New Repsol Honda rider Casey Stoner and team-mate Dani Pedrosa were neck-and-neck for the first half of Sunday's season-opening Qatar Grand Prix, until the Spaniard suddenly dropped away.

Stoner - fastest in every track session except warm-up, when Pedrosa moved ahead - seemed unable to repeat his practice pace early in the race, and looked to be trying hard just to stay with Pedrosa.

Indeed, Pedrosa looked to have a real chance of escaping, but by lap nine of 22 Stoner was suddenly back on the Spaniard's rear wheel.

Pedrosa later explained that he was struggling with his left arm, following a multiple collarbone fracture at Motegi last year, and couldn't control the bike or use the clutch properly.

But he was still lightening-fast out of the final corner and down the straight, leaving Stoner to seek a more inventive move through the twister sections.

That came on lap 12, at turn 12, after which Stoner rode away to a 3.440sec victory - but not over Pedrosa.

Yamaha's reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo, who has spent much of the winter warning about the strength of the factory Hondas, came out fighting as he muscled his way past the Repsol Hondas to lead the opening lap.

Back in third by the end of lap two, Lorenzo nevertheless kept the orange RCVs in sight, and sensed blood when Pedrosa began to weaken.

Facing a significant top speed disadvantage, Lorenzo had to work hard to extract second from Pedrosa, and the pair swapped places numerous times before Lorenzo gained the upper hand.

Lorenzo seemed happier, and was certainly more animated, than any other rider after the race, while a dejected Pedrosa finished five-seconds from Stoner in third.

Third Repsol Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso and Gresini Honda's Marco Simoncelli, also on a factory bike, slugged it out for almost the entire race before Dovizioso shook-off his fellow Italian for fourth in the closing stages.

Ben Spies dropped from fifth to eighth on lap one, and finished his factory Yamaha debut in sixth place after battling his predecessor Valentino Rossi for much of the race.

The Italian superstar began his first race for Ducati in ninth, concerned by both the strength of his healing shoulder and set-up of his Desmosedici, after a winter in which he had failed to trouble the leading Hondas and Yamahas.

But Rossi is famous for putting up a fight on race day, particularly when the odds are against him, and the seven time MotoGP champion made an instant impact in 'red' as he momentarily grabbed second into turn one.

It was an optimistic move, the angle of which inevitably sent Rossi wide, and he slotted back into sixth - a position he stubbornly defended from Spies.

Spies persistently ran wide when trying to pass Rossi into turn one, but the Italian had a scare on lap 16 as he tried desperately to keep the Texan at bay and he backed off thereafter.

Rossi eventually crossed the line in seventh, as the top Ducati, but was 16 seconds from Stoner and six seconds from Spies.

Experienced Americans Colin Edwards (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and Nicky Hayden (Ducati Marlboro) were eighth and ninth, with Hiroshi Aoyama tenth on the second Gresini Honda.

Cal Crutchlow's first grand prix in any class saw the Tech 3 rider, who impressed by claiming eighth in qualifying despite pain from his injured finger, hold ninth in the early stages before slipping to twelfth.

The Englishman then finished his first race positively by overtaking Aspar Ducati's Hector Barbera on the very last lap.

Crutchlow's fellow rookie Karel Abraham (Cardion AB Ducati) was the 13th and final rider to see the chequered flag.

Both Pramac Ducatis failed to finish after some exceptional bad luck: Randy de Puniet highsided on the opening lap while trying to overtake team-mate Loris Capirossi, the Frenchman's bike then clipping Capirossi's hand and forcing him to retire soon after.

Toni Elias crashed out at far higher speed on lap 19, while 14th and last for LCR Honda.

All riders used the harder option front and rear tyre.

Suzuki's only 2011 MotoGP rider, Alvaro Bautista, missed the race after breaking his left femur in a Friday night highside. Former Suzuki MotoGP rider John Hopkins will ride in place of Bautista during round two, at Jerez from April 1-3.

Honda hasn't won the first race of the season since 2003, with Rossi.

Qatar Grand Prix:

1. Stoner
2. Lorenzo
3. Pedrosa
4. Dovizioso
5. Simoncelli
6. Spies
7. Rossi
8. Edwards
9. Hayden
10. Aoyama
11. Crutchlow
12. Barbera
13. Abraham



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