A Yamaha source has told Crash.net that Alex Barros is expected to stay with the team in 2004, despite the Brazilian being hunted by Honda to replace Valentino Rossi alongside predicted future star Nicky Hayden.

Ironically, Barros only left the Honda backed Pons team after HRC refused to provide him with a factory spec RC211V for the 2003 season, despite having won two races at the end of 2002 (middle picture). That decision sent the #4 straight into the arms of Yamaha, with whom he signed a multi-year deal to campaign full works machinery.

However, after winning two races with Max Biaggi the year before, Yamaha's 2003 season would be something of a disaster and they struggled to match not just Honda, but also series newcomers Ducati.

Barros, despite riding the entire year injured, would claim the marque's best result with a solitary third at the rain hit French Grand Prix. Not exactly the kind of form that would make him a natural replacement for five-times world champion Rossi, but the key is also Honda's factory team sponsor Repsol.

The Spanish oil giant, having lost Rossi, are keen for a replacement who will at least give them the best commercial return for their money - in other words limit their loss. With no riders of the Italian's superstar status available, Repsol view a Spaniard as the next best thing... and with no Spaniard available are chasing Barros to help promotion in the important South American market.

Repsol has still backed Honda when there has been no Spanish rider, for example when Tohru Ukawa partnered Rossi in 2002, but Repsol still had the world champion to promote their colours - in 2004 they look like having neither a world champion nor a Spaniard.

Yamaha were rumoured to be ready to release Barros from his contract early, in return for Honda allowing Rossi to test the M1 before his own contract expired, on January 1 2004.

To Yamaha's apparent surprise, Honda politely declined to release Rossi, stating that they don't want to give their rivals any advantage. With that refusal may also have gone any chance of Barros returning to HRC, since he effectively needs Yamaha's permission to do so and they don't want to give Honda any advantage either - especially after being forced to wait for Rossi.

"As far as I can tell, although it's not been 'officially' released, Barros will be the fourth rider," the team source told Crash.net, referring to the only unconfirmed Yamaha seat for 2004, alongside Marco Melandri.

But while HRC are unlikely to be too concerned should they be unable to sign Barros - since they claim not to mind which RCV rider leads their world championship challenge, and already have several proven winners signed to other teams - Repsol will be worried.

Repsol aren't paying to be title sponsor of Honda's only official factory team to watch the likes of Camel and Telefonica backed outfits winning more races than them - and maybe even the world title. But with Sete Gibernau and Colin Edwards confirmed at Telefonica, plus Biaggi and Makoto Tamada likely at Pons - and all starting 2004 on equal equipment to the factory team - that could well happen.

The mystery identity of Rossi's replacement therefore continues to be just that, and the question is if Barros does stay with Yamaha, who will Honda and/or Repsol pick instead?

A separate source has told Crash.net that Mick Doohan expects Repsol to remain on board, backing a two rider team, and that the new signing is unlikely to be Japanese...

 

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