Honda’s next generation ABS system graces its ‘09 CBR600RR not only as a safety aid but as a performance enhancement as well
Words Roland Brown Photography Honda
Three laps into my first ever test of an ABS-equipped super-sports bike, and it’s a weird feeling to be charging down the Losail circuit’s pit straight at over 230km/h, leaving my braking later… later… later… then grabbing the CBR600RR’s lever far harder than normal without a care in the world. Instead of folding its front wheel and spitting me off, the Honda simply sheds speed at a rate every bit as fierce as I managed on a non ABS-equipped CBR half an hour ago.
The bike feels reassuringly normal as it buries its front Bridgestone into the track, too, with none of the pulsing through the lever generated by conventional ABS systems. Perhaps there’s a little less fork dive than I might have expected. And the Honda stays remarkably stable as I brake and tip it into the tight right-hand bend, gently easing my grip on the lever as I approach the apex. That’s because I’m actually releasing both brakes: the ABS is contributing a touch of rear disc without even being asked.
If that scenario sounds almost like science fiction, I’d have said the same thing before riding the latest CBR600RR on its track launch in Qatar. Even braking hard on sand without a twitch of front tyre or heart rate, during yesterday’s test on the circuit’s car-park, didn’t prepare me for how effective — and how normal — Honda’s new anti-lock system would feel at speed on the track.
Honda is billing its Electronic Combined ABS, available as an option on both the 2009-model CBR600RR and Fireblade, as the world’s first anti-lock brake system for super-sports bikes. It’s certainly that, as well as the first “brake-by-wire” system that operates front and rear brakes electronically rather than mechanically. More importantly, it’s the first anti-lock system that is almost undetectable in use, and which has the ability to be a performance aid, even for fast and experienced riders.
The 2009 CBR600RR ABS now gets Tokico callipers from its elder sibling, the CBR Fireblade
New ECU now decides how these conventional callipers behave when you pull the lever
Essentially this production-ready system is a more refined version of the prototype that Honda unveiled on a CBR600RR in August 2008. It works in a totally different way to conventional ABS set-ups, with their linked hydraulics. Instead, it centres on an ECU that monitors pressure in the brake lines, as well as the deceleration of both wheels. The ABS software decides how much pressure to apply to each brake, in order to maximise both stopping power and stability.
Unlike Honda’s previous Combined ABS, this system does not require special calipers. (The only difference is their gold instead of black finish.) It does add weight, though: 10kg for the CBR600RR and 11kg for the Fireblade, the difference explained by the fact that although the components are almost identical, they were harder to package on the larger-engined bike. Equally inevitably it also adds cost: roughly €1000, so more than conventional systems.
Some of the system’s benefits quickly became clear in the first day’s test at the Losail car-park, where we got to try both bikes’ stopping abilities on dry tarmac, wet tarmac and a thin coating of sand, in a dummy panic-brake from about 80km/h. Even the dry test was an eye-opener, as the Hondas stopped hard and skid-free, with none of the normal lever-pulsing (the software just doesn’t work that way). Both were stable, too, although the Fireblade’s rear end moved around slightly, without ever threatening to develop into a stoppie.
Grabbing a handful of front brake on a wet or sandy surface was even more impressive. The ABS seemed to slow the CBRs — using both brakes, whether the handlebar lever, foot pedal or both were operated — significantly harder than other ABS-equipped bikes I’ve tested in similar circumstances. The Hondas’ relatively light weight was doubtless part of the reason for that. But so too was the system’s sophistication, including a sensor that reacts in six milliseconds — four times faster than the VFR800F’s equivalent.
That test was very promising but it was next day on the circuit that revealed what a leap Honda has made. I began on the CBR600RR, which has gained a few non braking-related tweaks for 2009, as well as having its front calipers upgraded to Fireblade-style monoblocks. Revised pistons, cylinder head and exhaust silencer contribute to a slight torque increase between 8000 and 12,000rpm. Peak output remains 120bhp at 13,500rpm.
The console now includes an ABS malfunction warning light amongst other instrumentation
The Combined ABS system works upto four times faster than the one that was introduced on the VFR800F
The titanium exhaust also has reshaped downpipes and a new Fireblade-style power valve, and is slightly lighter. Along with the new calipers, that helps reduce kerb weight slightly — to a claimed 184kg for the non-ABS model. The reshaped fairing lower is claimed to smooth air flow and thus aid stability, though the change is possibly more to do with hiding ABS parts. Clear, oval indicators and new graphics also freshen up the look.
Those Tokico monoblock calipers are the most significant addition, and helped ensure that even the non ABS-equipped CBR that I rode first was seriously well braked. It was quick and sweet-handling, too, as was to be expected, screaming to its 15,000rpm redline through the gears, and carving through Losail’s succession of fast right-handers with typical poise and control, aided by the grip of Bridgestone’s race-compound BT003 rubber.
It’s hard to know whether its new brake allowed the CBR to stop notably harder than its predecessor, but it certainly shed speed mightily rapidly at the end of that pit straight, and with plenty of feel at the lever. Honda’s new world Supersport champion Andrew Pitt, who’d just finished back-to-back testing with his old bike, thought the new calipers’ main benefit was improved steering response due to theirreduced weight.
Before riding the CBR I’d expected the difference between standard and ABS-equipped bikes to be much more obvious, so I was amazed to find the new system not just working but doing so in a totally unobtrusive way. I could come flying towards a turn, then squeeze the handlebar lever either as hard as I would normally, or purposely hard enough to lock a typical front wheel. In either case, the bike’s response was identical: hard, smooth, controllable stopping.
The ABS makes the bike much more stable into a turn, thanks to the back brake — I’m getting the benefit of braking without actually using it. You can trail brake quite a bit: if you’re going to just miss the apex of a turn, you can touch the brake lever and it adds bit of rear brake to help you turn in.
