Honda: Breaking the mould

Honda, famous for building motorcycles that go very quickly, also knows how to make them stop. Few people know that the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda, registered a patent for motorcycle ABS brakes as far back as 1959, and it was his company that offered the first disc-braked mass-production motorcycle in the Honda 750 Four, ten years later.

The Japanese company has yet again taken the lead in delivering the world’s first superbike and supersport models with linked front and rear ABS stoppers utilising electronic brake-force distribution.
The computer thus takes over the delicate task of juggling brake forces between the front and rear wheel to ensure quick, safe stopping.

Honda also offers a first in that the brakes are now brake-by-wire rather than activated by hydraulic pressure originating from a handlebar-mounted master cylinder. The engineers have built in what they call a “stroke simulator” that gives the rider feedback through the front brake lever and rear brake pedal, very much like that delivered by a conventional system. They did a very good job of it, too, because the feedback is indistinguishable from conventional all-hydraulic systems.

While linked brakes are not new, and ABS has been around on touring motorcycles since the 1980s, nobody else has dared fit them to superbikes, whose riders refuse to believe that a computer can get the bike to stop any quicker than they can.

The first two sports machines to come with the combined ABS system are the 2009 1000cc Fireblade, and its lively smaller sibling, the CBR600RR. Both models have been jazzed up a little, with some new plastic panels, different colours and a few minor technical improvements—the 600 benefits more than the 1000, with a new, lighter frame, and some fettling of the motor and exhaust system to improve torque delivery between 8 000 and 12 000rpm. The real advance, though, is most definitely in the braking department. Although the electronic shenanigans are optional, adding R10 000 to the price of each model, the non-ABS 600cc supersport machine now carries the lighter Tokico 4-piston monoblock front callipers that grace the more expensive version. Honda says the brakes work better than the old ones, so the need for ABS is presumably even greater.

Honda took us to Zwartkops racetrack to ride their new bikes, and kicked off the programme by having us gallop up to puddles of water and areas strewn with loose sand, where we were instructed to brake hard. I’ve done that in the past with other ABS-equipped motorcycles, so the resulting fast stops without loss of control didn’t impress me much. The time for that came when they finally unleashed us on the racetrack. The linked ABS system is so unobtrusive in action that about the only way to find out which model you were riding was to stamp on the clamps and see if a wheel locked.

Your average, even your very experienced road rider or track day specialist, would, I think, be quicker around the racetrack with Honda’s combined electronic braking system. Many wannabe racers hit the deck when they attempt to brake too late, realise their mistake and squeeze the brakes a little harder, locking the front wheel and losing the front end. That’s not going to happen with Honda’s system, and even if you run off the road into the kitty litter, your chances of being pitched off are significantly lower. The only downside that I can think of is that the brake package adds about 9kg to the weight of the bike, although most riders would never be able to feel the difference on the road or on the racetrack. It is, after all, the equivalent of about a half tank of fuel, and all the weight is low-down in the chassis.

While Rossi, Stoner and the rest may be a little quicker around a dry racetrack on a bike without ABS, I reckon they’d be grateful for a system like this when there was water, oil or gravel lurking on the track. As road riders can expect to find any combination of those traction thieves, perhaps mixed with diesel fuel, on just about any section of tar, I believe you’d be a fool to try and save R10k on the brakes. What is for sure is that in a few years’ time you’ll struggle to find a motorcycle larger than 400cc that doesn’t come with something akin to the Honda stoppers.

The Honda Fireblade with ABS sells for R148 000, while the CBR600 so equipped will set you back R119 000. They’re both superb bikes, and new brakes have made them even better.

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