Binning this bike today would red label me against any further invites in the future. Discretion pushed aside I did what any self-respecting motorcyclist would do, I eased open the throttle and chased after him. Through turn two, I could feel the rear spinning up and stepping out a little, I weighted the outside peg a little more and pushed down on my part worn slider to control the progressive front wheel slide. I came up on him on turn three and eased on by under the brakes, I afforded myself a cursory glance across and saw the anger and race face aggression through Fast Freddie\'s visor, was he having flashbacks? After all, I was wearing my Barry Sheene replica. He showed me a wheel going into 4, but again I late braked and held him off. I clipped the apex through five, six and onto the banking, again Mr. Spencer showed me a wheel in the wicked fast entrance into Turn seven, but I held my ground and forced him back into submission…
Going outside to the track I noticed that Honda was kind enough to supply a couple of the older carbureted versions of the F4 for comparison. I decided to reacquaint myself with the older model, as I hadn’t ridden one for some time. A chance to relearn the older bike and the track at the same time. Incidentally, I’d also pinched a 2001 Yamaha R6 for the previous weekend, so I was well acquainted with the current 600-performance envelope and in the best position to evaluate the F4i. To start the morning session the bikes, old and new were fitted with Michelin Pilot Sports (street compound).
Now the traditional Honda forte is Comfort and performance. Us sporties have always had to trade off one for the other, basically because we had to. But if you didn’t want to ride a bike that had your feet tucked under your bum or a wrist-breaking tip forward to pull in the clutch, your choice was limited. This old F4 (which is no slouch) offered great comfort on the way to your favorite twisties, but was sometimes an anti climax on getting there. But Honda was in no hurry to change things with the CBR they sold a ton of them, so why should they?
I’d have always considered the older CBR to be a very capable mount. It just lacked that certain something... Sure, it was Honda nice, but it just wasn’t exciting enough. I had to remind myself that this is Honda’s bread and butter bike. It had to be a good compromise between Weekday comfort and Sunday performance that’s why it’s a best seller.
I grabbed the 2000 and after a couple of sighting laps I started to get into my track groove.
The bike was OK. Typical for the CBR, I suppose. Easy to ride to your ability, whether a beginner or an expert. But it lacked that certain something... It was that soft, compromising ride previously mentioned. It was a good safe feeling but it didn’t trim, slice and dice the track, like the usual 600 scalpels that we’re starting to see. The course we were running was the AMA layout. A Daytona-ish combination of infield course and Nascar style banking. The bike felt a little squirrelly on the transition going in and coming out of the banking. After a session of no particular anxious moments, we were given the checkered flag and even on this older model, I was reluctant to come in.
I think Honda’s objectives for the F4, were to sharpen the bike both visually and physically. So what was the incentive for this major makeover? Consider this, we’ve already seen a pretty nutty boom in the cruiser segment. Honda told us that they have actually seen a 20% rise in sportbike sales in 2000 over 1999. That\'s a total of 87,000 units. Demand for Honda sportbikes is actually outstripping supply. This is joyous news for us race rep buyers and wannabe’s.
So, we know the incentive, but how did they turn Mr soft and cuddly nice guy into Mr serious weekend canyon carver. We can look towards one of the people involved in the development of the F4i; a certain chap named Doug Toland. Now, he’s not your typical exec, he’s a down and dirty racer. Actually, a three time World Endurance Champion. He knows about fast, and at a 24 hour event he wants to feel a modicum of comfort so he can get on and do his job: going fast, strafing apexes and taking the proverbial checkers. He realizes that the more comfortable the ride, the easy it is to ride fast. A torture rack won’t aid handling!
Doug’s technical briefing showed the attention to detail that got the new bike down to a very impressive power to weight ratio and a stylish mount to boot. In a nutshell? It’s lighter, more rigid and it has a very technically innovative engine set-up... Enough already! What’s it like to ride?
Time to nab a 2001 F4i and find out. The bike did look good in the three available colors, Sliver, Red and White. This “Honda wing” paint job has been previously seen on Honda’s sporting tackle, but I must admit it did look rather resplendent on the new style bodywork. Sitting on the bike with your arms outstretched; your hands immediately fell onto the bars, situated atop the top triple clamp, typical Honda then. Actually the ergo’s are exactly the same as the 2000, but the seat is a little higher (10mm) and a tad slimmer. Great for shorties (you know who you are) and great too, for side to side bum sliding knee down action. The pegs are a little higher, to compliment the seat, but not R6 high though.
Absolutely perfect so far. The clocks are the latest de rigueur, slim digital/analog combination. A big analog tach and a large digital “window” that houses the speedometer, two trip meters, an odometer and fuel gauge. It even has a clock for the distance guys. The tach hand “sweeps” the face on start-up; I’m a sucker for trick stuff, so that added to my visceral experience, I sat there for 15 minutes playing with that alone. It even had a rev limiter light. Man, I‘m in trick heaven.
