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Common Tread

2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R SP first ride

Sep 28, 2020

The CBR1000RR dash R space SP, also known as the Fireblade. It’s kind of a complex name. Frankly, it’s a complex motorcycle. The goal of this machine, however, is quite simple: Go around a racetrack as quickly as possible.

2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade
The triple-R will likely look a little more domesticated with mirrors, but in general it’s got a purposeful aesthetic. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Before we dive into the details of this bike I’d like to take a quick pause to acknowledge the name: Fireblade. It’s excellent that the U.S. market has finally adopted the moniker officially, because it’s brilliant. A blade of fire. Translations from Japanese to English are often strange in just the right way, and this could be one of the best. A former American Honda employee once told me the room laughed at the idea of calling the original CBR900RR a Fireblade, thinking it sounded like a bad Star Wars spoof. Some may think it’s a silly, nonsensical word but I find it a terrific blend of mythical, menacing, and poetic. Especially coming from Japan, where historically blades are taken pretty seriously. So, I think it’s fitting that the updates to the 2021 CBR1000 have also been serious.

CBR1000RR-R power button detail
The switch isn’t as obvious in the flesh, and I have to say it’s been a while since I actually had to ask how to turn a bike on. Press the button to turn on the ignition, rotate the outer ring forward to shut it off. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

To call it an update isn’t fair. Actually, this is more of an overhaul. There are essentially no shared parts between this bike and the previous generation. As a reminder, the 2017-2019 CBR1000RR was designed in part with riding on the street in mind. Many of the electronic aids and the allowable range of adjustability for certain settings were to keep the bike unencumbered, applicable to public roads and the everyday rider. For the 2017 version Honda leaned into the “more power, less weight” mantra that defined that original CBR900RR, raising the rev limit slightly and shedding some of the previous generation’s mass. In the presentation for this new CBR1000RR-R (Honda has taken to calling it the “triple R”) there was none of that talk. To put it simply, it didn’t get lighter and it seems Honda is no longer making compromises for the street.

The techs and the specs

Allegedly American Honda gave us an abbreviated rundown of the full presentation that the factory provided. Still, the list of changes on the flagship CBR will make even a gearhead’s noggin spin. First up, the engine, for which the marquee claim is the bore and stroke have been adjusted to match the dimensions of the RC213V-S street-legal MotoGP bike. That’s five mm more bore for a total of 81 mm and 6.5 mm less stroke (48.5 mm), specifically, which moves away from the relatively long-stroke engines that have kept CBR1000s narrow and torque rich for the past decade or so.

2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R left side
Crouched and ready to attack, like any good sport bike. Note the tubular aluminum subframe and the shift shaft reaching way up high to the transmission. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The engine’s optimization actually starts at the ignition switch, though not in the way you might think. As with many new bikes, this RR-R uses a fob instead of a typical key, and so the power switch (no more key and tumbler) has been moved forward, nestled behind where the headlight assembly would be if it weren’t a tiny strip of LED. So the story goes, moving the ignition switch allowed engineers to maintain more direct and larger volume intake airflow to the engine through the bike’s huge, central mono-nostril. From there the cylinders breathe in through larger throttle bodies and 10 percent larger intake valves, while forged pistons and titanium connecting rods pressurize the combustion chamber.

A semi-gear-driven valve system has been designed to save weight and the finger-follower rocker arms to reduce cam-lift friction, helping nearly 19 percent larger exhaust valves move more efficiently. Waste gases flow out through stainless-steel headers that are oval, which Honda says improves flow. All of this allows the new engine’s rev limit to be raised by 1,500 revs to 14,500 rpm, and pump out 186 claimed horsepower. The rule of the ICE, ironically as always, is that with more power comes more heat. To deal with it the water jacket channels have been revised to pull heat away from the bottom of the cylinders, as well as the top.

