The identity of Valentino Rossi's replacement at Repsol Honda - the most coveted ride in MotoGP - still remains a mystery almost three weeks after the Italian's seat at the factory team became officially vacant.

Rossi's former team-mate, Nicky Hayden, has already been confirmed for 2004, but few expect the 22-year-old American to take on the mantle of Honda leader in only his second GP season - leaving HRC with a dilemma:

To keep Repsol backing, they probably need to employ a Spaniard - but there are none with the relevant experience still available. Brazilian Alex Barros has been touted as the next best thing, but his move from Yamaha seems to have gone 'cold' of late.

The reality is that if Honda has to pay the estimated $2-3 million dollars to release Barros from his Yamaha contract - and keep Repsol on board - they may as well let both Barros and Repsol go, keep the money, and use it to pay for another rider and/or fund the team.

Which leads to the second cause of concern at HRC: The factory line-up (Hayden plus whoever) - scheduled to get new parts first and expected to steer the RC211V's development - could be left with the weakest line-up of any Honda outfit in 2004. This threatens to have a knock-on effect for the whole of HRC's title challenge, particularly should they hit technical difficulties with the '04 spec machine.

So far, the experienced Colin Edwards and 2003 runner-up Sete Gibernau have already been announced at Telefonica, while Sito Pons expects proven winner Max Biaggi to stay, with rising star Makoto Tamada tipped to take over Tohru Ukawa's now vacant seat alongside the Roman.

That situation alone is unusual: Normally the best - and therefore most fought over - GP seats are taken first, then the others fall into place. But this year Honda's support teams seem to have arranged their line-ups before the factory has had its pick.

That indicates that Honda had/has someone else in mind (presumed to be Barros) or that they intend to move one of the other four riders (Edwards, Gibernau, Biaggi and Tamada), into the seat alongside Hayden. A third choice would be an uncharacteristic gamble by HRC in placing a new premier-class rookie alongside Hayden, or making a signing from the non-Honda riders still available.

Any of which could yet happen, and behind the scenes managers are doubtless working frantically to get their rider into the most desired ride in MotoGP - since whoever claims the second Repsol seat (or wherever the sixth Honda rider will be placed) is virtually guaranteed race winning machinery.

But for now nothing is confirmed, and the latest rumours are linking Repsol with the new d'Antin Ducati team - should Honda employ a rider whom the Spanish company feels isn't a suitable (commercial) replacement for Rossi...



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