always an issue. With the new CBR, a multi-point piston jet sprays oil in multiple directions beneath the piston through each cycle at high rpm. At low rpm — i.e., when they’re not needed — check balls within the jets shut off the flow of oil in order to limit oil-pressure loss, thereby minimizing friction. Before, a single jet was used at all engine speeds.

A slight tweak in coolant routing sees the hot coolant routed around the bottom of the cylinders (cold coolant still gets directed straight to the main water jacket as before), this results in a more even temperature spread across all cylinders, which reduces bore distortion, creating less friction. From a packaging standpoint, this also removes an external coolant hose.

Air enters the engine through a ram air duct Honda says is the same size as the one on the RC213V MotoGP bike. The forced air has a straight shot through the headstock, around the steering stem, and into the airbox thanks in no small part to the removal of the traditional ignition barrel atop the steering stem that we’re all used to putting our key into. The new RR-R uses a smart key system – and in case you’re wondering, if you’re at the track you don't need to slip the key in your leathers as you ride. As long as the key is within range you can press the ignition button, start the bike, and ride. If you need to shut off the bike while you’re away from the key, as long as you use the traditional kill switch, you can still restart the motorcycle.

Back to the airflow, as the air enters the airbox it's greeted to a 25% larger filter than before. It then moves to 52 mm throttle bodies (compared to 48 mm previously). The intake valve angle is tightened to 9º (from 11º) for a 2% gain in airflow efficiency. To improve throttle response, the port volume (the capacity between throttle butterfly valves and intake-valve seat) has been reduced 13%, and the throttle shaft is now constructed from highly rigid stainless steel (instead of brass), to reduce deflection and operational friction.

As a result of all these changes, the new engine cases are shorter in length, thanks to a reduced distance between the crankshaft, countershaft and main shafts. The rear of the engine block also serves as the upper shock mount. In addition to being longitudinally shorter, the cases are also narrower, achieved by revising the starting system to start the engine through rotation of the clutch main shaft rather than the crankshaft. This patent-pending design allows for a more compact crankshaft and gives the primary driven gear double duty, as it transmits torque from the starter motor. The primary gear is now smaller and features fewer teeth, saving even more space.

Exhaling the spent gasses is a new exhaust system incorporating an oval cross-section in the downpipes for improved exhaust-gas flow. The catalyzer unit is 10mm larger in diameter to reduce exhaust-pressure drop, but a revised wall thickness negates any weight increase.

Akrapovič co-developed the titanium muffler to be small and lightweight while also reducing internal muffler volume by 38% compared to the previous design. The muffler features an exhaust valve designed to deliver both low-rpm torque and high-rpm power. When the valve is closed (low-rpm), exhaust gasses are re-routed inside the canister before exiting, mimicking the effects of physically longer exhaust routing. A valve stopper (patent-pending) is basically a physical barrier the valve rests against when closed, creating a seal to prevent exhaust-gas leakage, reducing noise. And as we all know in this era of Euro5 regulations, meeting sound requirements has become the killer of performance. To that end, it's also worth noting US-spec bikes are restricted to 188 hp. The version our friends across the pond receive are allowed 215 hp.

A new, slimmer engine brings with it a new chassis designed to improve feedback to the rider while also being more stable to handle the increased power. The new "Diamond" frame is made from 2 mm thick aluminum, comprised of four components, attaching to the engine directly in six locations. The upper cross member seen on the previous CBR is gone now, which Honda says provides more high-speed stability both under acceleration and braking.

Honda also says vertical and torsional rigidity are increased by 18% and 9% respectively, with horizontal rigidity decreased by 11% — all aimed at maximizing rider feel. Keeping with the rider's (fragile) feelings, the swingarm is made up of pressed aluminum of 18 individual thicknesses. It's 30.5 mm longer than the previous swingarm, at 24.5 inches, but still weighs the same as before. Meanwhile, its horizontal rigidity has gone down 15%. Again, for rider feel. Thin-wall aluminum tubing makes up the subframe, which now mounts on top of the frame, instead of the sides, to keep things narrow.

When it's all said and done, here are the geometry numbers. Wheelbase is now 57.4 inches, with rake and trail of 24°/4.01 inches compared to the previous model's 55.3 inch wheelbase, 23° rake and 3.77 inch trail. Wet weight is 443 lbs. The crankshaft is 33 mm farther from the front axle and raised 16 mm. This evens out weight distribution, while the higher center of gravity reduces pitching and improves side-to-side agility.