CBR1000RR-R exhaust pipe detail
The exhaust reroutes gases through the different sections of the pipe based on revs. No word from Honda on what rpm the valve opens, but it feels like about 6,500 rpm from the saddle, and the sound is terrific. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

It can feel like minutiae, a lot of it. A shorter, lighter cam chain. The intake valve angle narrowed by two degrees. A more compact starter motor that uses one fewer gear. The compression ratio upped from 13:1 to 13.2:1. Luckily there are the updates to the chassis, too, which are a little more noticeable at a glance. Sharp eyes will have spotted the tubular-aluminum subframe, very purposeful and European. As we’ve heard before with high-performance sport bikes, this new frame is more rigid vertically but less rigid horizontally — the idea being to control torsional and longitudinal loads on the chassis but allow the bike to flex appropriately when leaned over. The overall dimensions have changed significantly. The swingarm is 1.2 inches longer (though Honda proudly pointed out that it weighs the same as the old bike) and the wheelbase is nearly two inches longer, while the center of gravity has been raised.

Honda CBR1000RR-R front brake detail
Huge, 330 mm rotors and Brembo’s finest calipers are a treat to use. Why rubber lines on a $28,000 bike? Life is full of mysteries, people. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Speaking of European, if you look too closely at this RR-R SP it almost doesn’t look Japanese. From the svelte, titanium Akrapovič muffler made in Slovenia to the Swedish Öhlins suspenders. For stopping power the triple-R uses Italian-V4-spec Brembo Stylema brake calipers, as well as a Brembo master cylinder. None of this is a first in motorcycling, obviously, but for Honda it represents branching out. Reaching for resources and expertise outside its own massive R&D labs. Even so, some of the applications of technology are fairly homegrown, like those sneaky little winglets tucked into the sides of the triple-R’s fairing. Honda doesn’t have a claimed amount of downforce, only that the “downforce levels equal the 2018 RC213V MotoGP machine with a smaller wing area.”

On a track at speed

If you’ll pardon the pun, I’ll give you a little spoiler and say that the winglets aren’t particularly noticeable at speed. What is much more obvious climbing aboard the RR-R SP is the adjustment to the riding position. As the chassis was lengthened, so was the rider triangle — the seat is 0.4 inches taller, the footpegs are 0.8 inches higher and 1.7 inches farther back, and the clip-ons are 0.6 inches lower. Honda didn’t provide numbers, but a quick measurement showed that the bars are also set about an inch wider from each other and at least an inch farther forward. Again, even though the numbers are fairly small I can confirm that the changes feel drastic, as Honda allowed me to ride the previous model back-to-back with the triple-R.

Honda CBR1000RR-R tracking at speed
From certain angles you can see how much slimmer the RR-R SP would be without the set of winglets on each side. But, I suppose they help keep the front wheel on the ground when you’re full tuck at 35 mph behind a Ridgeline. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Some of my moto-journo colleagues found the new riding position oppressive. One even said the pegs are so high his feet started to go numb. Maybe it’s because my roadracing baptism was on a tiny RS125 GP bike, but I found the ergonomic changes to be spot on. The wider-set bars gave me more confidence and feel while steering and the longer reach fit my six-foot, two-inch frame nicely. Three and a half years ago I complimented the 2017 CBR1000 on having room to tuck in, but having ridden the new bike I take it all back. The top of the fuel tank on the triple-R has been lowered by about 1.8 inches, and the windscreen given a gentler curve, making wind protection much more comprehensive at full tuck.

Honda CBR1000RR-R left controls
The switchgear uses a combination of taps and long holds on each command to navigate the dash, which limits the number of buttons needed. It sounded kind of asinine, but I found it quite intuitive to use. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

It’s especially good to be comfortable when you light the fuse on this engine, because it pushes hard. The change to the bore-to-stroke ratio is considerable, and the characteristic has changed in almost exactly the way you would expect. Below about 6,000 rpm, with the butterfly valve in the exhaust closed and routing gases through tighter baffles, the bike is utterly quiet and docile. If it weren’t for the GP-inspired riding position it could be a CBR650R. Once the triple-R is on the boil, though, it moves and sounds like a scalded werewolf. Past 8,000 rpm is exhilarating and downright purposeful, taking nerve and a little bending of mechanical sympathy to get to the rev limiter at 14,500 rpm. I never got out of fourth gear on Thunderhill Raceway’s front straight, but still routinely saw 160 mph on the bright, TFT dash.