Before I tried ABS I’d have said there was no need for it, but now I’m quite convinced it has a future in racing. Especially in the rain. It does take away something from the rider; in that way it’s just like traction control. But it’s a clever system that will stop a lot of crashes.”
Feel through the lever was normal, as was the bike’s response as I eased off the brake into the turn. (Braking too hard into the bend would cause a crash in the normal way.) But the Honda’s advantage was not simply that it prevented the wheels from locking, because the ABS system’s ECU also works to keep the bike as stable as possible by distributing braking force through both front and rear wheels, when either the handlebar lever or foot pedal is operated.
Like many riders (including some professional racers) I never use the rear brake on a racetrack, due its relatively small benefit compared to the front, the risk of locking the rear wheel, and the difficulty of dividing my concentration between front and rear. But when I squeezed the Honda’s handlebar lever, the ABS computer sneakily and efficiently added a small but significant (and lock-free, of course) bit of rear brake that reduced the bike’s fork dive, and helped keep it notably stable on the way into the turns.
Less welcome was the fact that because the CBR didn’t dip at the front as much as normal under braking, it needed a touch more steering input to make it change direction into the turns. Reducing the forks’ compression damping slightly could probably have sorted this, given a bit more time for fine-tuning. The system’s other disadvantage, apart from cost, is the 10kg weight penalty. But the extra kilos are located very centrally, and I couldn’t detect any detrimental effect on the handling.
In case this all sounds too positive, the test did have one flaw: the ABS we all tested in Qatar wasn’t the standard system, but had been modified slightly to allow for the soft-compound Bridgestone BT003 tyres. Like some other sticky tyres, these are slightly wider than the BT015s (or Dunlop Qualifiers) with which the CBRs will come as standard. This effects the way the ABS works.
Honda therefore fitted the testbikes with slightly modified ABS ECUs, similar to the programmable ECU that will be available as an accessory. “It is possible to use the standard ECU with race-compound tyres, but the ABS performance is not 100 per cent,” said engineer and test rider Tetsuya Kudoh. “It’s maybe 95 per cent — the ABS might activate slightly earlier.”
Given that most riders serious enough to use these bikes on a racetrack will want to fit sticky rubber, that is surely a distinct disadvantage. After all, someone who has just paid extra for ABS won’t be happy about having to spend more on a kit ECU. Honda doesn’t offer the option of disconnecting the ABS, either, although simply unplugging one of its wires would disable it and leave the standard brake system in place. (Some riders might prefer to do this for track days anyway.)
That is presumably what Honda had done to the Fireblades we rode immediately after lunch, though they wouldn’t confirm this. The format was the same as with the 600RR, so before riding the ABS-equipped Blade we had a session on a bike with the anti-lock deactivated. The Fireblade is unchanged for 2009 apart from new, clear oval-shaped rear indicators and minor bodywork revisions to cover the ABS parts. Predictably enough, the Repsol-liveried bike ripped round the circuit with the blend of smooth power, grunt, agility and stopping power that won so many comparison tests last year.
Back out for the second session with ABS reconnected, the system was every bit as impressive as it had been on the smaller CBR. The Fireblade still braked eye-poppingly hard, and it was an eerie feeling to sit up at the end of the straights and squeeze the lever, knowing that there was no chance of locking up the front wheel. Once again the stability provided by the ECU-triggered rear disc was useful, though the Blade’s rear tyre still waved around slightly under very hard braking. There was a bit more weight transfer with the Fireblade than with the lighter 600RR. Although the ABS-equipped Blade needed slightly more steering input than the normal model, this was less pronounced than with the smaller CBR.
By the end of my second session I was leaving my braking slightly later than I had been on the non-ABS Blade, though this was possibly because I’d had more laps in which to fine-tune my markers as the bike catapulted down the Losail straights. Honda racers Andrew Pitt, Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam reckoned they were braking at almost exactly the same place as on the standard bike. So did Martin Bauer, who won last year’s German Superbike championship on a Fireblade, and will defend his title on an ABS-equipped model this season if the regulations allow it.
“I think it will be possible to use the ABS, although the other manufacturers will be against it,” says Bauer. “Its performance will be very close to a non ABS bike, maybe half a second per lap slower in ideal conditions. But it would be very good in the wet, and you could find the limit very fast on the first lap. Over a whole race distance it might be faster because you would be less likely to make mistakes.”
Whether it’s a good idea to allow ABS in racing is another matter, and one that rule-makers in Germany and elsewhere will soon be discussing. Like traction control, anti-lock brakes remove a significant element of skill, and are likely to be resisted by many who prefer to see the rider in full control. The reduced opportunity for outbraking, once everyone is using similar ABS systems, could make for dull racing — though riding the ABS-equipped CBRs round Losail certainly wasn’t boring.
There are also those who won’t want ABS on the road, either because they prefer to be in full control, or because they believe the system will be a disadvantage in some circumstances. That was certainly true of previous ABS systems — but not, I think, of this one. Honda admits that a good rider can narrowly outbrake even this system after two or three attempts, on a dry surface. But an average rider’s braking distance is longer, even after several tries. And even the best riders take longer when the road is wet or gritty.
More importantly, on the road you don’t get a second chance. Honda’s technically brilliant invention worked better than I thought possible on the Losail circuit, without detracting from the thrill of caning the firm’s fastest super-sports bikes. But it’s on motorways, high streets and twisty back-roads that the system will show its worth, when it prevents a skid or allows a rider to avoid a hazard they would otherwise have hit. Whether or not you like the idea of anti-lock brakes, the verdict is clear: with the arrival of electronic Combined ABS, superbike safety has taken a significant step forward.