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The Life and Times of Honda's CBR600RR by Simon Hargreaves

Posted by Ewan MacGregor on

 

We love our motorbikes - check out this great article by Simon Hargreaves

HONDA CBR600RR: ORIGINS

Welcome to 2001. It’s not just the first year of a new millennium, it’s also the start of a revolution in Grand Prix bike racing. Since 1974 every 500cc world title has been won by a two-stroke. But from 2002, it’s announced, 500cc strokers will be phased out and replaced by four-strokes up to 1000cc, and Grand Prix will be called MotoGP instead.

The reason is simple: racing environmentally unsound two-strokes no-one can buy while selling four-stroke sportsbikes for the road makes no commercial or technical sense. If you want racing to be a breeding ground for new technology, you at least need to be using the same type of engine.

So what’s all this got to do with Honda’s CBR600 – regularly the best-selling 600cc sportsbike since it was introduced in 1987?

Because in 2001 the CBR600 comes in two flavours: the road-based CBR600Fi, and the sportier CBR600FS. The only differences are the FS has a solo seat, no centrestand, red/black paint, black frame and swingarm, hotter cams, lighter flywheel and lower gearing. In other words, they’re fairly similar.

And they’re both exceptional bikes – and in 2002 the old CBR even wins the relatively new World Supersport race series. But with rival manufacturers producing ever-more radical sports 600s – and with the bike-buying public lapping them up – the CBR is clearly long overdue a complete update to keep it competitive on track and in the showrooms.

Which is where the plan to link MotoGP technology to road bike design comes in.

Over at Honda’s HQ in Japan, for the first time ever HRC (Honda Racing Corporation – Honda’s mighty racing and technology centre) has developed their new, 990cc RCV211V MotoGP race bike in direct collaboration with Honda’s road bike development division.

Traditionally, these two giants of bike research are completely separate; different buildings, teams, goals, technology and budgets. But the RC211V has been developed directly alongside two new road bikes – the CBR600RR, released in 2003, and the CBR1000RR Fireblade, released a year later in 2004.

Both bear obvious styling similarities with the MotoGP bike to make sure the visual connection is instant and obvious. But, importantly, bikes also share important areas of technology too (and further evidence of the integration of HRC and Honda’s road division comes when the project leader for the CBR600RR, Heijiro Yoshimura, is promoted project leader for the RC211V).

Of course, Honda also have an eye on the World Supersport and Superbike Championships – they won the World Supersport title in 2002 with, ironically, the old CBR600F. But for the next six years, the new CBR600RR will dominate the series.

TECHNOLOGY & MODEL HISTORY

THE FIRST CBR600RR: 2003 – 2005

The new CBR600RR featured obvious styling connections with the RC211V MotoGP bike. From the angular, pointed tip of the fairing nose, to the lower screen, from the flat, slender fuel tank cover through to the waspish tail unit with underseat exhaust, the CBR600RR was designed to look like the racebike it shared development with. 

But underneath the skin there were some familiar ideas, and some new ones; the new CBR was very much a blend of old and new. The engine had the same bore and stroke as the outgoing CBR600F, but included numerous changes to lose weight, reduce dimensions and lower friction losses. There were new, lighter slipper pistons, nutless con rods, a new chamchain system, revised twin injector fuelling and a reshaped intake. The starter gear was relocated behind alternator to close up spacing and, along with smaller engine covers, repositioned transmission and a lowered exhaust port angle, made the motor shorter, narrower and lighter.

 

The chassis took thinking from MotoGP, itself an extension of Honda’s traditional mantra of mass centralisation. Shorter front to rear and putting the rider closer to the steering stem, the new alumiumim die-cast frame – which, unlike frame spars, can be formed to ‘mold’ around the engine – was also tuned to be rigid in some areas (headstock and swingarm pivot) but with less stiffness at the centre of the frame to assist in chassis feel when changing direction. Along with a centrally positioned plastic fuel tank, the overall dimensions and weight balance of the chassis could be fully optimised.

