It has been an interesting off-season in Formula One, with a number of big changes. Daniel Ricciardo leaving Red Bull Racing-Honda to join Renault and being replaced by Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc joining Ferrari to replace Kimi Räikkönen, who has join Alfa Romeo Racing-Ferrari, Lance Stroll joining Racing Point-BWT Mercedes, and new driver pairing at McLaren-Renault (Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr.), Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda (Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat), and Williams-Mercedes (George Russell and Robert Kubica).
However, the most decisive change may well be the addition of a championship point for the driver who sets the fastest lap of each race in 2019, as long as the driver who sets it finishes the race inside the Top 10, and with an extra 21 points potentially on the line, could this decide who wins the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship, which starts this weekend at Albert Park in Melbourne?
Possibly, but who are the championship contenders?
Realistically, based on the results of testing, three teams are capable of challenging for the world championship.
Mercedes are obviously going to be right up there, and are chasing an unprecedented sixth-straight drivers/constructors championship double. Five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is undoubtedly in career-best form as he looks to hunt down a number of records held by seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, including most championships, most race wins (Schumacher 91 to 73), most podiums (Schumacher 155 to 134), and most races led (Schumacher 142 to 129), while his teammate Valtteri Bottas will be looking for a vastly-improved performance in 2019 after finishing fifth in the world championship in 2018.
However, Mercedes face a huge battle to maintain their superiority against Ferrari, who have been very quick in testing in the hands of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and his new teammate Charles Leclerc, who will become the youngest driver to race for Ferrari since the late Ricardo Rodriguez (19 years and 208 days) in 1961 at the age of 21 years and 153 days.
Vettel, who is looking for a third-straight win in Australia, will be desperate to deliver Ferrari their first driver’s world championship since Kimi Räikkönen back in 2007, and the Prancing Horse have been quick in testing, leading the timesheets on four of the eight days of testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and if that is anything to go by, Ferrari will be serious championship contenders to Mercedes in 2019, but the obvious question marks will be whether Vettel and Ferrari can sustain a championship challenge for a full season against the juggernaut that is Hamilton and Mercedes, and whether Leclerc will prove a handful for Vettel, and deny the German the fifth world championship that he has been seeking since joining Ferrari in 2015?
The third team that appears to be a championship contender is Red Bull Racing-Honda with Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly. Verstappen is perhaps the most natural talent in Formula One today with the possible exception of Lewis Hamilton, and if he and Red Bull can get on a good run, they can challenge Mercedes and Ferrari for the world championship. However, the jury is still out on Gasly, and whether he can fill the large shoes of Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull.
Talking about Ricciardo, he is now with Renault for the 2019 season, driving alongside Nico Hülkenberg, and on the face of it, they look like they may well be the fourth-quickest, and the best of the rest behind Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. However, I don’t think Renault are quite at that level of being a championship contender just yet, but if there is a chance of a really strong result, you know Ricciardo will be there to take the opportunity, and maybe a race victory, which would be the eighth of his career, isn’t out of the realms of possibility!
However, a team that won’t be challenging anywhere near the front is Williams-Mercedes. It was a disastrous off-season for the great British team, with the team not getting their car out onto the track until the second half of the third day of testing in Barcelona, and appear comfortably behind the rest of the field, which is a shame considering the miraculous return to Formula One of Robert Kubica for the first time since 2010 after the shocking rally accident in February 2011, which he came close to losing his life.
Hopefully at some point in 2019, we can see Kubica and Williams in a competitive position, but that seems unlikely at the moment.
So, who is going to win the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, and perhaps the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship?
In regards to both, it is going to be battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, as well as Max Verstappen from Red Bull Racing-Honda, and despite speculation that they have been knocked off their perch, I think Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will rise to the top, and dominate the weekend at Albert Park, and the two times when he has won the Australian Grand Prix (2008, 2015), he has gone onto win the world championship, and if he gets off to the perfect start, it is going to be a tall order for anyone to stop him winning his sixth championship, and moving to within one of Michael Schumacher!
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.
The 2019 Australian Open is just about here, and we have got an exciting fortnight coming up from Melbourne Park, potentially an historic one with both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer looking to become the first player to win the Australian Open seven times.
Federer is also looking to claim his third-straight crown at Melbourne Park after defeating Rafael Nadal in 2017 and Marin Čilić in 2018 (both in five sets), and with that become the first male player, and the third player overall across both sexes (Serena Williams and Helen Wills Moody) to win two separate Grand Slam singles events at least seven times.
