Considerable question marks still remain over Honda's 2004 line-up, with only three of the six seats officially confirmed.

In short, Honda needs to find a suitable replacement for Valentino Rossi to ride alongside Nicky Hayden in the factory Repsol team, while Pramac look set to condense three entries into two for 2004. Only the Telefonica team of Sete Gibernau and Colin Edwards has been finalised.

Honda's pursuit of Alex Barros to replace Rossi has hit much publicised problems since the Brazilian has an existing contract with Altadis - owner of the Fortuna and Gaulosies cigarette brands - although not Yamaha directly. Yamaha want to keep Barros, even against his will, probably to take a proven RCV race winner away from Honda as much as anything else, but the final decision will be made by Altadis

Meanwhile, the Pons situation is even more complex: With Luis d'Antin recalling the grid slot rented out to Pramac Honda to run Makoto Tamada this year, Pramac is chasing an alternate entry in which to place the whole team - and crucially have backing from Bridgestone and Honda to do so.

The obvious choice is to link up with Camel Pramac Pons due to the existing Pramac connection. However, if this happens Pons could effectively be reduced to a one rider team since half of the garage would be occupied by 'Pramac Honda' (on Bridgestones) and the other 'Camel Pramac Pons' running Max Biaggi (on Michelins?).
This would doubtless mean some present Pons team members being forced to leave, but they could be hired by Repsol to replace the four (including crew chief Jerry Burgess) who have followed Rossi to Yamaha.

But other issues also exist: Firstly, Camel signed a three-year deal with Pons to be the team's title sponsor from 2003 to 2006 (when tobacco sponsorship ends) and would surely expect a two rider outfit - will Camel be able to take over Tamada given the likely contractual issues?

On the other hand, Pons can't simply say 'thanks, but no thanks' to running Tamada as Sito needs a new rider to replace Ukawa. With the Honda ranks being reduced by one next season, Ukawa's ride has effectively disappeared - in other words, Pons has two grid entries, but only one Honda.

All of which leaves much negotiation ahead, and while Tamada joining Biaggi is most likely, the possibility remains that given the Barros situation, Biaggi could be called up by Repsol Honda.

On paper, such a signing makes sense - Biaggi is a four-times 250cc world champion, has won eight 500cc GPs and four MotoGP class events. He is also the only rider to win on both a Yamaha M1 and Honda RCV.

If Repsol/HRC want to (logically) replace Rossi with the best rider available they would presumably first turn to Gibernau (as the 2003 championship runner-up), but with the Catalan unavailable due to his existing Telefonica contract, Biaggi would be next on the list.

Biaggi - like Gibernau - is contracted to a sponsor (his being Pramac) rather than HRC, but the problems faced by the Pons/Pramac/Camel/Tamada/Bridgestone situation discussed above could mean that Pramac and Honda cut a deal to allow the Roman into the factory team (with perhaps Honda funding his replacement).

Such a signing would give Repsol Honda an experienced high-profile performer to replace Rossi, 'balance' the relatively inexperienced Hayden, and develop the 2004 spec RCV... but Honda and Biaggi have 'history' and it is unknown if, for example, Mick Doohan - now general manager of racing for HRC - could bring himself to work with the Roman.

While both were racing, Doohan and Biaggi (lower picture) got on reasonably well... until Max stepped up to the 500cc class to challenge the Aussie in 1998 - and won his first premier class race from pole at the season opening Suzuka GP. Indeed, Biaggi led the championship until round eight, the British Grand Prix, when Doohan regained control and would go on to take his fifth consecutive 500cc title that year.

However, it wasn't the competition but the clash of personalities which caused most of Doohan's anger - in particular, he didn't take kindly to Biaggi's deliberate taunting of him in the press. The Aussie (and to a lesser degree Honda) were equally annoyed by the Roman's complaints that, since he was battling for the championship, his Erv Kanemoto tuned NSR should be getting the same factory support as Doohan's Repsol machine.

"Max loves himself," declared Doohan in a rare outburst to the Italian press during the '98 season. "He thinks too much about his appearance and just comes up with excuses when he doesn't win. He cries so much he should be sponsored by Kleenex."

The Italian would join the factory Yamaha team in 1999 and stay with them until moving back to Honda this year. Even today, the relationship between Biaggi and Doohan appears 'frosty'.

It all depends on how badly Repsol needs to win, and which rider options they still have available, but most believe that despite - or because of - his past record, Biaggi will remain at Pons.

 

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