New, massive 45mm telescopic cartridge forks carried fully adjustable preload, rebound and compression damping, while the rear shock was mounted to the swingarm using Honda’s Unit Po-Link system – effectively mounting the shock captively to the swingarm and not, as previously, to the chassis. Just like the RCV. This system was light and compact, but also constrained the rear suspension load path away from the frame, reduced its influence on steering, and improved both ride quality and cornering feedback.

THE USD CBR600RR: 2005 – 2006

The main story for the first revision to the new CBR600RR was the addition of new, 41mm, fully adjustable, upside-down Showa forks and new radial calipers. Honda grudgingly admitted a performance benefit, but suggested their primary reason for the change was because everyone else was fitting them and it’s what people wanted.

The revised CBR600RR also featured modifications to its Unit Pro-Link system for even better road-holding performance, while the frame got detail modifications for less weight and the swingarm was revised with integrated chain adjusters.

The engine was basically unchanged, with same peak power and torque but improved midrange throttle response from reshaped inlet tracts and refined fuel injectors, and less weight from a revamped exhaust system.

THE AIRFOIL CBR600RR: 2007 – 2008

The 2007 CBR600RR got radical new styling and a substantial engine and chassis overhaul. The main changes were a slippery new fairing shape, with new ideas of air management leading to discrete panels, wings, fins and slits, notably separating the top half of the fairing from the lower panels. A new air intake duct sat in the centre of fairing nose at the point of highest air pressure, and out went the old, ‘slabby’ look of the previous model.

The engine was much revised. It was more compact and lighter still – over 2kg less – with still more tinkering with the core dimensional layout between crank, transmission and clutch centres. The cylinder head cover was magnesium instead of aluminium, new pistons and rods were lighter, valve springs and valve gear weighed less, the alternator used neodinium magnets and the exhaust system shed weight. Intake layout was streamlined, with new velocity stacks and reshaped intake and exhaust ports. The gearbox got reduced friction from less gear lash and modified shift dogs, and a knock sensor signalled the start of the move towards full electronic engine control in search of lower emissions. Power was up a few bhp thanks to a reshaped torque curve and a few more revs.

The chassis was also revised. Frame construction was simplified, now made from four sections instead of 11, and incorporated a ram-air duct in the headstock. It was nearly a kilo lighter than the previous bike. The smaller engine also allowed a smaller frame, closing up the wheelbase and making the CBR the most compact 600 yet. 

Front and rear suspension and brakes remained unchanged from the previous bike, but the same electronic steering damper from the Fireblade was added, along with new clocks and headlights.

THE GRAFFITI/ LEYLA/X-RAY/ABS CBR600RR: 2009 – 2012

The big news for Honda’s 2009 CBR600RR was the optional addition of an anti-lock braking system – but not ABS as we knew it. Previous systems were bulky and featured a distinctive, crude pulsing at the brake lever as the ABS engaged. In some situations it could even extend the braking zone (if you braked hard over ripples in the dry, for example).

Honda’s new system was designed to be all but undetectable to the rider. Using a miniaturised control circuit, the system electronically detected when the front wheel was close to lock (using deceleration differential between front and rear) and graduated almost seamlessly from the rider’s physical input at the lever to a fully electronically augmented pressure maintained at precisely the point grip was just retained. As a result, it was the first ABS system with which it was possible to pull a stoppie.

On the engine front, the 2009 CBR600RR got changes to piston, cylinder head and exhaust that didn’t increase overall engine output but gave a slightly stronger throttle response in the midrange. The rest of the engine and chassis, including dimensions, remained the same as before.

The 2009 model marked the start of some increasingly bold colour schemes for the CBR600RR. As well as the standard Honda red/white/blue and red/black options, there was an odd lime green and black version (which looked like a better version of a something a Kawasaki ZX-6R might wear) and an even more striking ‘graffiti’ CBR with light blue wheels and white/black bodywork with blue highlights. 2010 saw the ‘Leyla’ scheme (a white and black graphic with a female face on the fairing), and the ‘X-Ray’ colours in 2011, with orange wheels and orange lines on the silver and black fairing designed to make the bike look transparent (it kinda works, too).

