The sport bike corner of the internet was aflutter recently when alleged spy shots of the 2017 Honda CBR1000RR emerged. Many speculated that Honda is just going to bolt a new fairing with an Africa Twin-style paint job on the old CBR and call it a day.
Oh, presumably there will be all sorts of new electronics managing that engine, as the Honda has been the last "analog" liter sport bike, requiring the rider’s right wrist to control the power without the assistance of traction control and ride modes. But is this what we’ve come to? Where the improvements to the most competent and capable performance bikes are mostly invisible? Where software rules?
The images of the alleged new CBR1000RR (setting aside, for now, questions about whether this really is the 2017 CBR) first appeared on Twitter.
新型CBR1000RRらしい— わきわき蔵 (@wakiwakiYZF_R1M) September 13, 2016
It’s not just sport bike news from Honda we’re waiting for as the fall show season looms, either. At last year’s EICMA show, Suzuki promised the next GSX-R1000 will be "the most powerful, hardest-accelerating, cleanest-running GSX-R ever built" and "also the lightest, the most compact, the most aerodynamic and the best-handling GSX-R1000 ever." Now, it’s time to deliver on those promises.
Plus, Yamaha recently released a teaser video about what is presumably the next YZF-R6 that is uninformative even by the frustrating standards of teaser videos.
I’m prepared to see disappointment in multiple corners. Remember when it was rumored that the next R6 would be a 675 cc triple? That’s clearly still an inline four in the video, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The R6 is a great track weapon, even if its peaky powerband makes it less suited for the street. But it smells more like Yamaha deciding to carry on the best it can and add a quickshifter and some invisible electronic magic without pushing the price too much further into five-digit territory. Hey, with supersport sales lagging, maybe we should just be thankful Yamaha still wants to build a 600 cc race replica at all.
There's potential for disappointment if Honda just adds electronic aids to what is already an aged design and decides that’s good enough. That's possible because it really is all about electronics today. Back when sport bikes were big sellers, they were updated every two years, and the predictable claims were stronger, lighter, faster. But without electronic help to control that power when we twist the throttle a little harder and sooner than we did last lap, we track day mortals and average street riders can’t ride significantly faster on a 175-horsepower liter bike than on a 150-horsepower version. The bikes' capabilities are beyond our skills, so we need some assistance to keep us from high-siding ourselves into oncoming traffic or next week, whichever comes first.
There’s also potential for disappointment among those hoping that a mild upgrade of the CBR1000RR will be offset by the introduction of a limited-edition RVF1000R with a V4 borrowed from the RC213V-S. It could happen. It would make some sense. Honda would only have to build 500 of them to make the bike the basis for its World Superbike effort. But a $40,000 RVF1000R would certainly undercut sales of the $184,000 RC213V-S. Will Honda bother?
If V4 superbike doesn’t happen (and I’m doubtful), the range of disappointment may spread to include two thirds of Earl’s Racing Team, as Nicky Hayden is counting on a new Honda for WSBK next year and Roger Hayden has been openly yearning for a replacement for what is essentially a seven-year-old GSX-R1000 for MotoAmerica Superbike duty, so he can stop racking up second-place finishes. It will be sad times in Owensboro, Kentucky, if Honda and Suzuki don't come through.
Welcome to the new sport bike reality
While liter-class sport bikes were once the undisputed flagships of a manufacturer’s lineup and 600 cc race replicas were, dollar for dollar, the trickest street-legal vehicles you could buy, things are different now. Today, other bikes are more important to the manufacturers, both in terms of sales numbers and corporate image.
This puts manufacturers in a tough spot because they must still pour enough R&D into these sport bikes to succeed at racing. Having hundreds of thousands of Hayden fans blaming Honda and Suzuki for their riders’ lack of success does nothing to burnish the brands, and brand-building is what racing is supposed to accomplish.
Will it be disappointment or pleasant surprises? EICMA rolls around in early October, followed by Intermot in November. We should get some answers soon.