MotoGP World Champion Valentino Rossi has won his first race since last October after taking a tense victory over Nicky Hayden in today's Qatar Grand Prix - an achievement that also put him level with Mick Doohan on 54 premier-class wins.
Casey Stoner, who had sensationally led all but one of the five sessions leading up to the start of his second ever MotoGP race - including a brilliant debut pole position in qualifying, got a perfect start to lead the 19-rider field through turn one - with Jerez winner Loris Capirossi, Rossi and a fast starting Shinya Nakano in close attendance.
Nakano had rocketed his Kawasaki from ninth on the grid, and was soon looking even further ahead as he immediately began battling with Rossi for third - the Italian resisted and both lost out as Hayden cut past them, then demoted Capirossi from second a few corners later.
Rossi soon regrouped, climbing to third by the end of lap one - behind Stoner and Hayden - with Capirossi, Gibernau, Melandri, Nakano, Edwards, Hopkins, Elias, Pedrosa, Vermeulen, Checa, Roberts, Tamada, Cardoso, Ellison and Hofmann completing the now 18 rider line-up; Kawasaki's rookie Randy de Puniet having crashed out at the hairpin (forcing Hofmann through the gravel in the process).
Those two aside, one of the biggest losers on the opening lap was Jerez runner-up Pedrosa, who had slipped back from fifth on the grid to eleventh. Dani soon began a spirited fight back, passing the likes of Nakano, Elias and Edwards before catching Melandri at the halfway point - then battling bar-to-bar with the 2005 world championship runner-up for the rest of the race.
Pedrosa eventually won that ferocious fight to net sixth at the flag, but - without the poor start - could have achieved so much more; a point proven by the Spaniard setting the second fastest lap of the race - a mere 0.076secs slower than Rossi - and crossing the finish line just three-seconds behind long time race leader Stoner.
Casey had controlled the first half of the grand prix like a seasoned star, keeping his customer spec LCR Honda just out of reach of first Hayden and then Rossi, before the five times MotoGP champion finally burst past, at the hairpin, just before the midway point. The 20-year-old Australian clung to his hero's rear wheel for the next lap, and was far from out of his depth, but Hayden soon slipstreamed past the #27 into turn one, with Capirossi quickly 'bullying' Casey out of third by lap 13 of 22.
The experienced top three were then left to their own devices, with Rossi expected to try and break Hayden early but - to the surprise of some - Nicky stuck with the Italian as they edged slightly clear of Loris. The Repsol Honda rider, eager to re-establish his authority within the factory Honda team after Pedrosa's stunning arrival, stalked Rossi for several laps before neatly taking the lead into turn one, on lap 19.
As Nicky slotted ahead, Rossi glanced purposely over his shoulder to check on Capirossi who, in typical fashion, was still hanging on to the top two like a determined pit bull chasing its favourite toy - and had been put firmly back in touch after the position change just ahead.