Eugene Laverty’s Vodafone Parkalgar Honda CBR600RR. Vodafone came in as a late season sponsor for the Supersport team, thus the bike looks different here than how we rode it after the final round.
Eugene Laverty, also a class rookie like fellow Brit Crutchlow, comes into the SBK championship fresh off two rough years in 250cc Grand Prix racing. Despite losing confidence as the result of uncompetitive machinery in the GP world, once on an evenly-matched 600 in the WSS series, the 23-year-old was on pace right from the first pre-season test. The end result was four race wins, eight podiums, and a close second in the championship on the Portuguese-sponsored and English-run Vodafone Parkalgar Honda.
Monster motor is the shining point one first notices about the CBR600RR. Where I suspected the Yamaha boys cranked up the TC, the Honda squad did no such thing, leaving the ‘RR exactly how it rolled off the track from winning the race 24 hours prior. How do I know? Because within half a lap I had the throttle buried deep enough that I quickly realized just how well one can power-slide a 145-hp Supersport. The answer: Superbike-well!
Superior torque down low compared to the Yamaha made breaking the tire free easy. At the same time it was predictable. Keeping the bike sliding is as easy as any middleweight I’ve ever ridden – easier, in fact. Spot-on throttle response and a well-tuned engine are responsible for this. The Honda CBR has one of the best OE 600cc powerplants in the world, only multiplied by 10 in this case.
Exiting the tight left-hand Turn 5 (the corner which cost Noriyuki Haga the World Superbike title due to a front-end crash in the first Superbike race that weekend) simply dial in a modest but swift twist of the right grip and the rear end begins to squirm. Add a 1/16th turn more and now she’s officially stepped out. Remember: don’t panic and chop the throttle. The rest is up to you. Want to go big? Grab a handful and pray. Want to be smooth and elegant? Ease in another 1/16th turn and she really comes to life, the rear Pirelli tire now painting a fat black line with a faint smoky trail following as you crest the hill, no doubt permanently cementing a smile on your face. Ultimately it may not be the quickest way around, but I couldn’t resist. It’s just so much fun.
Loads of mid-range torque highlighted the Honda’s engine, though with a 15,800 rpm redline and another 1400 rpm of over-rev, it doesn’t lack anything in top end either.
While the top-end was down a hair to the Yamaha, corner-exit drive is where the Honda makes it back up. At one point I caught up with another journalist who happened to be on Crutchlow’s Yamaha SS bike, making for a great apples-to-apples comparo. Corner speeds aside, he pulled me by roughly two bike-lengths on the massive front straight, but I easily made that and then some back up exiting each of the next series of infield corners, allowing for an easy pass by Turn 3. While he was a bit slower mid-corner as well, this showed why the racing between the two Brits was so good all year. Each bike has its advantage, but overall the the playing field is quite equal.
As for the sound, Yamaha’s R6 is more high-pitched and spine-tingling, but at 14,000 rpm the shriek let out by the Honda’s custom Akrapovic exhaust is simply remarkable. Deeper pitched but still of the ultra-high-rpm F-1 variety.
The real beauty of the Honda, however, is the aforementioned less-limiting nature of the TC system. Where the R6 would almost always cut in early, to find the limit on the Honda took far more courage. Easily able to smoke the tire before the safety net chimed in, it’s a surprise they even use the system at all. I was only into the TC on two occasions, both of which caught snapping slides that for sure would have resulted in feet-off-the-pegs antics. With the exception of this, the bike feels pure of electronic intervention. And on a 145-hp 600, that’s exactly as I prefer.
This traction control system is a MoTec unit. It also handles the dash and all the fueling duties, allowing for multiple maps to be programmed into the ECU at the same time. The rider can toggle between these at any time depending on the track conditions or to help manage tire wear. The system supplies the seamless quick-shifter functionality as well, one which flawlessly allows full-throttle gear changes with the slightest tap of the reverse-pattern lever.
With bars tucked in extremely close to the tank, the riding position took some getting used to. Once acclimated it made for high levels of mid-corner stability and easy tucking down the long front stright.
Ohlins suspension front and rear (TTX shock and gas-charged drop-in fork internals) are essentially the extent of the hardware allowed to be changed in the chassis department, but do extremely well to put the middleweight’s big power to the ground in a controllable manner. Laverty is roughly my size and weight and doesn’t run overly-stiff settings, so right from the word ‘go’ I was at home and on pace.
The stock CBR chassis has always been a personal favorite, so mating it to world-class suspension only further exaggerated its ability to put the rider in direct contact with the pavement, inspiring confidence by the truckload. In fact, my fifth lap was faster than I had gone on any of the Superbikes. They only continued to drop every lap, ending with a best of 1:49.901, roughly four seconds off the 1:45.345 fast-lap that Laverty did to win the WSS race the previous weekend. Not bad for a hack journo, right?
What takes some getting used to is the 250cc GP-style setup of the bars and footpegs which Laverty prefers. Fresh off two years in the middle Grand Prix class, such a setup is understandable. The result is clip-ons pushed nearly into the tank and pointed down at a steep angle, as well as quite high and small footpegs. This made for a very compact-feeling machine with an aggressive 55/45-percent weight distribution.
Laverty’s Honda featured some serious stoppers, especially for using stock calipers, though they weren’t quite as powerful as the units on Crutchlow’s Yamaha.
The chassis of the Honda in stock from is slightly more sluggish than the Yamaha, which is only exaggerated by the lack of leverage from the tight bars. This is somewhat a personal preference, though, as growing up on four-strokes with wide-spread bars I’ve always felt more at home with ample leverage to flick the motorcycle. Although I must say, once somewhat acclimated to everything, the compactness mid-corner started to make sense, allowing easy tucking of the elbows and a very relaxed and comfortable position at lean. Would I go out and change my personal machines now? No. But eye opening nonetheless.
Getting the CBR brought back down from speed are the stock Tokico calipers, as per the regulations, but inside sits top-sec Brembo pads that grip Brembo rotors pushed via steel-braided lines from a remote-adjustable Brembo radial master cylinder – a very simular setup to Crutchlow’s bike. Further keeping things in order under braking, vastly improving one of the major areas the stock CBR struggles, is a back-torque-limiting slipper clutch. Provided by STM, Laverty runs little-to-no drag, no doubt rooted in his GP upbringing. This keeps the rear wheel in line under even the most extreme circumstances. One has to physically add rear brake if stepping out the back tire is so desired. It also leaves nearly all of the work to the brakes. Don’t worry, though, they are easily up to the task. In fact, everything about the CBR is up to any task you ask of it.