Being the SP model, nothing less will do when it comes to suspension than Öhlins bits. In this case, second-generation semi-active Öhlins Electronic Control (S-EC) units. The 43 mm Öhlins NPX fork uses a pressurized damping system to minimize cavitation, resulting in more stable damping control and improved bump absorption at racetrack speeds, as well as improved rider feedback from the front tire. Its 125 mm stroke is 5 mm longer than before.

In the rear, the fully adjustable TTX36 Smart EC unit has a 10% longer stroke, revised valving, and different shim stacks than before. For optimum frame rigidity (and to save weight), the top of the Pro-Link rear suspension now attaches to the rear of the engine block via a bracket, doing away with the upper cross-member. The design isolates the rear wheel from the headstock, improving high-speed handling and rear-wheel traction feel. Being EC units, rebound and compression damping are done electronically, though preload changes are still done with tools.

In conjunction with the hardware upgrade, the Öhlins Objective Based Tuning interface (OBTi) now offers much finer suspension adjustment front and rear; both can be set independently from the default settings, and three individual modes can be set and stored, allowing the rider to configure multiple settings for a track and switch settings instantly while riding.

What's a top-level sportbike these days without electronics? With the Triple-R (its colloquial name), gone is the five-axis IMU used before, replaced with a Bosch six-axis unit which is essentially the heart of all of the Honda's performance aids. As it relates to the Smart EC suspension talked about above, the Öhlins pieces can operate either automatically or manually. In either of the three auto modes (Track, Sport, or Rain), the objective-based tuning takes inputs given to it from the IMU and ECU in real-time to adjust five parameters:

With the Smart EC, the suspension can react to any of the specific categories above without affecting the general setup. Ten different levels of adjustability are available to the rider in each of those categories as well, so the rider can fine-tune to their liking.

In the three manual modes, the front and rear behave as we’re used to with traditional, analog suspension, except changes are made via button presses, not clicks, and are done in 5% intervals.

Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC) is Honda-speak for traction control and gets another evolution with the current RR-R to operate smoother and more seamlessly than before, again thanks to inputs from the IMU. There are nine settings plus off (so 10 total) to choose from. IMU inputs also aid the Honda Electronic Steering Damper (HESD). Unlike past CBRs which housed the damper essentially at the head of the fuel tank, the new rod-type version mounts to the steering stem and bottom triple tree and features three levels of adjustability – soft, medium, and hard.

Other electronic aids include Cornering-ABS with rear lift control and two different modes (Sport and Track), three levels of wheelie control, and a Start Mode (aka launch control), which lets the rider keep the throttle pinned during a race start and just focus on modulating the clutch to launch.

It seems odd to wait so long to mention the styling of the new CBR, but there's so much to cover elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Triple R's visual appeal was given no less thought than the rest of the motorcycle, with the two goals being aerodynamic efficiency and improved stability.

To achieve the first goal, the tank is lowered 45 mm to reduce the frontal area, and the shallow 35º angle of the windscreen is said to efficiently channel airflow over a tucked rider. The lower fairing extends closer to the rear tire and is shaped to channel air downward. On the track, this has two effects: In dry conditions, less air hits the tire, lowering drag; in the wet, less water hits the tire, improving grip.

Finally, the top of the rear hugger is cut-out to vent air that channels up from underneath either side of the swingarm, decreasing rear lift. The net result of all this work is a drag coefficient value of 0.270, the best in class, Honda says. Of course, this is with the bike in race trim, minus mirrors, license plate, turn indicators, etc.

Then there are the winglets. All the rage these days to provide mechanical grip on the front, the Honda pieces utilize three wings on either side, encased in fairing ducts. This minimizes the longitudinal dimensions of the wings while maintaining the same level of downforce as the 2018 RC213V MotoGP racer. Whether or not they actually work in the real world leads us to our next topic.

If you’ve come this far in the review, then you really must be curious about the new Triple R. Either that or you skipped ahead. To get a feel for the new bike, Honda invited us to Thunderhill Raceway in northern California, my personal favorite track in the state, and an excellent venue to let a powerful literbike stretch its legs.

My day would consist of three 20-minute sessions aboard the RR-R SP. Granted, an hour isn't much time to truly get to know a new motorcycle, but Honda also brought the previous generation CBR1000RR SP, and a few base models, to get a back-to-back feel for the differences and advancements.

Straight away, the most immediate difference when you hop on the new bike is the seating position. The focus on racetrack performance is evident by the higher seat (830 mm, (32.6 inches) vs. 820 mm (32.2 inches) before), lower bars (840 mm (33.0 inches), 17 mm lower than before), and higher pegs (21 mm higher and 43 mm further back from before). You also feel the narrowness of the seat/tank junction, too. There's actually not much room to scoot back in the saddle, meaning my elbows were resting beside my knees (instead of in front or above) in a full tuck. All this before even turning the engine on!