Honda CBR1000RR-R on board
Two more gears to go and I have to brake because I’m scared. Pertinent data is easy to see on the dash, and note the more welcoming bubble of the windscreen, which helps maximum tuckage. Photo by Zack Courts.

Mechanically, I came away from the ride on this new RR-R SP impressed that the physical design of the bike and geometry of the riding position had such a profound effect on the overall feel. Also, that the packaging and development of the engine has made a big difference. That said, one of the biggest problems with the previous CBR1000 was the application of electronics. Very basically, the 2017 bike suffered from ABS that was far too intrusive on track, traction control that was made for safety not performance, and not enough separation between some of the systems to adequately tune the bike to perform at speed.

Honda CBR1000RR-R ride mode chart
A breakdown of the ride modes and adjustable settings, hopefully easier to understand than if I tried to explain it. Honda set up a test of the “Start Mode” but my lovely moto-journo colleagues ahead of me roached the clutch before I could try. Thanks for nothing, guys. Honda illustration.

I’ll let the images of the settings grid explain how many different levels of each setting are available to the rider on the triple-R. The systems that I typically interact with most when riding on a track are traction control, ABS, and wheelie control. I’ll also admit that with three sessions to circulate and test the bike I didn’t manage to test each mode of the electronic steering damper, quickshifter, or every combination of throttle map and engine braking. While I’m confessing to things, yes, I was having a bit of fun — especially listening to the engine spool up above 8,000 rpm where you can feel the exhaust valve open and it fires a shrill superbike song out the pipe.

Honda CBR1000RR-R dash collage
A quick smattering of screens, to show how deep the menus go. Three manual suspension modes can be customized and selected from the main screen, for which there are also five different display options. Sorry for the crummy cell-phone shots. Photos by Zack Courts.

It took me longer than I expected to start circulating Thunderhill at any kind of dignified pace, but once I started leaning on the tires a bit I found the Honda Selectable Torque Control or HSTC (Honda-speak for traction control) worked pretty well. Just as I felt the rear tire slip and smear under power I could feel the system gently catch the slide and illuminate the TC light on the dash. It was smooth enough that I figured I would turn it down to see if I could pad my ego with some bigger slides, only to pull into pit lane and see that I was in setting 1 of 9. Next stop, in other words, was “OFF.” Instead, I went the other way, dialing TC up to level 5, then level 8. Here, HSTC has remnants of the old CBR1000 software that intervened so awkwardly. The IMU-informed traction control simply will not deliver more than a certain amount of power if the bike is leaned over, or if it does the power comes in strange spurts. It’s an odd feeling, opening the throttle and nothing happening, whether there is grip or not — so secure that I almost felt out of control. On a rainy night on the street, it might be just what the doctor ordered.

Honda CBR1000RR-R in action
Despite being down on power from the 215-horsepower Euro-spec model, pouring on the gas in a third-gear corner isn't boring. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Thankfully, in the right setting for a dry track it worked nicely. My prediction is that the next generation of HSTC will see the scale moved toward less intrusion, with a few settings available practically between OFF and level 1. The two levels of ABS are just barely enough. Mode 1 seemed to allow maximum braking as long as the rear wheel stays on the ground, which led me to dial the Engine Brake setting to level 1 to help the bike slow down. I’m a little surprised that there isn’t an option for front-only ABS on this bike, which would allow the rear tire to lift but not allow the front wheel to lock. One thing is for sure, the new brake hardware on the triple-R is a step up from the outgoing CBR1000, despite the rubber lines. There’s tons of power on tap and much less, if any, fade.

My biggest complaint about the electronics package is the wheelie control, but not because it doesn’t work well. The three settings vary appropriately from one to the next, with level 1 actually letting some fairly lurid wheelies linger. What’s odd is that the system is tied to HSTC. That is, the rider can’t turn one off and leave the other on, which is definitely something some of us would like to do at a racetrack. BMW and Yamaha sport-touring bikes in 2017 could do this, so I’m sure Honda Racing Corporation has it figured out. Maybe they just don’t trust any of us non-Márquez types with the power to decide.

