Having been dumped by Yamaha in favour of Shinya Nakano at the end of last year, Norick Abe probably never imagined he'd see so much race action in 2003 - but the combination of a Yamaha test deal and injuries to Marco Melandri mean the former GP winner has kept himself active on the circuit, bolstering his hopes for a 2004 racing return.

Abe's first choice would be a seat with Yamaha, the marque he first rode for in 1994 - when he replaced an injured Daryl Beattie in Kenny Roberts Snr's 500cc team. By the following year the Japanese had earned himself a permanent place in the Roberts squad, where he remained for two years - talking his first of three victories at Suzuka in 1996.

Then it was on to Team Rainey for the next two seasons, where he achieved a string of podium finishes, before moving to the Spanish-based d'Antin team, where he remained until last year.

However, despite the long history, the ever-entertaining Abe is also thought to have had tentative talks with Ducati (alongside Hodgson) and Honda about a possible deal. But, Abe is still to convince some that after racing two-strokes almost all his life he can perform equally on the new generation of 990cc four-strokes.

As such, this weekend at Valencia will be crucial. So far this year, of his four GP appearances - at Suzuka, Welkom (replacing Melandri) and Le Mans, Sachsenring (as a wild-card) - Abe has recorded results of 11th, 8th, 11th and 10th respectively. Consistent, but not sensational.

As a result of Melandri's shoulder injury at Phillip Island, Abe now has one more chance to impress - and it couldn't come at a more vital time, being the season finale and with so many seats still up for grabs.

"I am really looking forward to riding as a substitute for Marco in Valencia," began the 28-year-old. "I haven't raced since the German Grand Prix in July but I have been maintaining my physical condition since then, however, by training as much as I can. So I think I'm in pretty good shape right now.

"I do feel a bit of pressure now after three months away from the circuit," he admitted. "Before I leave Japan for Valencia, I plan to go riding at a motocross track a couple of times as I've always found it useful preparation. Valencia isn't one of my best tracks but nevertheless, now that I have this chance to race again, I am certainly going to try my hardest to do well. I won't go into this thinking that Valencia isn't my favourite track, I am just going to give it my all."

"We know (Abe) very well, and he is the perfect replacement under these circumstances," commented Fortuna Yamaha team director Davide Brivio. "He has always been a good ambassador for Yamaha, and I'm sure he can do a good race in Valencia."



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