By: Jon Urry
When I was younger my dream was to be a works rider for Honda. As it turned out I started working for them in the machining section of the Saitama Factory.” Tadao Baba isn’t your average Japanese engineer. Small in physical stature, Baba is seldom seen without a smile on his face and a cigarette clasped in his hand. Those who know him well use the terms “mad” and “eccentric” alongside “genius” and “revolutionary” while people who worked on the original FireBlade — as the CBR900RR and later models are labeled almost everywhere except in the USA— alongside him often add “stubborn” and “fanatical” into the mix. Whatever words you use to describe Tadao Baba, his legacy is undeniable. In an age where sportbikes went fast but refused to handle, Baba broke from convention and built the blueprint for all future sportbikes. Not bad for a man with no formal engineering training.
“I didn’t go to university, just high school. I joined Honda in 1962 when I was just 18 years old, only eight years younger than Honda itself! I worked for three years in the machining section making crankcases and cylinder heads for Honda’s cb72 and 77, then in 1965 I was moved to the R&D area as a test rider.” It may seem quite a jump to move from a milling machine to testing motorcycles, but Baba was an accomplished rider. Racing in the Japanese 125 championship, Baba took a national title in 1970 and it was this track success that brought him to the attention of Honda’s owner, Soichiro Honda. The pair formed a strong friendship that lasted until Soichiro’s death in 1991, one year before Baba was to unveil the bike that repaid his friend’s faith in him.
“To a racing rider, working the R&D and testing area was a dream come true,” remembers Baba. Tasked mainly with improving the handling, stability and carburetor settings on development models, Baba soon demonstrated he was more than just a test rider, quickly picking up the engineering skills that saw him promoted to the role of Vice Project Leader in 1972. After developing both on- and off-road bikes at the Hamamatsu Factory, Baba was asked to return to the R&D department at the end of 1987 and take over leadership of Honda’s new sportbike project.
The fact the project was initially started by Yoichi Oguma, who went on to head up HRC, demonstrated not only just how seriously Honda was taking the development of this new bike but also the esteem Baba was held in within the factory. The FireBlade was Baba’s first solo project, he was no longer a Vice Project Leader; this new bike was his baby. “Of course I was nervous. It was my first project, but I was also confident too. I love riding sport-bikes and I love the feeling of satisfaction when I can control it as I want. The brief was to create a sportbike with total control that was easy to ride. This was my world, my ideal bike.”
Starting with a team of 30 to 40 young designers from various backgrounds, Baba gathered their ideas and brought them together as a single concept. In the initial stages of development there were few rules. Even the blade’s capacity was uncertain and early prototypes were 750cc, but the few rules that were set Baba stuck to fanatically, something that earned him a reputation as a hard task master. “Some of the designers called me Hotoke no Baba or ‘Buddha Baba’ in English. I think it is fair to say I was very stubborn when it came to the FireBlade’s weight,” he admits, before adding, “sometimes you have to show someone your leadership through being calm, but I did also get angry...”
One specific area that anyone involved in the FireBlade project remembers as being especially controversial was the front fork. In the late 1980s, inverted forks were starting to become an important fashion accessory on production bikes. Not one for following trends, Baba simply pointed out that they were heavier than conventional forks and refused to put an inverted fork on the bike, although he did reach a compromise — he designed a conventional fork that looked like an inverted item! A few years later Baba did concede that technology allowed the use of inverted forks. “I was pleased to see inverted forks finally on the FireBlade, but only when weight technology meant they were lighter than conventional units!”
Despite being an “old-school engineer”, Baba’s time in the R&D area also saw him introduced to the latest cutting-edge technology, something he embraced and brought into the FireBlade project. The blade was the first road bike designed by Honda using CAD technology and the theory of mass centralization, techniques that are commonplace nowadays in motorcycle design. It is this use of technology that Baba cites as the critical factor in the FireBlade’s design, the part that made it stand out from the crowd and helped it become so revolutionary.
By summer 1989, less than two years after taking the reins of the FireBlade project, the first prototype was ready to be tested at the Suzuka race circuit. While the test riders were blown away by the machine’s performance, Baba was always confident that the FireBlade’s design would work. Before the riders took to the circuit, Baba stood in front of them and made the announcement, “gentlemen, today you are going to ride a bike that will change the face of supers-ports.” Was he really that sure? “The results were in line with expectations,” is his simple response.
Throughout the FireBlade’s development, Baba was anything but a typical Japanese designer who stood at the back of a garage clutching a clipboard. Baba was much more likely to be found out on track, lapping with the test riders and more often than not ending up in the gravel. There is a joke amongst the test team that Baba has a magnetic attraction to the gravel traps — something he doesn’t dispute. “I have heard I have a reputation as a crasher,” he laughs. “Some of our test riders think I have crashed every model of FireBlade. I think maybe just four or five. I have also crashed some bikes that weren’t FireBlades as well, an R1, YZF…”
Honda, in recognition of Baba’s enormous achievement, actually changed the FireBlade’s name. All bikes made post-Baba have a small “b” in their logo in honor of the great man. And it didn’t stop there: In 2004 Honda threw Baba a leaving party, Honda Europe funded a tour around Europe, and Honda Japan presented him with a wooden plaque with a piston from every model of FireBlade mounted on it — some-thing that takes pride of place on a shelf at his home in Japan. Finally, there is one Baba rumor that needs to be cleared up. Is it true that he used to sneak into the Honda factory, go to the production lines and write messages to future FireBlade owners? “Ha, yes that is true. Just on 2004 and 2005 models. I would write ‘ride safe’ and ‘enjoy’ in Japanese on the inside of the fairing.”
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Sport Rider.