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"Fast Bikes", April 1, 2013


Old ‘uns, but golden. The mobile museum goes for another run out...


As biking battles go, this has been the biggest we’ve ever seen. The rivalry between the two camps has been intense, but to their credit never has either manufacturer resorted to dirty tricks. Both bikes are proud incarnations of their designers’ beliefs and skills, and both machines have influenced motorcycling more than any other bikes of the modern age.

But after riding the 1998 FireBlade, you can see how Honda was coasting after its initial success. Its Japanese rivals had five years to come up something, and still nothing could touch the Elvis-like machine – hugely successful and chucking out the hits, but bigger and bloated than before. True, there’s nowt wrong with it, and this version had a seriously playful motor that reminded us of how legendary the FireBlade really is.

But there’s no bike of that era in the world that could get anywhere close to the original R1. It did to the FireBlade what the 1992 FireBlade did to the FZR1000 – blew it into total smithereens.

15 years is a lifetime in motorcycle development, but it says a huge amount about the R1 that you can close your eyes and still ride it hard without any compromise. Of all the bikes here, this would be the one I want – although find a mint one now and you could just about get a decent 2007 model for the same money. And that tells us a huge amount about how revered we all feel about this seminal bike. Without it, biking today would be a very different environment.

Over the next nine years, the Yamaha competed well, but climbing to the top spot was tough. Until 2003 it had the advantage over the FireBlade, simply by boasting the bigger capacity. That didn’t stop sales success, and by 2006, over 250,000 FireBlades had been sold – more than enough to fund the development of the new bike.

But by 2007, the sharp edges of both bikes had almost been polished away. In some ways, this was just two Japanese giants going through the motions. A new bike would come out every four years, with relatively minor tweaks introduced in the intervening two. Steps forward were gentle, measured, cautious, and it led to smoother, more refined machines, such as these. There was no Baba-san or Miwa-san moment because, thanks to the FireBlades and R1s up to this point, there was no need to go back to the drawing board – other than for marketing reasons.

Though these bikes will never become collectors items, they will offer fantastic mobile homes to two lucky riders as they offer just as much performance as almost any of today’s bikes. Five years old they may be, but all that splits them is a few bhp here, a tenth of a second there – and on the road you’ll never really notice that. These aren’t competition bikes, they’re machines to be used hard and cherished – and both fulfil these requirements perfectly.

That’s not the case for the current crop. These bikes have to stand on their own two feet and compete on the racetrack and in the showrooms – and thanks to advances elsewhere, this is where these bikes have disappointed. Thanks to economies, exchange rates and an assumption that nothing more than small steps forward were needed, these 2013 bikes are essentially products of 2008 and 2009 – so in terms of outright performance they disappoint against the best Europe has to offer.

That BMW came along and rubbed everyone’s noses in it so easily didn’t help the impression that the Japanese were operating a development cartel – but you can’t deny that both bikes have got better.

Though their importance has waned, that doesn’t mean the war between the Fireblade and the R1 is over. We hope this will be an eternal battle, waged on roads and tracks the world over. But unless both manufacturers rekindle the ideas, spirit and belief that each bike’s original designers were blessed with and incorporated into their respective machines, then there’s a chance that the intensity will wane and this fierce rivalry will peter out and that their legacy will be lost. Did Baba-san or Miwa-san have kids?

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