By: Arthur Coldwells
It is hard to believe that Honda’s CBR1000RR has now reached its 20 year anniversary; it seems like only yesterday that I was thrashing around Willow Springs Raceway in an attempt to club race a CBR900RR—the weapon of choice back in the mid-1990s.
The RR-suffixed model has come a long way in those 20 years. My purple/yellow/white bike boasted the infamous 16-inch front wheel (with no steering damper, incidentally), and vent holes on either side of the headlight that Honda claimed made the bike easier to transition from side-to-side at speed. The 900RR was an inline-four, but without fuel injection in those days. The front forks were not male-slider, although they were cleverly made to look as though they were, and the front brakes weren’t endowed with a radial caliper or master cylinder.
Despite missing all these modern developments, the 900RR was far from an old nail. Actually, it was an impressively powerful machine and ground-breakingly light, compared to its peers. Led by the now legendary LPL (Large Project Leader) Baba-san, Honda decided on three core concepts to define the RR ethos, and it has subsequently stuck to them: light weight, centralized mass, and rideability. Clearly those ideas are intertwined, but essentially the goal is to provide a motorcycle that is supremely capable and easy to ride—a superbike motorcycle for everyman.
In the intervening years, almost 450,000 RRs have been produced. In 2004, Baba-san handed over the reins for the first 1000RR to Yoshii-san, who also became the main force behind Nicky Hayden’s MotoGP Championship-winning RC212V. Fukunaga-san was an integral part of that first 1000RR, as well, and having now inherited the LPL mantle, he wanted to develop the design as a logical progression from the 2011 model, and still adhere resolutely to the core values. Four new patents and a definite improvement were the result.
Visually, the easiest tells between this and last year’s model is a widened tail section and the all-in-one instrument pod in the cockpit. The sharpened nose section and layered front fairing are less obvious, though they help the bike look slightly more aggressive. The lighter, more-rigid 12-spoke cast aluminum wheels are intended to help improve feedback to the rider.
In the cockpit, the new backlit LCD instrument pod is a big improvement. Its sweep tachometer, digital speedometer, and customizable sweep gearshift light are all clear, and they are accompanied by a large, easy-to-read digital gear indicator—a first for CBR and a welcome development. Other functions include a lap-timer, fuel consumption computer, and recorded mileage.
Besides the instruments, the main changes to the 20th Anniversary 1000RR are completely new suspension, re-mapped fuel injection for more linear power low-down, plus a tweak to the superb C-ABS system that reduces the amount of braking-force transferred to the front when just the foot brake is applied.
We had the opportunity to ride the 2012 CBR1000RR at Infineon Raceway in late December and were fortunate that the weather, although cold and foggy in the morning, warmed up enough in the afternoon for us to get some laps in. Honda provided a 2011 edition, so I was able to ride the two machines in alternating track sessions. The changes to the 1000RR were immediate and obvious.
The new suspension makes a huge difference to the 2012 CBR’s handling. Showa’s 43mm Big Piston Fork (BPF) has made it on to several other Japanese sportbikes, and riding the CBR1000RR I was reminded why it is such a boon. Compared to the typical cartridge-type fork, the BPF’s piston is almost twice the size, and the oil inside acts on almost four times the surface area. This gives a big reduction in pressure while ensuring that the actual damping force remains the same. The slider action is faster and smoother as a result, and the fork has greater control over the first part of its stroke.
On initial brake application, forward pitch is dramatically reduced and the chassis stays stable. It is not anti dive, per se, but it is very noticeable how much better behaved the new CBR1000RR is when hard on the brakes. The lack of dive maintains the chassis geometry, so the machine is easier to control and a lot more meticulous on turn-in.
It’s not that the 2011 model wasn’t superb— it handled precisely—yet, in comparison, the new model is even more exact and easy to place just where you want. It was particularly evident in Infineon’s final hairpin Turn 11. Lap after lap, I was able to touch the paint on the inside of the corner with my knee, but on the 2011 model I only managed it twice.
Despite the spectacular electronics developed for its dominant RC212V MotoGP racer, only the Honda Electronic Steering Damper (I could have used one of those on the 900RR) has made it on to the big CBR; ride-by-wire and traction control are noticeably absent.
Although the new Showa Balance-Free Rear Cushion (shock) is not a direct replacement for traction control, it is claimed by Honda to go a long way towards compensating by improving the rear tire’s contact with the ground. It is easy to dismiss this claim as hyperbole, but I found a considerable difference in rear wheel traction with the new shock.
The Showa’s double-tube design with a single solid piston moves the damping action to the piggyback section, so the shock reacts much faster than the norm we’re used to. The split-second lag-time found when a conventional shock transitions from compression to rebound is gone, and because the piston does not have the valves found on single tube shocks, oil cavitation (bubbling) isn’t an issue either.
The result with the new Balance-Free unit is a perfectly seamless transition at both ends of the stroke—many times per second—resulting in improved rear tire traction. It is not electronic traction control, yet it certainly is a big help in that department.
The rest of the shocks’ performance is also much better than its predecessor. The new Showa has a slightly softer feeling, and the tire is clearly much more controlled and planted. Accelerating hard in first gear out of Infineon’s Turn 11 demonstrates that the new fuel mapping does indeed give an improved, linear power delivery. Try as I might, within reason, I couldn’t make the rear tire break away. Even through the faster sections of the track, the 1000RR simply felt more stable and controlled than the 2011 model.
After the track test, I took the big CBR to the street, albeit in chilly, wet weather. The exemplary Dunlop Q2s gripped very well as usual, and I was pleasantly impressed by how well the rear of the Honda stayed glued to the road. I am convinced that some of that is due to the new Showa rear shock.
Considerable credit must go to Fukunagasan for keeping the CBR1000RR’s fundamental values while improving upon them. Riding the 2011 and 2012 back-to-back on both the road and track made those improvements strikingly apparent. The 2011 version was a truly exceptional motorcycle, yet the changes to the power delivery and the new suspension have simply made the 20th Anniversary model noticeably better. If only I had been racing this version all those years ago.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Ultimate Motorcycling.