While Djokovic, who after Madrid in 2018, when he had just six wins and six losses for the season, and struggling to find his way after having elbow surgery after the 2018 Australian Open, won 47 of his last 53 matches in 2018 to reclaim the World No.1 ranking after slipping to 22nd in the world just before Roland Garros, returning to the top 10 after winning for the fourth time at the All England Club, and became the first end of year World No.1 not have won a title before Wimbledon in the same year. He will be looking to return to the form of his past glories at Melbourne Park after failing to make the quarter-finals in the last two years.
However, the 2019 Australian Open is not just about Roger and Novak, with Rafael Nadal, who had surgery to remove a floating piece of bone in his ankle after pulling out of 2018 ATP World Tour Finals due to an abdominal strain, looking to win his second Australian Open, and become just the third male player to win each Grand Slam singles event at least twice. Nadal has retired or withdraw from 17 of his last 18 official hard court tournaments (which included Davis Cup) that he was entered in, including withdrawing from his last seven.
Then we have the comebacks of Andy Murray from his hip problems, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from a knee injury, and then the potential challengers to Novak, Rafa, and Roger in Alexander Zverev, Kevin Anderson, Marin Čilić, Dominic Thiem, and Kei Nishikori among others who could challenge for the first Grand Slam title of 2019.
However, will there be a twist or two during the next fortnight? Let’s analyse the men’s singles draw.
Djokovic will face a qualifier in the opening round before facing either Tsonga, who he defeated to win his first Australian Open back in 2008, or Martin Kližan in the second round. Djokovic is slated to face the promising and talented Denis Shapovalov in the third round, before facing David Goffin or Daniil Medvedev, who had the most hard court wins in 2018 with 32, compared to Djokovic with 31, at the start of the second week, but assuming he is fit and healthy, no one is going to stop Djokovic going deep into the second week here.
My fourth round match-up: (1) Novak Djokovic vs. (15) Daniil Medvedev
Nishikori is the clear favourite to make it through this section, and meet Djokovic in the quarter-finals after climbing from 22nd to 9th in the world in 2018, but faces an awkward second round against big serving veteran Ivo Karlović, before facing Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round, and then either Fabio Fognini or Pablo Carreño Busta in the fourth round. In saying this, this section is easier on paper than Section One, and should pose no issues for the 2014 US Open finalist.
My fourth round match-up: (23) Pablo Carreño Busta vs. (8) Kei Nishikori
Zverev, who won four titles in 2018, including the ATP World Tour Finals, should make it through at least to the fourth round, where he will have a shot of making just his second grand slam quarter-final, but the first round match-ups which stand out are the ones between Stan Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis, and Nick Kyrgios and Milos Raonic, with the winners of each playing each other in the second round, with the winner of that to play last year’s Australian Open semi-finalist Hyeon Chung, who missed both Roland Garros and Wimbledon due to an ankle injury, who could face Sam Querrey in the second round, potentially the only roadblock to a blockbuster third round, and then potential Round of 16 with Zverev.
My fourth round match-up: (4) Alexander Zverev vs. (24) Hyeon Chung
On paper, it looks like a comfortable section for the 2018 Roland Garros finalist Thiem, who made his first Grand Slam quarter-final outside of Roland Garros at the US Open, where he was beaten by Nadal in a epic five set match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, but faces Benoît Paire in the opening round before facing 2017 Australian Open quarter-finalist Mischa Zverev, who defeated Murray in the fourth round as Murray’s physical issues started to become evident on-route to being subsequently smashed by Federer in the quarter-final, and then Lucas Pouille in the third round before a fourth round encounter with Borna Ćorić. The only real obstacle for Ćorić will be Marco Cecchinato in the third round, who became the first Italian to make a Grand Slam semi-final in 40 years at Roland Garros last year after defeating Djokovic in what was a huge upset.
My fourth round match-up: (11) Borna Ćorić vs. (7) Dominic Thiem
This is a really intriguing section of the draw with a big first round match-up between last year’s Australian Open finalist Čilić, and 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finalist Bernard Tomic, who has made the fourth round at Melbourne Park, and according to former Australian tennis player Paul McNamee believes Tomic is in best form for five years, around the time when Čilić and Tomic last met back in 2015 at Montreal, a match which Tomic won in the lead up to the 2015 US Open, where Čilić made the semi-finals in the defence of his 2014 crown. And, although Čilić made the final here last year, he has only made the quarter-finals or better here twice, making the semi-finals back in 2010, where Čilić defeated Tomic in a five set struggle in the second round. If there was to be a big upset in the opening round, this is the match where it could happen.
