It has been an interesting off-season in MotoGP, and with many changes within teams, in particular Jorge Lorenzo leaving Ducati to become the teammate of five-time MotoGP world champion, and seven-time world champion across all classes Marc Márquez at the Repsol Honda Team, and Tech 3 changing from Yamaha machinery to KTM machinery after a 20 year relationship with the Japanese manufacturer, leaving us with many questions as to how the 2019 MotoGP World Championship will pan out, a 19-race championship that begins in earnest this weekend at the Losail International Circuit in Lusail in Qatar, which is about 23 kilometres north of the capital Doha.
So, who are the championship contenders?
Looking at the entire field, their form during pre-season testing, and their reputations, I believe there are six riders from four teams who are capable of winning the 2019 world championship.
The obvious ones are the two Repsol Honda Team riders in Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo, but how are they physically coming into the 2019 season?
Márquez is coming into the new season off the back of off-season surgery on his left shoulder after suffering multiple dislocations towards the back end of 2018, but after topping the opening day of testing at the Sepang International Circuit at the start of February, the reigning world champion has been rather low-key throughout testing until the final two days of the Qatar test at the end of last month, finishing fifth on the penultimate day, and third on the final day as he started to find full fitness.
If Márquez (or any other Spaniard in the field) can win the championship, Spain will become the first country to win eight-straight premier class world championships, and when Márquez has won the opening race of the season in the grand prix motorcycle career across all classes, he has gone onto win the world championship, and both times he was under injury clouds.
In 2012, his career was in serious threat of being ended prematurely after vision problems stemming from a Moto2 practice crash the previous year in Malaysia, the same weekend that Marco Simoncelli was tragically killed in the MotoGP race, which was later declared as a cancelled race, but thankfully, Márquez had his vision problems rectified, and went onto win the 2012 Moto2 World Championship.
In 2014, Márquez broke his right leg in a dirt-bike training accident after topping all three days of the opening test in Malaysia, forcing him to miss the second Malaysian test, and the Phillip Island test in Australia, but Márquez managed to win the opening race in Qatar over Valentino Rossi on-route to winning the opening 10 races, and 11 of the first 12 to claim his second premier class crown in as many years.
So, will history repeat itself for Marc Márquez?
Well, new teammate Jorge Lorenzo might have something to say about this, but he too has been under an injury cloud, perhaps more so than Márquez to be truthful after fracturing his wrist in a training accident in January, forcing him to miss the opening test in Malaysia, and after struggling on the opening two days of the Qatar test, Lorenzo managed to finish fifth on the final day of testing, finishing within half a tenth of his teammate.
If Lorenzo were to win the Qatar Grand Prix, he would become the third rider after Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi to win the MotoGP race in Qatar on four occasions, and if he were to win, it would be his seventh victory in Qatar overall across all classes.
The next obvious ones are the two Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP riders in Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, but have Yamaha fixed the problems that they had with their bike last year?
Looking at the evidence from testing, the answer seems to be Yes!
Rossi, who turned 40 in February, endured his first winless year for a Japanese manufacturer last year, and despite finishing third in the 2018 championship, he has not been on the podium in his last nine races, and won’t want to endure a run like that in 2019, regardless of the competitiveness of the bike, but the signs are looking positive for Yamaha, but perhaps much more positive for Viñales, who topped three of the six days of testing, and finishing inside the top five on all six days.
At this stage, Viñales may well be the favourite to take out the Qatar Grand Prix, but I don’t think you cannot rule out Mission Winnow Ducati Team rider Andrea Dovizioso and Team Suzuki Ecstar rider Álex Rins.
Dovizioso is coming off the back of finishing second in the championship for the second-straight year, but made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes in 2018, which cost him any chance of challenging Marc Márquez for the world championship on a bike which has improved significantly over the last two years. The question is whether he can win his first MotoGP World Championship in 2019, or whether that opportunity has passed?
The bike is well-suited to circuits with long-straights and big braking zones, the whole team will essentially be behind Dovizioso, and you wouldn’t expect his teammate Danilo Petrucci to challenge for the championship, so you would have to think that this may well be his last chance to win a premier class world championship.
As for Álex Rins, he is very much the dark horse in the 2019 championship, and if Team Suzuki Ecstar can deliver him a good bike on a consistent basis, and Rins can have a better start to the season than he did in 2018, he has the ability to surprise the entire motorcycle world, and perhaps win his first world championship across all classes.
However, who will win the opening race in Qatar, and who is my tip to win the 2019 MotoGP World Championship?
I think given his form in pre-season testing that Maverick Viñales will be the one to beat in Qatar, just ahead of Andrea Dovizioso and defending world champion Marc Márquez, but as far as the world championship is concerned, it is going to take something special to defeat Márquez over the course of a full season, something which I cannot see anyone doing at the moment.