Over the next few years the CBR600RR remained unchanged after the 2009 update. Trends in the marketplace altered dramatically and sales of sports 600s have took a big hit, dropping from several thousand per year for each manufacturer in the late 1990s and early 2000s to a few hundred per year by 2010. This was partly the result of the global financial crisis of 2009 – consumer confidence and spending dropped, and the exchange rate forced prices of Japanese bikes up by some 30%. As a result, the pace of development slowed as well, meaning the 2009 model CBR600RR ran unchanged for five years, through to 2013.

 

THE LAST CBR600RR: 2013 – 2016

Although we didn’t know it, the 2013 CBR600RR would be the final model. Back in 2011 Honda re-released a new, budget-option CBR600F, with an aluminium spine frame using a detuned version of the 2007 CBR600RR motor. It perfectly reflected the situation the market was in, with less money and a reduced demand for such fully committed sports 600. And in 2014 it demonstrated its irrelevance to racing classes, and grew in size to 650cc – a far cry from the CBR’s racing, track-based origins.

Meanwhile the CBR600RR got what were, by now, minor updates: the wheels went to thin, 12-spoke design, and the nose of the bike was blunted, recessing the headlights and – again – concentrating mass. Honda claimed 6% less aerodynamic drag for the new shape. The chassis got Showa’s BPF front end (Big Piston Forks), developed to give a more linear damping performance over its stroke, and a better ride quality. Although visually similar, the rear shock, swingarm and frame all got minor tweaks for better performance.

Changes to the CBR’s engine were also few and minor, based around new mapping and fuelling to optimise throttle response and also to maintain emissions control.

Finally, the CBR600RR was available in Repsol colours, commemorating a long-standing partnership between the Spanish oil giant and Honda’s racing ambitions.

2016 CBR600RR: THE DEATH KNELL?

Early in 2016, rumours began to circulate that Honda were ceasing production of the CBR600RR in 2017, because the cost of upgrading the machine to meet new Euro 4 emissions targets wouldn’t be worthwhile, given the current level of sales.

The story gained weight, and eventually a Honda spokesman conceded they had no plans to import the CBR600RR into Europe beyond 2016, nor engineer it to meet Euro 4 legislation.

However the situation has since become less clear-cut, with another Honda source suggesting this only applies to Europe, and that sales of CBR600RRs will continue in other countries. At the moment, no-one is sure what countries these are; many of the developing nations, where the potential for CBR600RR sales will surely grow as their markets mature, are supposed to conform to the same emissions regs as Europe. There’s also a suggestion the bike could continue to be sold in North America – although again, California has tough environmental controls as well.

So although the future for the CBR is unclear, don’t write it off just yet. The chances of further development rest squarely on demand – ultimately, if enough people want the bikes, Honda will build them.

And besides, there’s always racing.

CBR600RR AND RACING

Honda’s CBR600RR was conceived as race replica, and has always succeeded on track as well as in showrooms. In World Supersport the CBR600RR won every title from 2003 to 2008 in the hands of legends like Fabien Foret (still racing in the world endurance series), Aussie ex-MotoGP star Chris Vermuellen and countrymen Karl Muggeridge and Andrew Pitt, the only man to win back-to-back World Supersport titles Sébastien Charpentier, and of course the most successful WSS rider of all time, four times champ Kenan Sofuoğlu (in 2008 Honda issued a commemorative Hannspree Ten Kate replica paint scheme).

In British Supersport, it’s a similar tale of dominance: the CBR600RR won between 2003 and 2006, and again in 2009 and 2010 – the names are a Who’s Who of Brit talent: the late Karl Harris, Leon Camier, Cal Crutchlow, Steve Plater and Sam Lowes.

And over at the TT, the demanding nature of the circuit meant the CBR600RR didn’t start winning until 2005 – but then it couldn’t stop, winning again every year (apart from 2008) until 2014 with riders like Michael Dunlop, Ian Hutchinson, John McGuinness and Bruce Anstey.