Honda CBR1000RR-R accelerating toward camera
Interestingly, the previous-generation CBR1000 claimed peak power at redline, 13,000 rpm — the new Fireblade revs to 14,500 but claims peak power at 12,000 rpm. I think the problem might rhyme with "omission peg relations." Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Overall, you can color me impressed. All of the tweaks to the riding position allowed me to feel more comfortable while leaned over, more confident slinging the bike from side to side, and more relaxed on the straights. Plus, the electronics have been refined nicely — not class-leading, I don’t think, but a big step forward from the confounding setup on the last model. So, what about all of that mumbo jumbo that I talked about in the tech section? Is there any evidence at all that any of it helped? I’m not going to tell you that I noticed that bump in compression ratio or felt the result of low-friction valvetrain components. However, as an example, I did notice that when I rode the old CBR1000 I consistently exited the track with the coolant temp between 205 and 215 degrees, where the new bike was typically around 190 degrees. Same rider, same aggression, same day. I think whichever engineers worked on the cooling system deserve a tip of your cap for that.

The price of performance

There will be, and already has been, outrage at the triple-R’s price tag of $28,500 — almost enough money to buy two examples of the base CBR1000RR, which incidentally remains the old platform. In other words, you can still have a standard double-R for $16,500, a continuation of the same machine that debuted in 2017, which is likely a better street bike. The extra R space SP will cost an additional $12,000 and potentially some blood flow to your feet. I, for one, am not outraged by the price. I applaud Honda for reacting to the evolving role of showroom superbikes. Sales are stagnant or declining at the same time that excitement for flashy new models and trickle-down technology still plays a huge part in the motorcycle world.

Honda CBR1000RR-R winglet
Oh how the motorcycling world loves winglets these days. I appreciate that Honda’s design is more subtle than some other brands. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Could Tommy Trackday just buy a cheaper showroom sport bike and go about as fast for less money? Sure, but I also think comparing price at this level of motorcycle is an increasingly meaningless exercise. Tommy probably won’t be “$12,000 faster” on the triple-R than on a double-R, or an R1 or a ZX-10R. To me that’s not the point. The price delta is more a representation of Honda’s cost to build the machine — the effort and time it took to create a whole new bike with such high capability. Honda obviously doesn’t care if people buy a triple-R to put in a museum or to try to win races, but either way those are the two best applications, as I see it. If Tommy wants the best Big Red has to offer, the triple-R is it, and good on him. This is the bike that a lot of people wanted in 2017, arguably even 2012. Not a $186,000 MotoGP replica and also not a half-stab at new technology drowned in street-bike trade offs.

The CBR1000RR-R SP is uncompromising and unapologetically complex in a way that most Hondas simply aren’t. A genuine application of HRC’s resources, and all of the complexities make the bike better not for the sake of more options, but because it all works toward a simple goal: Go around a racetrack as quickly as possible. As it should be with a superbike.

2021 Honda CBR1000RR-R SP Fireblade
Price (MSRP) $28,500
Engine 999 cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, inline four
final drive
Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower 186 @ 12,000 rpm
Claimed torque 83 foot-pounds @ 11,000 rpm
Frame Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension Öhlins NPX 43 mm fork, adjustable for preload, electronically adjustable damping; 4.9 inches of travel
Rear suspension Öhlins shock, adjustable for preload, electronically adjustable damping; 5.6 inches of travel
Front brake Brembo Stylema four-piston calipers, 330 mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Brembo single-piston caliper, 220 mm disc with ABS
Rake, trail 24.0 degrees, 4.0 inches
Wheelbase 57.3 inches
Seat height 32.6 inches
Fuel capacity 4.3 gallons
Tires Pirelli Supercorsa SP, 200/70R17 rear, 120/70R17 front
Claimed weight 443 pounds
Available Now
Warranty 12 months
More info