Regardless, the winner of this match-up could make it through to the third round to face Fernando Verdasco before a fourth round meeting with either Karen Khachanov, last year’s quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, Roberto Bautista Agut, or Murray. Both Bautista Agut and Murray face each other in the opening round in what is going to be a tough match for Murray, who has only played 14 matches in his comeback so far, and has announced his intention to retire from the sport at some point in 2019 due to his ongoing hip problems. I think patience is going to be the better part of valour over the next couple of months if Murray is to make a truly successful comeback.
My fourth round match-up: Bernard Tomic vs. (10) Karen Khachanov
Federer, although he faces Denis Istomin in the opening round, who of course defeated Djokovic in the second round two years ago, and Gaël Monfils in the third round, should have no problems making it to the Round of 16 to meet Greek youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas, who gave Federer some trouble over at the Hopman Cup in Perth. In saying this though, Federer is certainly a strong chance of going deep into the second week, and perhaps winning his 21st Grand Slam title.
My fourth round match-up: (14) Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. (3) Roger Federer
This is one of the more stronger sections of the draw with Anderson a chance of reuniting with John Isner in the fourth round in what would be re-match of the 2018 Wimbledon semi-final, which was the second-longest match in Wimbledon history, but has to get past Adrian Mannarino in the opening round, Frances Tiafoe in the second round, and either Steve Johnson, Andreas Seppi, or Feliciano López in the third round.
However, Isner has obstacles of his own to overcome as well, facing his fellow giant American Reilly Opelka in the first round, and then Grigor Dimitrov in third round, who looks to be returning close to his best after making the quarter-finals in Brisbane.
My fourth round match-up: (5) Kevin Anderson vs. (20) Grigor Dimitrov
Nadal, despite his fitness clouds, should have no problems making it through to the third round to play Alex de Minaur, who won his first ATP title in Sydney, and could meet either last year’s semi finalist Kyle Edmund, 2011 Wimbledon finalist Tomáš Berdych, or Diego Schwartzman in the fourth round. Both Edmund and Berdych will face each other in a blockbuster opening round, while Schwartzman should have little trouble in making the third round.
In any case, I can’t see anyone in this section right now capable of denying Nadal a passage through to the second week, and a shot at a second Australian Open crown.
My fourth round match-up: (18) Diego Schwartzman vs. (2) Rafael Nadal
My predicted quarter-final match-ups
(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (8) Kei Nishikori
(4) Alexander Zverev vs. (7) Dominic Thiem
(10) Karen Khachanov vs. (3) Roger Federer
(20) Grigor Dimitrov vs. (2) Rafael Nadal
My predicted semi-final match-ups
(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (4) Alexander Zverev
(3) Roger Federer vs. (2) Rafael Nadal
My predicted final
(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (3) Roger Federer
2019 Australian Open champion prediction
(3) Roger Federer
The 2019 Australian Open is just about here, and we have got an exciting fortnight coming up from Melbourne Park, and the dominating theme in regards to the women’s draw is the return of Serena Williams to the Australian Open for the first time since having her first child Alexis Olympia.
Of course Williams won the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant, and will play her first official tournament since last year’s US Open, when she lost to Naomi Osaka, a final dominated by the whole controversy with the code violation from Carlos Ramos for the coaching she received from Patrick Mouratoglou, and the whole argument from Serena that she has never cheated in her life, and the meltdown in her performance after that. If Williams were to win the 2019 Australian Open, it would be her first title since her victory at Melbourne Park two years ago, and she would equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
However, she is not the only contender, with the four grand slam winners of 2018 in Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Osaka looking to start 2019 in the best possible way.
The defending champion Wozniacki won three titles last year, but struggled after winning the second of those titles at Eastbourne, winning just seven of her next 13 matches, and later revealed that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis prior to the US Open, right in the middle of this poor form streak, while last year’s runner-up Halep finished as the end of year World No.1 for the second year in a row after winning her first grand slam title at Roland Garros after defeating Sloane Stephens in the final.
Kerber, who defeated Williams in the Wimbledon final in 2018 to win her third Grand Slam title, returned back to her best form after winning no titles in 2017, claiming two titles last year as she climbed from 21st at the start of the year back up to 2nd, and within striking distance of the No.1 ranking, while Osaka emerged to win her first career title at Indian Wells, and then claiming the US Open crown as she firmly secured her place as a Top 10 player.
Then we have the likes of Stephens, Elina Svitolina, Karolína Plíšková, and Petra Kvitová among others who are capable of challenging the five players above, and potentially take home the first Grand Slam of 2019.
But, could there be a surprise on the horizon? Let’s have a look at the women’s singles draw.
