by Peter McLaren

2004 will see Alex Barros start his fifteenth season in motorcycling's premier-class, the most experienced man in MotoGP having joined the factory Repsol Honda team for what will surely be his best - and perhaps last - chance of a world title.

In many ways, Barros links MotoGP's past and present: He made his 500cc debut in 1990, at the start of Wayne Rainey and Yamaha's three-year domination, witnessed Mick Doohan and Honda rise to power after Rainey's 1993 accident, then saw the Australian suffer a career-ending injury in 1999 and Valentino Rossi emerge from the 250cc class to take the sport by storm.

Along the way, the former Brazilian moped champion - who lied about his age to compete in the 1986 80cc world championship while just 15 - has ridden for Cagiva (1990-1992), Suzuki (1993-1994), Honda (1995-2002) and Yamaha (2003) before his return to Honda this season.

The Sao Paulo born racer has also taken six grand prix victories to date - although never more than two in a season - with a best championship standing of fourth (in 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2002).

2003 should have been the year when Barros finally broke into the title top three and - with the full backing of new employer Yamaha - was even expected to push Rossi and Honda for the world crown, having defeated the Italian on equal machinery twice in four races at the end of the previous year.

But, despite promising pre-season testing, that never happened and Alex's hopes - with hindsight - were effectively extinguished when he sustained a serious knee injury during morning warm-up for the season-opening Japanese Grand Prix.

Further injuries to his back, neck, shoulder and wrist followed, but Alex would miss only the British Grand Prix after being taken out by Yukio Kagayama on race morning. Then, at the Valencia season finale, he broke a rib in practice, but once again shrugged off the pain to finish a courageous sixth before heading to Brazil for surgery on the previously damaged shoulder tendons.

"The big problem for me (last season) was the knee injury at the first race, just three hours before the start. The doctors told me not to race, only god knows how I did it. I raced all season with injuries and it seriously compromised my year," Barros told Crash.net.

Having slipped out of his Altadis contract, Barros signed to take Rossi's seat in the factory Honda team, and the #4 would complete his first laps on an RC211V since 2002 at Sepang on February 11. Had the machine changed much?

"It's really hard to say, it was so long time between," Alex explained. "Physically the machine feels similar, but before there was trouble with the clutch and the power has increased a lot. The suspension has also changed, the riding position and tyres have improved. In fact the whole package has improved a lot since then."

With so many injuries inflicted on him by the nervous front end that characterised the 2003 YZR-M1, it is something of a miracle that Barros expects to be fully fit by the middle of May - albeit three rounds into the 2004 season.

"Recently I've been to the gym to see if I can improve the (shoulder) muscle, I felt no pain so now I can start to work as normal in the gym," said the 33-year-old. "In maybe one to one-and-a-half months the muscle should be 100%."

By the close of testing, at Jerez on April 1, Barros was placed fifth fastest - just 0.25secs behind pace setter Rossi - and the Brazilian is clear about his target for this season:

"I think when you're at Repsol Honda there's no point riding for second!" he smiled. "My plan is to fight for the championship."

Barros will be partnered by 2003 rookie of the year Nicky Hayden this season.

 

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