Alexandre Barros The Great

Alex Barros has been around for years, but now he and Max Biaggi are the men most likely to topple Valentino Rossi. We talk to the 'old' man of MotoGP...

As the World Championship looms large in the headlights of the second year of MotoGP's newfound brilliance, the established order has once more had a pre-season re-shuffle.

As in previous seasons, the hot favourite is Valentino Rossi and Honda, the old family firm and its latest favoured son cutting expecting to cut as wide a swathe as ever. Next up is perennial second favourite Max Biaggi, also now back on a Honda, but a real threat on any machine.

Maybe, maybe Kenny Roberts on the all-new Suzuki will form a partnership capable of race wins at least - a better bet still being the upstart Ducatisti, especially proven MotoGP winner Loris Capirossi.

The biggest threat to Rossi may just come from Honda's biggest rival of recent years, Yamaha.

Now the mantle of top Yamaha rider has wrapped around the name of Alex Barros, newly installed in the prime role of genuine title challenger - after 16 years of Grand Prix racing.

The reasons for Barros' sudden promotion to would-be King are obvious - his ability to beat Valentino Rossi in a fair fight, on ostensibly equal machinery. Not once but twice, Barros scalped Rossi in 2002, on a bike which was maybe not quite up to the mark of Rossi's very own HRC special.

The reasons why Barros has developed into a genuine title threat, after ten years of top ten championship finishes are somewhat more complex, and we attempt to find them out - from the man himself.

Speaking at the pre-season IRTA tests at Estoril in Portugal, Barros was relaxed and confident about his 2003 chances. Leaving Estoril as fastest rider, Barros had once more underlined his newfound greatness, an on-track turn of speed that is matched by his quick-witted response to questioning and a willingness to answer enquiries some other riders would have shied away from.

Alex Barros Interview

GR: How do you see the next couple of years for you? Do you think you can win the championship even this season?

AB: This year and next year should be very good years for my career. I have waited on this chance for a long time, because I think I now have the best package. First of all I am riding inside the factory Yamaha team, I have a great team and a big name sponsor. I truly believe I can fight for the championship now.

GR: How is the working mentality of Yamaha compared to Honda?

AB: It is a little bit different but when I was with Honda I was a satellite rider. Now I am a factory rider so this is one difference right away. Now I am in the position to be the guy to lead the direction to make some changes, so that the guys can build the machine more precisely for the rider. This is great for me, especially as I have experience, my speed and consistency, I believe more in myself and I know my potential. I no longer have questions with myself, so this can make the work easier and help the development programme for Yamaha. In my career I have never had this opportunity and I think I have arrived at a great moment.

GR: So what is the big difference now?

AB: I moved around a lot of teams and I think it is important that you have the same teams working together. With Sito I worked for the last four years and in the last three years I have had the best of my career. I have had good machines but I have not had the best machines - full factory machines -and for the championship this makes a big difference. I think in some years, like with Cagiva, I had just started, I was young and with Suzuki I was a second rider. I had a great opportunity there but they could not make a machine for me because Kevin was the first priority. After that I moved to Honda, without ever being a factory rider.

GR: Has the technology of the sport itself changed to suit your riding style? 

AB: I think you already have a style, like your character - it is something within you. Your riding style is personal, but it depends which machine you ride how much you have to learn to adapt. So maybe you adapt over the years, learn some new things to help you. Changing aspects of your style gives you experience to make the machine better or to adapt to a new machine quicker.

This machine, the M1, is very different from the first time I rode it, only the fairing is the same, because everything underneath is changed. It has improved a lot and the speed with which they have improved has impressed me a lot. There is still some work to do. The final bike should come at the IRTA tests at Suzuka. Development never stops. If you look at last year Yamaha started the season with one machine and ended the year with a different chassis, engine, everything.

I don't think there will a drastic change like last year, however.

GR: You were in a strange position at the end of last season. Being on a factory Honda and then moving straight over to a factory Yamaha. How was the transition?

AB: At the end of last year it was noticeable that every Yamaha rider who rode the four-stroke for the first time didn't have such great results. I thought maybe that the bike was very critical to suspension settings and so on.

