I needn’t have worried because it wasn’t a dream and I wasn’t going to wake up! On the contrary, the bike I was about to ride was the latest acquisition of the renowned Phil Morris Motorcycle Museum collection and I was in the privileged position of being the first person to ride it after Phil had given the machine a light restoration.
The bike came to Phil with a magnificent history, the highlights of which are Ian Hutchinson’s third place in the 2007 Centennial TT and Steve Brogan’s second place in the same year’s British Superstock championship.
Superstock is a particularly interesting class because it is the model which World Superbike is currently looking at for the future. Can a well put together road bike be made into a real racing machine? If the Honda is anything to go by, the answer is most definitely in the affirmative.
The heart of the bike is the 2007 Honda CBR1000RR which, at the time, was the most civilized of the Superbikes. Don’t misinterpret civilized for slow or dull. Rather, the Honda was rider friendly in the real world conditions of sleepy car drivers, spilt diesel and farm tractors parked in the center of the road.
Despite being unthreatening, the CBR still featured titanium valves and an ultra-short stroke 75mm x 56.5mm engine. But Phil’s machine was an HM Plant factory bike and Honda was very well aware of how far the Superstock rules could be taken without actually breaking them.
Technician Julian Boland explains. “We couldn’t modify the engine at all but what we could do was make sure that it operated to its full potential. This meant making sure that every single part was exactly on Honda tolerance. For example, we aimed to get each con-rod within 1 gram of design standard and no more than 3 gram from the ideal norm.
“The same applied to the valves and camshaft. We were looking to get the engine working at its optimum performance without breaking the rules.
“We took a lot of care with the ECU to ensure that it operated perfectly for racing conditions. Because we didn’t have to worry about emission regulations, or making the bike work for the road, we could optimize the ECU not only for maximum power – which is easy to do – but also to make the engine a good motor for racing. We wanted an engine which was fast but which was also going to work for the rider.
“We were helped a lot by being a factory team, and having a good supply of parts which we could choose from, but also because there were plenty of bits left over from the Superbikes which could be much more heavily modified.
“We used a full Akrapovic titanium race exhaust which was neat, light – and sounds great. Interestingly, we always use the original, paper, Honda air filter in the air box. Superstock engines can be very reliable and the air filter saves unnecessary wear and tear and has no detrimental effect on the power.
“The bell mouths and fuel injectors are standard Fireblade.
“Except for the TT, which is our most high profile event of the year, the engine would probably run all year with just a top-end refresh. But we’re a factory team so before the TT there is effectively a new engine.
(Above) Despite Julian’s reassurance that the bike was as docile as a pet Labrador puppy, my lips were bone dry as I pulled into the pitlane. (Below) The rotary-type steering damper is a factory kit part.
“The same applies to the gearbox and clutch. We put a new gearbox and clutch in before the TT but the one being taken out is still absolutely perfect. It’s got to be like this because there would be no excuse if we didn’t win a TT because some partially worn part had broken.
“From start, it takes about two and a half days to build a Superstock engine but a lot of this time – the majority in fact – is spent weighing parts. Once you have all the parts laid out, the actual build is maybe half a day.
“In this trim, the motor produces 175 horsepower on our dyno but more importantly it is easy-to-use power.”
Sat there in its magnificent HM Plant Honda livery – one of the most iconic color schemes in the history of motorcycle racing – the CBR looks, at first glance, every inch the World Superbike. The truth is very different. Julian takes up the story again.
“The chassis is very standard – and has to be under Superstock regulations. The frame is simply a stock Fireblade item and so are the wheels, brakes, and swing arm. The footpeg mounts, and the footpegs themselves, are adjustable for different riders.
“The front forks are Honda but with British K-Tech internals and the rear shock is a factory Showa kit item. There is no carbon or titanium on the bike.
“The 320mm front brakes really are standard with Tokico radial calipers. John McGuiness even uses standard Honda road pads but some riders preferred race pads which give a bit more initial bite.
“The most non-standard item is the rotary steering damper. This is a Honda kit part and every rider loves it. We used to have a facility for adjusting it for different riders but whatever their personal preferences they all think the damper is perfect, so now we leave it the same for everyone.
