2004 is likely to see one of the most intense Honda/Yamaha battles for many seasons, but it seems that despite numerous staff and rider transfers between them, neither wants to fire the first shot.

Indeed, each has been extremely careful to avoid direct confrontation with the other, and it is remarkable that Yamaha were able to tempt not just Rossi, but also four key Honda team members without any form of even veiled public criticism from HRC.

For their part, Yamaha largely bit their lip when Honda refused to follow recent trends and allow Rossi to test the M1 early - and now look likely to remain poker faced at the loss of Alex Barros.

The relatively painless moves by Rossi and Barros (so far) certainly haven't happened by accident, and on both occasions considerable effort has been made by the rider's new team to avoid a 'loss of face' for his former employer.

Yamaha only expressed a casual public interest in Rossi until he had announced he was leaving Honda, then stated that they would try and conclude a deal and some weeks later formally confirmed the move.

However, Rossi would have been very foolish if he had left Honda without an alternate ride already in place, and it appeared that Yamaha were making considerable effort to avoid upsetting HRC.

Honda now appears to be returning the 'favour' in their handling of the arguably more controversial Barros situation, and are reluctant to officially name him until Yamaha have first stated he has left their team and is a free man.

On paper, the former GP winner still has a year to run on his Altadis contract, but has told several Brazilian press sources that he can get out of the contract due to 'something that happened at Valencia' - and has already signed a contract with Honda anyway. The move was also confirmed to Crash.net Brazil by his official spokeswoman.

Presumably, after 17 years as a GP rider, Barros should know when he's signed a contract (and how to get out them, judging by the Altadis situation): It would be truly extraordinary if the 33-year-old had let excitement get the better of him and told the press he'd race for Repsol Honda, before a legally binding agreement was in place.

But according to HRC's sporting manager Carlo Fiorani, no deal has been done...

"We are waiting for a final answer from Alex Barros (saying he's been released from his Altadis contract) before we confirm the final solution," Fiorani told motogp.com earlier this week. "So far there has been no announcement from Alex, no announcement from Yamaha and no announcement from Altadis - so as far as we are concerned there is no news and there is certainly no deal."

So who's right - Barros or Fiorani? Ultimately time will tell, but don't be surprised if shortly after Yamaha announce Barros has left/name Norick Abe at Fortuna Yamaha, Repsol Honda unveil a Brazilian alongside Nicky Hayden.

A Yamaha line-up announcement could come at Sepang from January 24-26, where it would be 'hidden' under Valentino Rossi's M1 debut. This would also fit in with the fact that although Honda will be present at the Malaysian circuit from January 21-23, Barros has said he won't make his Repsol debut until February.

For the moment, it seems the fire between Honda and Yamaha is friendly...

 

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