We’re off on the track again. This time Freddie showed us the lines and made us all behave ourselves until the tires were good and warm. When he finally waved me through. I accelerated hard onto the banking; the transition that had previously upset the 2000 was barely registering on the 2001.
The frame has received substantial ribbing (for your pleasure) around the headstock and around the swing arm mounting points. You can feel that vast difference. Comparing the old F4 to the new F4i is like comparing Wayne Newton to Elvis Presley. Sure Newton\'s a great entertainer, but he’s not world class. (Hey, we are in Las Vegas) This new F4i was sharp. I was seeing nearly 10 mph more top end. I was carrying more speed and braking later, the bike is truly balanced. The engine was also extremely smooth in its delivery. With a 14,000-rev range, it absolutely sung on fast charges through the banking and on aggressive down changing. I hadn’t felt this secure at speed since riding the 2001 GSX-R750 at Willow, and for just 600cc’s that’s pretty special.
I suppose I should mention the Fuel injection. I don’t know why; it’s a non issue. The fueling is everything it should be, and more. On some bikes it’s difficult in the transition between rolling off the throttle (Oh dear, I’ve over cooked it) to getting back on (Thank god the tires stuck!). Not so with this F4i and it’s four high-pressure injectors in each inlet. The new F4i has a 2 liter bigger airbox and 15% bigger air intake tubes. Due to a seamless throttle position sensor it always gets the right amount of air, fuel and good old fashioned get up and go. Now, I don’t speak Japanese, but I thought I overheard one of the factory engineer’s mention HRC, chip and more power...
Clutch action’s the usual Honda light and complimented the precise gearbox. The bike exhumed a feeling of fluid willingness. Due to “youthful” exuberance, I arrived a few times, at a turn or three, a little hot and heavy. Misjudgments are forgiven with a quick tug on the binders. The brakes on this bike had a wonderful feel to them. Trust me, these binders are like a “get out of jail free” card. Redeemable on your monopoly board or on a Sunday ride near you. Handling was super stable; turn in could be executed with pinpoint accuracy. The whole bike oozed precision with none of the previous Honda compromise
Later in the day the bikes were fitted with Michelin’s Race Pilot’s; scrubbed in by the instructors (did I mention how spoiled we were). A tad more ride height was dialed in too. Some streetbikes do tend to get a little nervous with the sticky hoops installed, not so with the F4i. They still offered the same predictable handling combined with totally bonkers lean angle. After a few 20-minute sessions the new bike really impressed me. However, on inspection by the instructors of our measly attempts to get the Pilots up to race temperature. It was decided that not only were incapable of scrubbing the tires in, but they should really show us how to wear them out too. Freddie suited up and the ensuing war broke out.
Freddie Spencer is Obi Wan Kenobi, to the school instructors Jeff Haney, and Dale Kieffer. The ensuing ding-dong between Freddie and his “students” were breath taking. Doug Toland entered the fray as did Honda’s fast media man Ken Vreeke. This was the first time I’d seen Freddie ride “angry” for over 15 years. He was soon to the front, pulled over, and worked his way back to the front to show who really had the “force”. I was fascinated by the interaction between Freddie and Haney; Spencer gave him the “I taught you well my son” look and handshake. It’s funny how everyone thinks we journo’s have a dream job in motorcycling and I’m standing there looking at Jeff Haney thinking he had a dream job.
All this racing about at speed by these multiple world champions was making me feel rather inadequate. Time to break out the stunt routine. Now I had been told that the new wheels and brakes were substantially lighter. As far as unsprung weight is concerned, this is a good thing for acceleration, turning and handling. A byproduct of this weight loss, is the increased hooligan potential. I persuaded renowned photographer Kevin Wing to “hang around” the straight. I proceeded to bust a series of stand-up and one footed nac, nac wheelies.
So what? You say. Well, ladies and germs, I wasn’t standing on the passenger pegs and I was using 3rd gear with absolutely no clutch. Wicked!
Lastly, one important thing about this bike and something that cannot be over stressed is the handling.
Now handling is pretty subjective. What feels right to someone else doesn’t necessarily feel right for you. A tried and tested formula for me is; how do I feel after logging some performance mileage? Do I feel drained or tired? Do I feel like I’ve just gone twelve rounds with Ali? Heck no! At the end of the day, I felt as fresh as at the start. Apart from a healthy boost in adrenaline, I felt wonderful. This is an important factor to me. If you’re totally comfortable and you’re not wrestling the bike, you will ride better, longer and much more importantly, safer. However, if you lend your new F4i to a friend, you will be wrestling the keys back out of their hands.