“Ready to race, the bike weighs 175 kg (385 pounds) and this is as light as we can get it and still stay within the regulations. The Superbike can be 10 kg lighter (22 pounds) but we could never get the stocker down to this weight.
“We’re really happy with the bike because everyone who rides it loves the machine. It does everything well, and is very useable, and this is what we are always aiming for with all our bikes.”
Despite Julian’s reassurance that the bike was as docile as a pet Labrador puppy, my lips were bone dry as I pulled into the pitlane. There was no avoiding the sense of history which comes from a bike which had got round the iconic TT course at 124.08 mph. I was sat in a seat which had screamed down Sulby Straight at over 180 mph. I was changing gear with the same lever which had been used to get a third-place in the wonderful Centennial TT. I really did expect the bike to stop and demand that I be removed and replaced by someone who could actually ride a racing motorcycle!
??(Top) I have rarely ridden a more biddable, easygoing race bike in a lifetime of testing. (Middle) Yes, that’s a Centenary TT sticker – worth its weight in gold. (Bottom) The CBR1000RR swingarm is stock but lightweight and heavily GP influenced.
I needn’t have worried because the CBR pulled away as effortlessly as a 50cc scooter. The clutch was feather light and the take up as smooth as silk. More out of fear of stalling the motorcycle, and looking like a real Muppet in front of Phil, I pulled away with 4000 rpm on the tach but in truth I could have used half these revs without an issue.
The bike is quite tall because the suspension is hard for a rider of my ability – or more accurately, lack of it – but it is very roomy as one would expect from a road bike-derived race machine.
Once on the track, the CBR gave a real magic carpet ride. Simply open the throttle and it’s like having a huge bike-attracting magnet hovering 50 yards in front of you. No drama, no fuss, no effort – just infinite, creamy power which builds speed very fast and very deceptively.
The difference between the World Superbike Kawasaki I rode a few years ago and the Honda is immense. With the Kwack, I always felt that I was struggling for my mind to catch up with the bike. It was too much bike with too much power for a clubman racer.
The contrast with the Honda was stark. I have rarely ridden a more biddable, easygoing race bike in a lifetime of testing.
The brakes are breathtaking. Like John McGuiness – the only part of our riding skill set we share – I braked with one finger. Just caress the lever and it’s like hitting a huge, firm pillow. Utterly controllable but with speed scrubbed off at science fiction rapidity.
I have already commented on the quality of the clutch and the gear changes were perfect. Apparently, Mr. McGuiness changes clutchless just as the rev limiter kicks in but I am not of that caliber – nor was I keen to potentially break Phil’s new acquisition.
Another item of pure joy was the steering damper. Anglesey is a wonderful track but, nestled right next to the sea, the wind can be a real problem. The day before we tested the bike there had been a 90 mph storm and the wind was still blowing at 40 mph when I was on track. This meant that on the top of the circuit, the CBR was very light under power as the wind hit hard at 90 degrees. I would not say this was an experience to savor but there was no drama either.
On Anglesey’s main straight, I was heading literally into the wind and the high TT screen was wonderful. Tucked in behind the bubble, it was serenely peaceful – Melling as McGuiness – just 40 mph slower!
The biggest problem was a lack of riding ability on my part. The CBR is set-up for fast riders to go quickly. Until I started to really get on with the job the bike felt stiff and awkward but once up to race speeds the handling is a heady mixture of taughtness and accuracy. After 18 laps I started to have to wicked thoughts of persuading Phil to let me race the bike.
So in conclusion – if someone said: “Frank, you have a guaranteed start in the TT and you can choose your own bike…” I would be ringing Honda’s British race headquarters and ordering a Superstock Fireblade confident in the fact that this bike would get me round the TT course as fast as I could ever dream of going.
As for this bike, it is an iconic piece of history and is therefore beyond valuable. Not that Phil will ever consider selling it because he now has a worthy addition to his collection of factory Yamahas and Rossi’s ex-world Championship winning 125 Aprilia.