With intensive pre-season testing of the 2004 entries by Yamaha and Honda due to begin in Sepang at the end of this month, time is fast running out for Alex Barros to confirm his future.

At a time when many GP regulars have found themselves fighting to stay in the class, the Brazilian veteran is in the enviable position of apparently being chased by both Honda and Yamaha, with HRC wanting him in their factory team no less.

Ironically, just one year ago Barros left Honda Pons because HRC wouldn't provide a full 'factory' spec machine for 2003, offering only the 'customer' racer - that later went to Max Biaggi - despite watching the #4 win two out of four races in which he rode an RCV (supplied late in the year).

Meanwhile, having seen Barros beat Rossi on equal machinery, Yamaha succeeded in tempting him away from Honda with the promise of a full factory M1 for the following year.

Yamaha had won two GPs in 2002, and some impressive pre-season testing performances offered further hope for 2003, but the injury littered season would be a nightmare for both Barros and Yamaha in general. A solitary third, at the rain shortened French Grand Prix, was the best he - and the M1 - could achieve from the 16 rounds.

Then, with Valentino Rossi signing for Yamaha, one of the two most desired seats in MotoGP - at Repsol Honda - suddenly became available. Significantly, with the likes of Sete Gibernau, Colin Edwards and Max Biaggi confirmed at the 'satellite' Honda outfits, HRC's replacement shortlist was soon looking very short.

The problem was made more complex by the need to keep Repsol happy with a rider they could 'market' and Barros appears to have become HRC's number one choice since he is a proven RC211V winner, has massive GP experience (to balance comparative newcomer Nicky Hayden) and would be a popular figure for Repsol's South African market.

Many felt the plan was for Altadis - owner of Fortuna and Gauloises - to release Barros from his multi-year contract (with Yamaha's blessing), in return for Honda letting Rossi test the M1 early.

However, complications occurred when Honda refused to let the Italian ride the M1, since they didn't want to give their opponents an unnecessary advantage. Anyway, Barros was still recovering from surgery to his injured shoulder in Brazil and wouldn't be able to ride the RCV for some time, so Honda had little to gain from the deal.

But, probably as a result of their refusal, Yamaha and Altadis were in no rush to release Barros from his contract early - or indeed at all. Instead, he was named as riding alongside Marco Melandri at the now Fortuna backed Tech 3 outfit in the official 2004 provisional entry list, released on December 10.

Despite this, rumours are growing that a deal will still be done to compensate Altadis and allow Barros to return to Honda; after all, it's very difficult for Yamaha to keep Barros if he has little motivation in riding for them.

All could be revealed at the Sepang tests, providing Yamaha or Honda field their full 2004 line-up, and - let's face it - neither will want to continue the current uncertainty for much longer.

Although very unlikely, it is even theoretically possible that Barros could ride the 2004 spec M1, then decide if it's worth accepting the financial penalty (as well as paying compensation to Altadis, his wages are also likely to be lower at Honda) he'd face for switching teams...

Meanwhile, should Barros leave Yamaha, two men now appear to have at least been considered to inherit his ride - Fonsi Nieto and Norick Abe.

Reports in the Spanish press suggest that Nieto, attractive to Altadis, rejected a big money offer and will remain in the 250cc world championship with Aprilia, to try and regain his 2002 form and chase a first world title.

At the same time, former 500cc GP winner Abe has appeared increasing confident of a MotoGP return, following a season spent as Yamaha's official test rider, and it is the Japanese who many now tip as taking the final Fortuna seat, thus also providing YRC with a home grown rider in their ranks.

 

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