I went on the Honda and went well from the start so maybe it was just that the machine was good. The first time I rode the Yamaha I expected it to be a little bit more difficult to get the lap time but immediately I changed the geometry a little bit - on one of Max Biaggi's bikes - and within 20 laps or so I had a made the same lap times I had with the Honda. This means that Yamaha already had the same level as the Honda. So when I moved I did not move backwards. I have moved from one company to another at the same level. Now I am the first rider (for Yamaha) and I can make the development programme with the machine.

GR: Was it made clear that you are the top Yamaha rider now, or are you and Checa on the same level, in different teams?

AB: Carlos Checa and I are the same but in regards to the development of the machine we will try many things. At the first race we should have the same machines for everyone.

GR: What was the biggest single difference between the Honda and Yamaha?

AB: I am already more comfortable on the M1 than I was on the Honda. But you need to work the machine to do more things you want. Now we have done some small changes on the Yamaha. For all factories these four-stroke prototypes are very new, and there are very many directions you can go in. In this moment people will try many new things. Yamaha has already shown two new ways, I think Honda have tried things in different directions even if they did not show them to the people outside.

GR: Has it been an important part of your career that you are the number one South American rider in the series. Has it helped to get you guaranteed rides each season?

AB: I think if I was European it would arrive faster. It is easy to understand. You can see many European riders who can get factory bikes easily. It is commercial. We have very many Spanish sponsors, also Italians. Today the Italians, Spanish and Japanese riders have more priority. If they ride well they can go into a good team easily. Without that it makes things a little bit more difficult. It has sometimes helped me a little bit being South American. But I think being European would have helped my career to be easier, and reach the level of factory machines faster. It has taken me some more years to reach the same point but I have had some good opportunities and I am very grateful for the help people have given me.

GR: Do you think part of your quick adaptation to the four-strokes came because of many years of competition in the Suzuka 8-Hour?

AB: It is possible. I think every experience of my career has helped me adjust more quickly to the new four-strokes.

GR: Has the racing got harder as time has gone on, since you started in 1986? More media, more competition on track, more demands on your time?

AB:For me I have lived this life for 16 years, inside the paddock. I do not see the changes happening so fast. If I had gone out of the paddock for two years then I would come back and say - wow! This is all changed a lot. I have grown up with it. It's like watching my kids grow up; you don't see the changes every day.

GR: Spending so much time in Europe, do you miss Brazil?

AB: Yes. I spend a little time in Brazil. I have tried to spend a lot of time there during the winter because during the season it is difficult to get back home.

GR: You were supposed to be a Kawasaki rider at one stage. Did you suddenly change your mind and think it was a bad option?

AB: I would not say bad option. One point is the tyres, which are very important. For me the tyre is 50% of the machine. So 50% of your result is already fixed.

Also I am 32 years old, so I do not know how many years of top-level racing I have left? To take the new project, from the beginning, and make it competitive depends on how fast you can work. Yamaha already had a machine on the same level as the Honda. So to come here just meant improving on an already good bike. Basically I did not want to lose any more time and Yamaha had more time in four-strokes than Kawasaki. The Kawasaki project is good and in the future should be very competitive.

GR: Was there any financial reason why you wanted to ride for Yamaha over Kawasaki.

AB: A little bit but this did not make the difference for me. The difference is not that big. It was only little things here and there.

GR: How would you describe yourself to someone who had never met you?

AB: It is difficult to speak about yourself... I think I am a normal guy; I like to joke a lot in my personal life. I am easy to talk to; it is easy to make friends. I think I am typical Latino style, a little bit more open than others.

GR: What is the best aspect about being Alex Barros, international Motorcycle racer?

AB: I get to race. I get to do a lot of things I want.

GR: What is the worst thing?

AB: I travel lots and I lose a lot of time in the air.

GR: Can you win the title this year?

AB: I think about the title, I cannot think differently. Yamaha believe in me very much. I think I am ready, the team is ready, and everything is in place. The rider does not just win the championship. It is more than that. It is also the team.