“When I was younger my dream was to be a works rider for Honda. As it turned out I started working for them in the machining section of the Saitama factory.” Tadao Baba isn’t your average Japanese engineer. Small in physical stature, Baba is seldom seen without a smile on his face and a cigarette clasped in his hand. Those who know him well use the terms “mad” and “eccentric” alongside “genius” and “revolutionary” while people who worked on the original FireBlade — as the CBR900RR and later models are labeled almost everywhere except in the USA — alongside him often add “stubborn” and “fanatical” into the mix. Whatever words you use to describe Tadao Baba, his legacy is undeniable. In an age where sportbikes went fast but refused to handle, Baba broke from convention and built the blueprint for all future sportbikes. Not bad for a man with no formal engineering training.
[1993 CBR900RR] Baba set a...
[1993 CBR900RR] Baba set a target weight of 418 pounds, and refused to compromise, demanding parts were redesigned rather than be too heavy. The original CBR900RR was just a few pounds over that target, but almost the same weight as a CBR600F2 and 75 pounds lighter than the lightest open-class bike at the time. The last CBR1000RR we weighed was just 10 pounds lighter.
“I didn’t go to university, just high school. I joined Honda in 1962 when I was just 18 years old, only eight years younger than Honda itself! I worked for three years in the machining section making crankcases and cylinder heads for Honda’s CB72 and 77, then in 1965 I was moved to the R&D area as a test rider.” It may seem quite a jump to move from a milling machine to testing motorcycles, but Baba was an accomplished rider. Racing in the Japanese 125 championship, Baba took a national title in 1970 and it was this track success that brought him to the attention of Honda’s owner, Soichiro Honda. The pair formed a strong friendship that lasted until Soichiro’s death in 1991, one year before Baba was to unveil the bike that repaid his friend’s faith in him.
“To a racing rider, working the R&D and testing area was a dream come true,” remembers Baba. Tasked mainly with improving the handling, stability and carburetor settings on development models, Baba soon demonstrated he was more than just a test rider, quickly picking up the engineering skills that saw him promoted to the role of Vice Project Leader in 1972. After developing both on- and off-road bikes at the Hamamatsu factory, Baba was asked to return to the R&D department at the end of 1987 and take over leadership of Honda’s new sportbike project.
WORKING WITH BABA...
Dave Hancock, 56, has been a Honda genteki (test rider) for 22 years and is now Head of Product and Development at Honda Europe. He was involved in the development of the Blade and remains a close friend of Tadao Baba. “When I arrived at the Suzuka circuit in 1989 to test the prototype FireBlade, I walked into the garage and there was a small Japanese man sitting on a petrol drum smoking a cigarette. That was the first time I met Tadao Baba. He was a fantastic man to work with, completely unique and a real philosopher. When we were developing the new FireBlade models he would listen to all our comments, hardly react, then next time we saw the bike it would be changed — if he thought the mods were needed. Baba was always quite strict, he knew when he was right. And he never used a computer, any sums were worked out longhand on paper. He was forever scribbling on bits of paper.
“Baba had the total respect of all at the Honda factory. He could do whatever he wanted. One time we were running a Blade at the TT and he turned up with a chain from a Suzuka 8-Hour bike he had ‘borrowed’ from R&D. He just pulled it out of his suitcase, fitted it and when the race was over took it back to Japan. He was certainly a little bonkers, we often used to find ‘safety riding’ and other comments written in the nose cones of the test bike.”
The fact the project was initially started by Yoichi Oguma, who went on to head up HRC, demonstrated not only just how seriously Honda was taking the development of this new bike but also the esteem Baba was held in within the factory. The FireBlade was Baba’s first solo project, he was no longer a Vice Project Leader; this new bike was his baby. “Of course I was nervous. It was my first project, but I was also confident too. I love riding sportbikes and I love the feeling of satisfaction when I can control it as I want. The brief was to create a sportbike with total control that was easy to ride. This was my world, my ideal bike.”
Starting with a team of 30 to 40 young designers from various backgrounds, Baba gathered their ideas and brought them together as a single concept. In the initial stages of development there were few rules. Even the Blade’s capacity was uncertain and early prototypes were 750cc, but the few rules that were set Baba stuck to fanatically, something that earned him a reputation as a hard task master. “Some of the designers called me Hotoke no Baba or ‘Buddha Baba’ in English. I think it is fair to say I was very stubborn when it came to the FireBlade’s weight,” he admits, before adding, “Sometimes you have to show someone your leadership through being calm, but I did also get angry...”