WorldSBK Blog: Honda add more wings to the Fireblade

It’s only the start of February. The 2017 GeeBee World Tour is only 16 days old but already I am a little travel weary. The last two weeks started in Jerez where a handful of the WordSBK teams got down to testing their 2017 race machines. Whilst Kawasaki and Ducati were really just fine-tuning their already race-winning bikes the new Honda Fireblade broke cover for the first time, literally.

Whilst the Ten Kate team were rolling their bikes out of the race truck, Honda were only a handful of days into the press launch of the road bike at the Autodromo Do Algarve at Portimao. The race machine wasn’t entirely new, however. The ‘Blades had only been delivered to the Dutch team’s workshop in Nieuwleusen on the 8th of January – exactly one month before they were due to be shipped, fully liveried in race trim, to Australia for the first round. To say the team’s Technical Director Pieter Breddels was a little stressed was an understatement.

The units being tested in Jerez, and a few days later at Portimao, were a mix of the 2016 and 2017 Fireblade with the new chassis and engine but last year’s swingarm, subframe, seat and a number of other parts. As Pieter explained, whilst they had received some drawings from Japan at the start of the year, it had been impossible to design and fit race parts before the actual bikes were on track. Swingarms are in production but wouldn’t be ready, probably until Round 3 at Aragon when the team returned to Europe.

For my part I followed the teams from Jerez to Portimao and back again to Jerez before heading to the Ten Kate workshops in Nieuwleusen to shoot the Hondas in their full race livery ahead of the team presentation at Red Bull’s impressive Hanger 7 in Salzburg.

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The bikes I photographed look stunning in their new colours but are still a little short of it’s 2017 spec. As I set up my lighting the race technicians were still building the bikes ready for our 9am start with parts and fairings that had only been delivered the day before. Once we were done shooting in the afternoon the bikes were packed into a van and shipped to Salzburg – to be returned overnight on the 6th Feb after the presentation and packed into crates for collection on the morning of the 8th for shipping to Phillip Island.

It put into sharp perspective the stresses placed on the WorldSBK teams when the season starts so early, and on the other side of the world from the home base. Ronald Ten Kate was pretty sanguine, however, summing up the situation by saying “we just have to man up, gear up and get on with it”.

And what of the new sponsor?

It is clear that the introduction of Stefan Bradl has been an influence on Red Bull sponsoring the team. Bradl has had a strong association with the global energy drinks giant for almost 10 years but WorldSBK is a branch of the sport they have, up till now, only had involvement with individual rider sponsorship.

They were very tight-lipped at the team launch with no one from the company making an official statement. This is apparently the way they do things but with one of their key road racing riders moving into the paddock, and rivals Monster Energy getting all the limelight with their association with Kawasaki, maybe they feel the time is right to move into this arena.

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One thing is for sure their involvement is certainly something that Ronald Ten Kate has welcomed. He hopes that it will bear fruit in terms of raising the profile of the team but along with Honda Motor Europe’s racing co-ordinator Marco Chini he has been working hard to get everything in place but time is most definitely against them. Ten Kate acknowledged that the bike that will race in Australia and Thailand will be version 1.0. They have already started working on V 2.0 but the fruits of that labour won’t be available until Aragon in April.

The riders themselves have acknowledged that they are a little behind with the new machine and both Hayden and Bradl cut forlorn figures in the pit box at Portimao as they struggled both to learn the unique track and find outright speed. After our photoshoot at the workshops I shared my journey back to Schiphol airport with Nicky Hayden. Obviously our conversation was all off-the-record but I got the feeling that whilst he was a little downbeat about the recent testing performance, he was excited about the involvement of Red Bull with the team. I personally feel really upbeat about their presence in the WorldSBK paddock and for the series in general it can only be a good thing.

However, I do know how frustrated some manufacturers marketing departments are with the regulations and costs Dorna impose on them when it comes to capturing and distributing marketing content. This is an area where Red Bull excel and indeed they are probably the best in the business at it. My fear is that in a championship that really needs a boost in terms it’s media and public profile they will be hamstrung by the red tape.

Honda and Ten Kate Racing last won the Superbike World Championship in 2007 with James Toseland. Ten years on it’s not only Honda, but the whole WorldSBK series itself that needs some extra wings.

Photos by GeeBee/Honda

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