It was another nail-biting classic in Qatar with Andrea Dovizioso once again defeating Marc Márquez in a dash to the line, and after the Top 15 were covered by just 15.093 seconds, the closest in premier class history, the grid heads to the Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo in Santiago del Estero for the Argentina Grand Prix, Round Two of the 2019 MotoGP World Championship.
Dovizioso (25 points) leads the championship for Mission Winnow Ducati by five points over five-time MotoGP World Champion, and defending champion Márquez (20 points) after the opening race thriller at the Losail International Circuit, with Cal Crutchlow (16 points) finishing third to be third in the standings for LCR Honda Castrol about four and a half months after suffering a badly broken ankle at Phillip Island during practice for the 2018 Australian Grand Prix in a remarkable return to competition after struggling in pre-season testing.
Álex Rins (13 points), one of the riders I earmarked in my preview for the Qatar Grand Prix as one of six potential championship contenders, finished fourth in the opening race of the season for Team SUZUKI ECSTAR, ahead of Valentino Rossi (11 points) for Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP, who came from 14th on the grid to finish in fifth, with Rossi finishing ahead of Dovizioso’s teammate Danilo Petrucci (10 points), and his own teammate Maverick Viñales (nine points).
Viñales, who had topped three of the six days of pre-season testing, and finished inside the top two on all three days of the Qatar pre-season test, was fast throughout the race weekend in Qatar, and claimed pole position for the opening race of the season, but once again, he didn’t get off the line well, and all that he could manage was a seventh-place finish. The Spaniard though will be hoping that this was just a one-off, and not the continuation of a trend that we saw throughout 2018.
Joan Mir (eight points), the teammate of Rins, was eighth on his MotoGP debut, and looked reasonably close to the pace of Rins throughout the weekend at the Losail International Circuit, while LCR Honda Idemitsu rider, and teammate of Crutchlow, Takaaki Nakagami (seven points), finished ninth in Qatar, ahead of Aprilia Factory Racing’s Aleix Espargaró (six points), who completed the Top 10 at the opening race of 2019.
However, the main headline of the first race of the season was the disappointing performance in his first race with the Repsol Honda Team, although hindered by a wrist injury, for Jorge Lorenzo (three points), who finished the 2019 Qatar Grand Prix in 13th. Lorenzo finished the opening practice session in second, behind Rossi, and head of his new teammate Márquez, but by the end of the first three practice sessions, he was 11th on the combined standings and had to go through Qualifying One (Q1).
However, he wasn’t able to qualify into Qualifying Two (Q2), and started the opening race of the season only in 15th, and from there, he found it difficult to move through the field, finishing only in 13th, making it the third year in a row that Lorenzo has either crashed out (2018), or finished 11th or lower (2017 and 2019). Lorenzo will be wanting to turn his form around quickly in Argentina at the Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo, a place where he has only finished on the podium once (2014).
So, who is going to win in Argentina?
If Marc Márquez can show the blistering speed that he showed last year, and stay on the bike, and not run into any of the problems that he ran into last year, then he will be clearly the one to beat at the Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo, but if he does run into issues, the entire race could be a complete lottery, especially given the predicted weather conditions of rain and thunderstorms, particularly for Saturday and Sunday.
The speculation that Mercedes had been knocked off their perch as Formula One’s dominant force had been greatly exaggerated, but it was Valtteri Bottas, not Lewis Hamilton, who took full advantage to win the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, claiming the single point for the fastest lap of the race to take the lead of the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship, which heads to the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir for the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Bottas (26 points) leads the championship by eight points over his teammate and defending world champion Hamilton (18 points) after defeating him by 20.886 seconds at Albert Park to claim the fourth race victory of his career, a performance Bottas himself regarded as the best of his career.
However, Hamilton suffered floor damage to his car on the fourth lap of the Australian Grand Prix, affecting the aerodynamic performance of the car, denying him any opportunity to challenge his teammate for the race victory after claiming pole position for the sixth-straight year, and the eighth time at Albert Park, becoming just the third driver after Michael Schumacher (Suzuka) and Ayrton Senna (Imola) to achieve eight pole positions at one circuit.
Whether Hamilton would have won the opening race of the season without his floor damage is up for debate, but it certainly would have been a lot closer, that is for sure!
Max Verstappen (15 points) is third in the world championship for Red Bull Racing-Honda after pushing Hamilton close at Albert Park, ahead of the two Ferrari’s of Sebastian Vettel (12 points) and Charles Leclerc (10 points), who after dominating pre-season testing, finished 57.109 and 58.203 seconds behind Bottas at the opening race of the season, and rightfully would feel ashamed of their performance in Melbourne, and will be hoping that this performance is just a one-off, and that they can challenge Mercedes for the championship throughout 2019.
Behind them in the standings are Kevin Magnussen (eight points) for Haas-Ferrari, Nico Hülkenberg (six points) for Renault, Kimi Räikkönen (four points) for Alfa Romeo Racing-Ferrari, Lance Stroll (two points) for Racing Point-BWT Mercedes, and Daniil Kvyat (one point) for Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda, who all scored points in the opening race of 2019.
However, it was a disappointing weekend in Australia for Daniel Ricciardo, his first race with Renault, having some difficulties or teething issues with the car in practice, qualifying outside of the Top 10 in 12th, and then sustaining damage to his car just metres off the start line on Sunday, which forced him to retire from the Australian Grand Prix after 28 laps.
Ricciardo will be hoping for a much better weekend in Bahrain, but you sense the best result he can hope for at the moment, given the car that he has at the moment, is a sixth or seventh-place finish, and most likely a lap down on the leaders (Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull Racing-Honda).
So, who is going to win the Bahrain Grand Prix?
In my opinion, it is always very hard to see a team bouncing back to win the next race after being smashed by almost a minute in the previous race, but if Ferrari’s performance in pre-season testing was genuine, and that Mercedes, and to a lesser extent Red Bull Racing-Honda haven’t actually gained genuine performance between pre-season testing and the first race, and that both of their performances in Australia were simply track specific, then they are a strong chance to bounce back.
However, it is not the first time that a team involving Lewis Hamilton has gained a huge chunk of time, usually in the region of about a second, in a short space of time to instantly become more competitive.
Think mid-season in 2009 when McLaren, the team Hamilton was driving for at the time, moved from near the back of the field, where they were at the British Grand Prix, to challenging Brawn and Red Bull, on speed at least, at the following race at the Nürburgring in Germany, with Hamilton winning the following race in Hungary.
Think 2011, when McLaren (with Hamilton) moved from what many predicted was a midfield position for the team in pre-season testing to being arguably the second-best car on the grid for the start of the season in Australia, although comfortably behind Red Bull generally throughout 2011.
It cannot be a coincidence because if you were to add a second to the times both Mercedes achieved in qualifying at Albert Park, those were the times/margins that many experts thought Mercedes were behind in relation to Ferrari, and to a lesser extent Red Bull Racing-Honda.
Hamilton has proven, if the form is genuine, to be the face of the catalyst of turning the competitiveness of a team around once again, and if you believe this, then you cannot be surprised of his standing today as a five-time Formula One World Champion!
I am predicting Hamilton to bounce back from the floor issue he suffered in the race with his car in Australia to win in Bahrain, but I think Max Verstappen can put in a sterling performance to finish in second, with Valtteri Bottas to finish in third, just ahead of the two Ferrari drivers.