With just over a month to go until the start of the MotoGP season at Suzuka, the championship look like shaping into a battle between Alex Barros and Honda.

Barros has unleashed his fearsome mix of aggression, precision and consistency ever since getting an RCV ride at Motegi last year. Since then he's impressed whenever he's ridden - claiming two Grand Prix victories in the last four races before switching to Yamaha and continuing that momentum in pre-season testing.

At the first IRTA test last weekend, the Brazilian Bullet topped the running in both dry days, setting the fastest lap of the test as he outpaced the best Ducati, Suzuki, Kawasaki and even his own Yamaha rivals have to offer.

Speaking at the end of the third and final day, the Brazilian described the latest in a long line of developments he's been assessing - and worryingly for the opposition, a late set-up change allowed him to go 'easily' quicker.

"I rode 94 laps [on Sunday], we started off on the injection bike and worked on its set up for almost 4 hours," said Barros. "We are getting there but still don't have all the answers yet - it is nothing to do with the injection itself but rather a problem with the chassis set up. Then I switched to the 'carb bike', tried a new seat and quite a few different tyres and made good progress despite the strong wind.

"Right at the end Yamaha asked me to go out again and try one more change. Straight away I felt an improvement, and without pushing any harder than I had over the rest of the session, went quicker and posted the fastest time in the process," he explained.

"While I'm obviously pleased that once again Alex posted the fastest lap, I am even more satisfied by the consistency of his times..." added Gauloises Yamaha Team Manager Herve Poncharal.

Barros' only real rival for supremacy in the Yamaha camp looks like being from Carlos Checa, who - following the departure of Max Biaggi - faces a critical year with the expectation of a sustained title challenge firmly on his shoulders.

The Spaniard has shone on occasions in the past, but always seems to crash when he least needs to, hitting his confidence. Yamaha have made it clear 2003 is a critical year for Checa, and despite claims to the contary the speed of new boy Barros hasn't gone unnoticed.

Meanwhile, despite their star studded line-up, Honda could well regret their decision to let Barros go. In fairness to HRC, they gave him the chance to shine on a four-stroke at the tail end of last year and didn't actually want him to leave.

The trouble was they didn't seem to try very hard to keep him, refusing to offer a latest spec machine for 2003 - sending him straight into the arms of Yamaha and the promise of a full factory backed bike.

Not that HRC have a shortage of championship contenders, their 2003 spec RCV looks as quick as their rivals feared it would be, and Rossi, Biaggi and even Kato all look in with a chance of regular race victories and in turn the title - but if there is to be a thorn in their side, the IRTA test proved once again it's likely to come from the Barros/M1 combination, with Colin Edwards ready to step forward and upset the order still further...