Las Vegas Speedway
January 22, 2003
We all witnessed the RC211V simply annihilate the rest of the field in MotoGP. In some sort of undocumented physical law of racing, such engineering feats do not come cheap. Honda spent a fortune to win race after race with the RC211V.
Despite how the MotoGP grids might appear next year, the RC211V is not a mass production bike. Honda is not going to make back their investment on the RC211V by selling more RC211s, they are going to make it back by selling their usual line of street bikes.
Imagine you are a corporate executive who just spent the gross national product of a small country developing a race bike. The safest way to cover your ass on that investment is to link every commercially successful model thereafter to the success of that race bike. You can proudly proclaim “We sold all these CBRs because we invested so heavily in the RC211V”.
If you were going to pursue such a strategy you would make sure that all of the promotional materials for your new street bike had sentences in it like “A revolution in GP racing takes to the streets” or “What makes the CBR600RR a watershed in motorcycling is its close ties to an elite, exotic MotoGP racer” and “Simply put, the CBR600RR was designed as a race bike first, just like the phenomenal RC211V. Indeed, the two were developed at the very same time, and share astonishing new technologies, such as Unit Pro-Link rear suspension and Dual Stage Fuel Injection.”
Leak a few such choice quotes to the press a few months ahead of the actual press launch and you can convince the buying public, and perhaps some of the press, that it is a foregone conclusion that the CBR600RR will dominate the middleweight sportbike comparisons just like the RC211V dominated the MotoGP racetracks.
It might seem cruel to quote marketing material hyperbole except that it is so insidious that it even started to seduce your jaded correspondent. But, in keeping with the MotoGP theme. It was observed that with the switch to four strokes in MotoGP most of the builders baselined the performance of their new bikes off of their old 500s and let it go at that; Honda decided to build a bike which pushed the envelope of the new racing paradigm. With the sporting 600s the situation is reversed, Honda has built a bike which is a striking improvement over their own F4i, but falls a little short of the bar established by some of the other new models in this sector. Perhaps to distract us from its non-class leading power, weight, redline, brakes or any of the other types of things to which we usually pay homage, Honda points to the under seat exhaust pipe and the suspension linkage.
The biggest factor in the widespread racetrack success of the CBR600RR will not be the shock linkage or the exhaust pipe routing, but that Honda is once again paying contingency money to road racers. Despite the fact that the Honda might be a few pounds more portly and a few bhp short of the class leaders, the thousands of dollars available to race winner will provide more that enough additional motivation to win races. Racing a Honda will no longer be the sole reserve of a handful of factory AMA riders and a few novices riding their converted commuter bikes. If Honda can maintain their current commitment to contingency programs, expect Hondas to become as common in race paddocks as Suzukis and Yamahas.
As was previously observed in this periodical, the middleweights are now the most technologically advanced models in most manufacturers line ups. With the CBR600RR, Honda has joined the club. Industry sales of middleweight sport bikes increased from 20,000 units in 1996 to 47,000 in 2001. Such a large increase in a market explains why the factories are stressing rapid innovation in 600 development.
On the spec sheets the RR does not look that different than a F4i with similar power and the same weight. In the three dimensional world the RR is strikingly different from the F4i. Honda has always erred towards a street bias which has required dulling the edge a bit but the seventh generation CBR is the first one that is not focused as a street bike. Honda is covering the pure street rider base by keeping the F4i in the line up to allow for a “new-coke, old-coke” kind of showroom arrangement.
The collective American sporting enthusiast motorcycle magazines were invited to ride the new RR in Las Vegas on the speedway track. We rode the chilly morning three sessions on the OE Dunlop D208 but were given D208 race tires for the four afternoon sessions.
The Las Vegas Speedway track is built inside an oval. The track uses a small portion of flatish banking and a fair amount of the oval’s flat skirt. The track is very smooth except for the violent transitions from the infield to the banking and from the banking to the infield. The most intimidating feature of the track is the raised painted lines which ensure temporary traction loss anytime one is crossed.
The track focus is felt immediately on the RR with its forward riding position, firm thin seat and grippy knurled pegs. The RR is set up with a high rear end (ala a raised race bike configuration) and a low front. Honda claims that although the weight of this machine does not match its 5% more lithe rivals, that Honda has paid specific attention to centralizing the mass so that the extra 15 pounds is not noticed.