Thumb the starter (don't forget to have the key fob close by) and the oversquare engine roars to life in that familiar throaty rumble we’re used to from inline-Fours, the Akrapovic pipe revealing hints at a burly beast waiting to be unleashed.

On track the back-to-back running of new and old CBR-SP models is very telling. It's not that the old bike is a slouch, but the new model, despite being an all-new design, feels like it takes every performance aspect of the old and ratchets it up two more clicks. The new engine responds with a degree or two more immediacy than before (but not in an abrupt way), and climbs through the revs a tick more aggressively than before, en route to its 14,500 rpm redline which is higher than before. Power builds the entire time, with a nice rush on top – and let's not forget the 186 hp handicap US models are running under!

The up-and-down quickshifter is truly sweet on both old and new models, and the only botched shift was my fault for not being deliberate with my downshift from second to first one time. One of, if not the biggest criticism I had about the previous model was its crude electronics that lacked sophistication and smoothness. Making the switch to Bosch components has gone a long way in fixing that.

With traction control set to 1, the least intrusive setting, I can see the system working via the TC light on the beautiful (though busy) 5-inch TFT display. I can slightly feel the system kicking in, too, but instead of hampering drive, it's doing just the opposite – giving just enough spin to allow the bike to charge forward and/or rotate as needed. Pro racers could probably lap faster with the system off, but for the rest of us mortals, myself included, keeping the system at level 1 was perfect. Quite surprisingly, ramping up TC was fine through most of the track, but even in level 3 (of 9) exit drive coming out of slow, tight corners was extremely hampered and sluggish until the bike was basically upright. The freedom given in level 1 was especially impressive considering the standard Pirelli Supercorsa SP tires used for the test.

Yes, we used standard street tires for a full day of racetrack thrashing. And while they were swapped out for freshies halfway through the day, they really didn't need to be. Despite the lack of outright grip compared to, say, slicks, the tires didn't limit the ability to notice the handling difference between new and old. The Triple-R turns in with a degree more precision and holds its line with a degree more sure-footedness, or what's more commonly known as stability.

Considering the longer wheelbase and slightly lazier rake and trail numbers, the added stability shouldn't be too surprising, though the new CBR doesn't steer noticeably slower than its predecessor. There's not much to criticize with the electronic Öhlins suspension, though I only tried the Auto setting for one session and really had no immediate needs to address. More time to explore its capabilities is definitely in order.

Taking into account the perfect weather on our ride day, and the limited time we had with the new CBR, truly exploring the myriad of electronic features simply wasn't possible. But knowing what it can do with full power and minimal interventions is a confidence booster should you encounter bad conditions and need to ask the electronics for help.

Then there are the wings. Do they work? Consider this: the short chute between turns 1 and 2 features a little rise. If you exit turn 1 just right, you’re doing triple-digit speed in either second or third gear. As you clip the rise, the front will wheelie, and just as it comes down it's time to scrub some speed for the sweeping turn 2. At least that's what it does on the old bike. On the new CBR1000RR-R SP, I never once felt the front end get light cresting the rise. Sure, this is anecdotal evidence if ever there was one, but it seemed pretty telling to me.

The thing is, we always knew Honda could build this bike and wondered for years why it didn't. Now it has, and we’re all the better for it. It's not a stretch to say, objectively, this is the best Honda has done so far with the CBR line, but then there's the question – is it enough?

With competition like the Ducati Panigale V4S at $28,395, Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory at $25,499, Yamaha R1M at $26,099, and Kawasaki ZX-10RR at $24,899, Honda has firmly planted its feet in the premium sportbike market with the Triple-R's $28,500 price tag (at press time BMW had yet to announce pricing for the new M1000RR) and it definitely deserves to be in the conversation.

Without putting the contenders together in one place it's truly hard to judge where the new CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP falls in line. But what I can tell you after a day riding both old and new back-to-back is what a small but significant step forward this bike is. The several track-focused changes Honda made when creating this all-new machine has come together in a package that is truly impressive and exhilarating.

Helmet: Bell Race Star Flex DLX $670

Boots: Alpinestars Supertech-R $500

2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP Specifications

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I especially appreciated the tech details in simple language even I can understand. Now, if Honda ever did a half faired version with (higher) bars and bigger seat, and simpler paint ....

Personally, I think it makes perfect sense to only offer the SP in this guise and a machine that bears no resemblance to it, as an "entry level" machine. If I spend nearly 30K on a premium machine such as this, I don't want to see some 18 yr old squid with a watered down version of the same machine, it diminishes it's level of exclusivity.