Of course the CBR600RR has also been a go-to 600cc racebike in club racing too, and then there’s always Moto2. In 2010 Honda signed a deal with MotoGP organisers Dorna to be sole engine suppliers to the new MotoGP support class, called Moto2. The engines were four-stroke 600cc motors, all tuned and maintained to the same specification by a Spanish engineering company called ExternPro.

The motor of choice was, of course, from the CBR600RR. Honda make around 200 engines a year for the series, for the teams who make up the grid (20 teams, four bikes each, getting new or reconditioned engines every three races). Which if nothing else is fitting closure given the MotoGP origins of the CBR600RR.


CBR600RR SPECS

 

 

2003 – 2004

2005 – 2006

2007 - 2008

2009 - 2012

2013 - 2016

Performance

 

Power (claimed)

115bhp @ 13,000rpm

118bhp @ 13,500rpm

Torque (claimed)

49 lb.ft @ 11,000rpm

49 lb.ft @ 11,250rpm

Top speed

1622mph

164mph

166mph

168mph

Standing quarter

11.2s

11.0s

10.8s

10.7s

Engine

 

Type

16-valve dohc inline four

Capacity

599cc

Bore x stroke

67 x 42.5mm

Compression ratio

12.0:1

12.2:1

Fuel system

PGM efi, 40mm throttle bodies

Chassis

 

Frame

diamond twin spar cast aluminium

Forks

45mm Showa tele, adj. preload, rebound and compression

41mm Showa usd, adj. preload, rebound and compression

41mm Showa usd Big Piston forks, adj. preload, rebound and compression

Rear shock

Unit Pro-Link, adj. preload, rebound and compression

Front brake

2 x 310mm discs, 4-pot calipers

2 x 310mm discs, 4-pot radial calipers

2 x 310mm discs, 4-pot radial calipers with C-ABS

Rear brake

220mm disc, 1-pot caliper

220mm disc, 1-pot caliper with C-ABS

Tyres

120/70 ZR17, 180/55 ZR17

 

Rake/trail

24°/95mm

23°55’/98mm

23°55’/96.3mm

Wheelbase

1390mm

1395mm

1375mm

1373mm

Seat height

820mm

823mm

Tank

18 litres

18.1 litres

Dry weight (claimed)

169kg

163kg

155kg

155kg (165kg with ABS)

167kg (with ABS)

Wet weight (claimed)

197kg

191kg

184kg

184kg (194kg with ABS)

196kg (with ABS)

 

 

WHY THE CBR600RR IS A GREAT DEAL RIGHT NOW

Five years ago, you couldn’t give secondhand CBR600RRs away. Dealers hated them because they filled up showrooms with bikes that just wouldn’t sell because everyone wanted an adventure bike or a scooter. There was a glut of used CBR600RRs.

Today, it’s a very different story, as biking fills up with graduates, male and female, from the A2 licence and who want to progress to something more exciting without buying a full scale litre sportsbike. And the CBR600RR is the perfect bike to move a biking career onwards.

Small and compact, the CBR600RR is perfectly formed for younger riders – the physical size is easily manageable for anyway, unlike taller adventure bikes. The CBR is also easily controllable – power delivery is smooth and linear with no surges of low end power to trip you up exiting corners. But there’s an absurd amount of top end performance if you choose to dip into it.

The CBR’s defining ethos of mass centralisation pays off with a fabulously intuitive steering – the bike feels so connected to your body its as if you steer it by willpower alone. This sensation again makes the CBR ideal for riders who want to progress their ability; the bike encourages you, but is never intimidating.

And finally, it’s built like a Honda; if any of their bikes still retains the fantastic build quality and attention to detail of Honda’s golden age in the mid-1990s, it’s the CBR600RR. And, with prices low because of high availability, they’re exceptional value too.

If you are looking to buy or sell a motorbike then look up www.superbikefactory.co.uk it’s the UK’s largest buyer and seller of motorbikes based in Macclesfield, Cheshire 01625 353012.


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