Honda’s intention was to centralize the mass and optimize the center of gravity on the bike for fast entrance speeds to turns and use the dual stage fuel injection and Unit Pro-Link rear suspension to get the bike out of the turn. The Unit Pro-Link suspension helps this cause in two ways, one, it revises the shock loads stressing the frame, and two, it allows for the fuel to be carried lower in the chassis.
Ironically, my first three stints on the bike were exactly the kind of experience that manufacturers go to huge lengths to avoid. The bike vibrated badly in the first two stints at high speed (above 135 or so) and the front end kept giving me alarming little tucks at the apexes of the slow turns. I had found that previous Hondas had sub-par front ends and I was concerned that the RR was going to follow in that tradition. Voicing my concerns about the front end feel and vibration led to the discovery of a out of balance front tire. Rebalancing the front wheel eliminated the vibration but the mid-corner tuck was still present and, by the third stint, the rear tire had started to fall off considerably. When we broke for lunch I was very unconvinced about the bike.
However, in the afternoon, they switched all the bikes to the Dunlop D208 race tires and all of my concerns of the bike’s handling performance went away.. In the morning I thought that the front end was vague and that the little tucks were the result of a lack of compression damping, in the afternoon I understood that the fork had been accurately transmitting that the OE front tire had, in fact, been tucking. With the race tires the front end felt more planted than any Honda I can remember. The front end felt so planted that my only set-up request was to remove the feelers off the footpegs since the right one was starting to get in the way. This is notable because I never drag foot pegs. Since I learned to ride on bias ply tires I hang way off and hold the bike up through turns. The fact that the peg was on the ground shows a great testament to the cornering ability of this bike, and the traction provided by the DOT race tires.
Although the rear suspension has theoretical advantages about isolating the shock inputs to the rear wheel, I am not sure that I would actually be able to tell you how it translated to the performance at Las Vegas. This track only has two big bumps, they still felt like big bumps. The types of ripples and pot holes normally associated with American race tracks are, by in large, absent from that particular venue. The secondary benefit of the Unit Pro-Link is supposed to be better grip coming off the turn. With the OE tire it was never too difficult to get the back end moving and, once the tire started to fall off, the rear would start to spin up unintentionally. With the race tires it never spun anywhere. Again, I would say the results are inconclusive except to say that the tire compound and condition seems to be more relevant than suspension linkage mounting points. The Unit Pro-Link might be the best things since rising rate suspension but on this track on this day I could not really tell an improvement over a conventional arrangement.
The front brakes have bigger 310mm rotors and four piston Nissin calipers. Both of these components should be sufficient so the high lever effort and lack of bite is probably due to a conservative brake pad choice. The weak front brakes meant I was often still braking into the turn. This sort of antic, best avoided at public press launches, again reinforced how good the front end is on this motorcycle.
One episode did give me serious pause about the brakes. I had completed about ¾ of a lap (using the brakes on multiple instances). As I approached a sharp bend at the end of the pit straight I squeezed on a front brake which was completely slack. The pistons had retracted back into the calipers a bit and it took four pumps of the brake lever before I regained hydraulic pressure, but not before I had run off the track into the ample run off room. I do not remember having a noticeable head shake before that incident. It would seem that Nissin might want to make those pistons a little stickier in the calipers to prevent that sort of thing from happening on bumpy freeways or the like.
The transmission is positive, smooth and low effort. The clutch pull feels a little high effort when sitting in the pits but on the track is provides linear engagement. It handles high RPM race starts with no chatter or drama and can easily modulate back torque when down shifting into corners.
The fuel injected motor does not have any of the air regulation systems employed by the other manufacturers. There are no flaps, slides or butterflies to restrict air when the throttle is ripped wide open. However, Honda seems to have been able to smooth out the power delivery, even in on/off/on conditions without anything restricting air flow. The dual stage fuel injectors appear to be sensitive enough to provide perfect fueling without additional measures. The motor response is almost electric which leaves the rider waiting for a top end rush that never comes.
Available in Red, Yellow or Black, the 2003 CBR600RR is a great bike that will not disappoint street riders or track day enthusiasts with its delightful blend of styling, intriguing technologies and cornering agility. Coupled with the generous contingency dollars, expect to see CBR600RRs on podiums near you.