by Peter McLaren

Alex Barros and Nicky Hayden have cast doubt on the assumption that, as factory Honda riders, they will have a significant machinery advantage this season - Hayden believing such comments from fellow RCV competitors could simply be 'an excuse'.

Ever since Valentino Rossi moved to Yamaha there has been considerable debate over the level of factory support each of the six Honda riders - Sete Gibernau, Colin Edwards (Telefonica Honda), Max Biaggi, Makoto Tamada (Camel Honda) plus Barros and Hayden - will receive in 2004.

In the past, the position of the Repsol backed factory team has been largely unchallenged - Rossi's presence meant few could effectively argue HRC would be better served by spreading its efforts elsewhere.

However, the Italian's loss, combined with the strong satellite team line-ups, has put pressure on the Japanese giant to provide a more equal support system, based on race performance instead of team contract.

It appears that the six Hondas will start the year with more or less the same specification, the only tangible advantage for the Repsol riders - in South Africa at least - being their increased track time with the latest parts, and greater level of technical support.

While, as has been made clear by comments from Biaggi, Tamada and Edwards, this already gives the Repsol duo an advantage (the satellite outfits are racing against time to understand the latest modifications by the opening round) the real worry for the Camel and Telefonica teams is that they'll get left behind as the season progresses, due to their lower position in the Honda hierarchy. asked both Barros and Hayden about this sensitive situation, and what level of advantage they've actually got over their Honda colleagues.

With over 200 GPs to his credit Barros stated that, while he's well aware of the benefits of being a factory rider, it doesn't necessarily mean his machine is superior.

"In all the seasons that I've raced, the Honda factory riders have had more benefits and this will not be any different this year, but it's not a massive difference (to being in a satellite team)," began Alex.

"The main advantage is that you can say to the factory 'I'd like the machine to behave in this way or that way' and they work on it, this is the good point to being a factory rider - you can ask for what you want - but sometimes what you ask for is possible and sometimes not," he explained.

"In terms of the level of the machine, I've ridden behind some of the satellite teams and I don't see any big difference - maybe that's because I'm not yet riding at 100% (because of the healing shoulder) - but there's no big advantage at the moment," Barros declared.

Team-mate Hayden, the 2003 rookie of the year, backed the Brazilian - adding that talk of a machinery disadvantage by any Honda rider is likely to more of an excuse than a genuine grievance.

"I don't think there's such a big difference (between being a factory and satellite rider). Sure I'm happy to be on the team I'm at - and sure there's advantages - but Sete proved last year what you do at a satellite team and I think maybe some guys use it as an excuse," said the American. "We all like to use an excuse every now and then and some guys like to use that one."

The opening round of the 2004 MotoGP season, the Africa's Grand Prix, takes place this Sunday (April 18).



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