- WSL / Matt Dunbar
- WSL / Matt Dunbar

With four of the 10 women's Championship Tour events completed, the caliber of the contestants could make the 2019 World Title race a vintage year. Lakey Peterson's victory at the Margaret River Pro means the Jeep Leaderboard is incredibly bunched at the top with at least six surfers in contention.

MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA - MAY 29: Seven-time WSL Champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia, wearing the yellow Jeep Leader jersey advances directly to Round 3 of the 2019 Margaret River Pro after placing second in Heat 3 of Round 1 at Main Break o Stephanie Gilmore has the lead, but there are plenty of contenders close behind. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

Going into the Oi Rio Pro, there is now less than 3,000 ranking points between the Jeep Leader Stephanie Gilmore and World No. 6 Peterson. As a comparison, at the same stage of the season last year Gilmore, who also held the Jeep Leader jersey, had accumulated 5,000 more ratings points. By that stage it was only Lakey Peterson who was showing any real signs of being able to hang on to the Australian.

In 2019 it's a very different, and exciting, picture. Gilmore's lead is being propped up on far less stable footings. Her victory at the Corona Bali Protected is supported by three other Quarterfinal finishes. However her form in Bali, best illustrated by a 10-point ride in the Final, showed that she is still desperate, and serious, about claiming an 8th World Title.

Stephanie Gilmore - 10.00
Stephanie Gilmore - 10.00

"I'm feeling really good. My coach Jake Paterson and I have a really good recipe and also Kanoa (Igarashi) and I have really been learning off each other," the 30-year-old said in Margaret River. "It's funny to be on the CT and still be learning so much, but it's a great feeling. I have real confidence and I hope that will keep on rolling through the year."

Yet Gilmore will have to face down a bigger and stronger pack of rivals if she is to break Layne Beachley's record of seven World Titles. The presence of Courtney Conlogue, who was injured this time last year, and Caroline Marks, who was finding her feet in her rookie year in 2018, have added significant depth to the field.

Add a strong start from perennial contender Sally Fitzgibbons, the consistency of 3x World Champion Carissa Moore and revival of Peterson and you can see why the Oi Rio Pro could be pivotal in shaping the race.

MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA - JUNE 4: Lakey Peterson of the United States advances to the final of the 2019 Margaret River Pro after winning Semi Final Heat 2 at Main Break on June 4, 2019 in Margaret River, Western Australia. (Photo by Kelly Cestar Lakey Peterson ready to pounce. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

"That one feels so good. I've had two throwaway results off the bat at two events I really love and enjoy," Peterson said after the win in Western Australia referring to early loses on the Gold Coast and Bali. "So to get a win here after a third at Bells means I feel I am really right back in the World Title conversation. It's a long year, so much can happen, but I'm back in the picture."

Marks too can say the same. The 17-year-old finished a remarkable 7th in her rookie year in 2018, and her upward trajectory to a World Title has continued in 2019. While she has relinquished the Jeep Leader Jersey to Gilmore after an electric start to the season, the goofyfooter is clearly a better competitor and surfer than last year.

MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA - MAY 29: Caroline Marks of the United States advances directly to Round 3 of the 2019 Margaret River Pro after winning Heat 1 of Round 1 at Main Break on May 29, 2019 in Margaret River, Western Australia. (Photo by Kelly Caroline Marks all smiles with a singlet on. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

"When I have the jersey on I get this confidence and I want to impress everyone," Marks said on her way to the Quarterfinals in Margaret River. "I'm still learning, but I'm having the time of my life. This is right where I want to be."

Of course the same could be said for the veterans Moore, Fitzgibbons and Conlogue who despite having a collective three decades on the CT -- still clearly don't want to be anywhere else. A first World Title or, in the case of Moore a fourth, remains their driving ambition. Clumped tightly together as the World No. 3, 4 and 5, a first 2019 CT win for any of these surfers in Rio would go a long way to furthering that ambition.

Sally Fitzgibbons - 8.17
Sally Fitzgibbons - 8.17

It would be foolish to rule out the likes of Tatiana Weston-Webb and Malia Manuel who lurk dangerously down the Jeep Leaderboard. The Oi Rio Pro won't be definitive, but it will be crucial. The best World Title race in years is warming up. There is no doubt the heat will be turned up a notch in Brazil.

Watch the Oi Rio Pro live June 20-28 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.

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