Section One is one of the more tougher sections of the draw, but in saying that, both Halep and Serena Williams should both make it through to the fourth round to meet in what could be a thrilling encounter. Halep, who lost in the second round in Sydney to Ashleigh Barty, has to overcome Kaia Kanepi in the opening round, while she could meet seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, or Mihaela Buzărnescu in the third round, while Serena, who won all three of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, could meet 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard in the second round before meeting either Carla Suárez Navarro or 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur in the third round.
My fourth round match-up: (1) Simona Halep vs. (16) Serena Williams
Section Two is another strong section of the draw, and although she could face Camila Giorgi in the third round, Plíšková should have no troubles making the Round of 16, where she could meet either Daria Kasatkina, Johanna Konta, or Garbiñe Muguruza. Konta and Muguruza are slated to meet in the second round, with Kasatkina waiting in the third round should either of them get through.
My fourth round match-up: (18) Garbiñe Muguruza vs. (7) Karolína Plíšková
Section Three is also another strong section of the women’s draw, but one which you would expect Osaka to survive and at least make it through to the fourth round, although she will need to overcome Daria Gavrilova in second round, and then either two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka or Hsieh Su-wei in the third round to make it through to meet either Anastasija Sevastova, who made the quarter-finals in Brisbane, or Wang Qiang, who lost to Barty in the final of the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai at the end of last year.
My fourth round match-up: (4) Naomi Osaka vs. (13) Anastasija Sevastova
Svitolina, who won the WTA Finals last year in Singapore, and 2017 US Open runner-up Madison Keys both feature in this section, and should both make it through to meet each other in the fourth round, but they will need to overcome 2014 Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulková, and last year’s semi-finalist Elise Mertens in the third round respectively to make it through to the second week.
My fourth round match-up: (17) Madison Keys vs. (6) Elina Svitolina
Talking about strong sections, Section Five of the draw is the strongest, but one you would expect Kvitová to navigate her way through successfully to meet either Lesia Tsurenko, who made the final in Brisbane, or Aryna Sabalenka, who won the title in Shenzhen, but lost in the first round to Kvitová in Sydney.
However, the two-time Wimbledon champion will have to overcome 2017 Wimbledon semi-finalist Magdaléna Rybáriková in the opening round before meeting 2011 Australian Open and US Open quarter-finalist Andrea Petkovic in the second round before meeting either Belinda Bencic, Kateřina Siniaková, Yulia Putintseva, or Barbora Strýcová in the third round.
My fourth round match-up: (8) Petra Kvitová vs. (24) Lesia Tsurenko
This section is not particular strong overall, but it has four big names in Wozniacki, 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova, 2017 Roland Garros champion Jeļena Ostapenko, and Barty, who is in career best form right now after finishing runner up to Kvitová in Sydney. At the moment, you would expect Barty and Wozniacki to make it through to face each other in a fourth round showdown, but before that, Barty will have to overcome Ostapenko, who she beat in the first round in Sydney, or Maria Sakkari in the third round, while the defending champion will have to conquer Sharapova in the same round.
My fourth round match-up: (15) Ashleigh Barty vs. (3) Caroline Wozniacki
If Stephens can find her best form, the 2017 US Open champion should have no problems in reaching the fourth round, but that could be a big if as she lost in the first round in Brisbane, second round in Sydney, and has lost in the first round in her last three appearances at Melbourne Park despite making the semi-finals back in 2013. If Stephens does make the Round of 16, she will meet either Anett Kontaveit, who made the quarter-finals in Brisbane, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who made the semi-finals in Sydney, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, or 2016 Roland Garros semi-finalist Kiki Bertens.
My fourth round match-up: (5) Sloane Stephens vs. (20) Anett Kontaveit
The final section of the draw is a reasonable section, one that 2016 Australian Open champion Kerber should be able to navigate successfully through to meet Julia Görges or Caroline Garcia in the fourth round, but Kerber will need to defeat either Donna Vekić or
Kristina Mladenovic in the third round in order to make it through to the second week.
My fourth round match-up: (14) Julia Görges vs. (2) Angelique Kerber
My predicted quarter-final match-ups
(16) Serena Williams vs. (7) Karolína Plíšková
(4) Naomi Osaka vs. (17) Madison Keys
(8) Petra Kvitová vs. (15) Ashleigh Barty
(20) Anett Kontaveit vs. (2) Angelique Kerber
My predicted semi-final match-ups
(16) Serena Williams vs. (4) Naomi Osaka
(8) Petra Kvitová vs. (2) Angelique Kerber
My predicted final
(16) Serena Williams vs. (8) Petra Kvitová
2019 Australian Open champion prediction
(16) Serena Williams