Casey Stoner's hopes of a fourth consecutive Qatar Grand Prix victory came to an abrupt end when the Australian crashed out of the lead early in Sunday's 2010 season-opener.

Few will be surprised to read that world champion Valentino Rossi subsequently won the race - his 104th in grand prix competition - but only after a thrilling race that finished with the top four riders covered by just 1.8sec.

Unbeaten in all four track sessions prior to the race, Stoner had slipped back to fourth at turn one before picking off Ducati team-mate Nicky Hayden, Rossi and the fast-starting Dani Pedrosa to take the lead on lap four of 22.

Rossi was slower to negotiate Pedrosa and by the time he took second, on lap six, Stoner was already over two-seconds clear - but that counted for nothing when the 2007 world champion lost the front of his Desmosedici at turn four and crashed out.

It marked the third time that Stoner has crashed out while leading a MotoGP race, after Brno and Misano in 2008.

That mistake should have handed Rossi a simple win, but the Fiat Yamaha star found 2006 title rival Hayden - who had qualified just ninth - stubbornly sticking with him, while Pedrosa's Repsol Honda was replaced at the front by team-mate Andrea Dovizioso.

The trio were less than a second apart as the halfway point of the 22 laps came and went, with Dovizioso taking over from Hayden as Rossi's biggest threat soon after.

With seven laps remaining Dovizioso was actively looking to pass the reigning seven time MotoGP champion - and briefly took the lead by pulling out of the #46's slipstream at the start of lap 16.

Rossi got him back on the brakes and seemed to be stung into action as he promptly pulled a slight gap on Dovizioso - who was momentarily passed by the ever-present Hayden later in the lap.

The closing laps saw Rossi finally gain breathing room up front, while Dovizioso, Hayden and a charging Jorge Lorenzo were nose-to-tail in the fight for the reaming podiums positions.

Lorenzo, was now the man of the moment, taking third from Hayden at turn one with two laps to go, then muscling Dovizioso out of second later in the lap for a Fiat Yamaha one-two.

Dovizioso's Honda had fearsome top speed, but Lorenzo defied his hand injury to hold off Dovi under braking for turn one - while Hayden snatched third from the Italian, who replaced him at Repsol Honda at the end of 2008, with just a few turns to go.

But Dovizioso held his nerve, got a smooth exit of the final turn then drafted past Hayden on the run to the line to take the final podium place by just 0.011sec.

Ben Spies fought his way forward from eleventh on the grid to claim a commendable fifth position - making him the top rookie and satellite rider - as the reigning World Superbike champion got to within 3.9sec of victory for Monster Yamaha Tech 3.

LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet dropped from fourth to ninth on lap one, before climbing back up the order to sixth, while Pedrosa deserved better than seventh after his early heroics.

Colin Edwards dropped to eleventh at the start and could only recover to eighth on the second Tech 3 machine, while Loris Capirossi - riding with the #300 to mark his record 300th grand prix start - was the only Rizla Suzuki rider to finish, in ninth.

Second-best rookie behind Spies, and the top rider without a previous MotoGP start, was reigning 250cc world champion Hiroshi Aoyama, who repeated his tenth on the grid at the end of the 21 laps for Interwetten Honda.

Former quarter-litre rival Marco Simoncelli ten seconds further behind for San Carlo Honda Gresini, with fellow rookie Hector Barbera less than one second behind in the Aspar Ducati's team's first ever premier-class race.

A lonely 13th and last was Simoncelli's experienced team-mate Marco Melandri, whose miserable Honda comeback continued in the race.

Joining Stoner in crashing out were Pramac Ducati riders Mika Kallio and Aleix Espargaro, plus Suzuki's rookie Alvaro Bautista - who also fell in qualifying and the warm-up.

The victory was Rossi's first in the opening roudn since 200 - and, to add to the drama, he ran out of fuel on the slowdown lap.

Qatar Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Lorenzo
3. Dovizioso
4. Hayden
5. Spies
6. de Puniet
7. Pedrosa
8. Edwards
9. Capirossi
10. Aoyama
11. Simoncelli
12. Barbera
13. Melandri