Home hero Nicky Hayden has taken a lights-to-flag victory in the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, the Repsol Honda rider finally claiming his first ever MotoGP win after a faultless display that saw him fend off the dual attack of Yamaha stars Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi under the bright Californian sun.

Qualifying had seen Hayden convert his dominant free practice pace into a first ever MotoGP pole - on his 38th attempt and after almost two and a half years of trying - as he used all his local knowledge to claim a significant 0.354secs advantage over world champion Rossi.

The factory Yamaha rider would set his best time with two laps to go, prior to which Hayden had held a near one-second lead over his nearest rival. Indeed, despite Rossi's late pressure, third on the grid Alex Barros was left a worrying 0.642secs from the flying American.

That form would suggest that Hayden and Rossi would be the men to beat this afternoon, setting up a fascinating duel between the former team-mates - whose situations couldn't be more different: Hayden, now in his third year of MotoGP competition, desperately needed a first victory, while Rossi had won six of the last seven races and held a huge 63-point championship lead.

But the normally supreme Rossi had been made to look a little more human by the spectacular, and in places plain scary, Laguna Seca circuit - prompting some to question how much he would risk himself and his points lead today - while Hayden has, by contrast, never looked so fast and comfortable... a distinction underlined when Nicky led the morning warm-up, with Rossi just seventh.

However, with Yamaha's much publicised 50th Anniversary celebrations taking place this weekend - and The Doctor's considerable pride at stake - there was little chance of the Italian handing Hayden, or anyone else, what would be an historic first MotoGP victory in the USA.

Certainly, with third to ninth on the grid - Barros, Bayliss, Edwards, Hopkins, Biaggi, Checa and Tamada - covered by 0.4secs, the fight at the front would be hard to call. And what could Hayden's fellow countrymen Colin Edwards, John Hopkins and Kenny Roberts do for their home fans? Would Honda Pons team-mates Alex Barros and Troy Bayliss repeat their practice form?

Before the race, many were warning that the one lap qualifying times were not an accurate representation of what would follow in the 32 lap race - with the steep uphill start, inevitable thrills 'n' spills and not least tyre endurance expected to shake up the order by the chequered flag. In short, anything and everything seemed possible.

And so, following a sombre one-minute silence in memory of the London bombing victims, the red lights went out - accompanied by the deafening sound of roaring engines and cheering fans - to mark the start of the first US GP since 1994 - and it was Hayden who had the honour of leading the 21-rider field up and over the steep turn one crest and into the double apex Andretti hairpin with Bayliss, Rossi, Hopkins, Checa, Gibernau, Edwards and a poor starting Barros in hot pursuit.

Nicky then promptly set off like a rocket, while Rossi was soon past Bayliss for second - but further back Barros's hopes would last less than a lap when he appeared to be clipped by second in the championship Melandri at the final turn, felling both riders.

Meanwhile, by the end of lap one Hayden held a one-second lead over Rossi - and would relentlessly increase that advantage over the following laps as he attempted to disappear into the distance. The tactic worked until lap 5, when Rossi hit his own comfort zone and halted Hayden's lead at 1.7secs.

But while a respectful distance separated the top two, the fight for third between Bayliss, Biaggi and Edwards was bar-to-bar at each and every turn - Biaggi snatching the group lead into the sweeping turn 6 on lap 3, but a slight mistake on the exit saw him mugged by both his rivals on the uphill charge to the corkscrew, with Gibernau then appearing from nowhere to demote Max a further position before he reached the first apex of the spectacular downhill turn.

Of that group, it was new third placed man Edwards who soon proved to have the most pace, the Texan pulling quickly clear as he attempted to reign in the top two, starting with team-mate Rossi, already some two-seconds ahead. The #5 trimmed it to 1.5secs over the following laps, but then the top three seemed to hit their limits - neither able to close or drop the other.

At that stage the race looked like it could go to any of the trio, but at around one third distance Hayden broke the deadlock as he increased his lead up to 2.8secs. But Nicky wasn't the only American digging deep, with Edwards matching the race leader to close onto Rossi's rear wheel - the Italian, for the first time in a long time, looking like the weak link in the three-rider chain.

But with times so close, Edwards was in danger of becoming trapped behind the #46 - or so many thought. However, The Tornado had other ideas and would pull the kind of pass only a Laguna veteran could deliver, by neatly diving up the inside of Rossi on the entrance to the corkscrew.

Free from his team-mate, Edwards would start to slowly but surely chip away at Hayden's lead - charging to within 1.8secs of the RCV rider by lap 19. However, the effort had taken its toll on the #5's tyres and, despite his efforts to stand the yellow M1 up as soon as possible out of turns, he began to gradually lose ground to Nicky.

That marked the end of Hayden's opposition and only a mistake could deprive the former AMA Superbike champion of a maiden victory, but the #69 was simply faultless right to the flag.

Meanwhile, the closing stages saw Rossi mount a late attack on his team-mate, and the world champion would start the last lap within striking distance of the former World Superbike champion as he sought to split the US one-two.

However, it was a tough task to expect even the Italian legend to find a way past Laguna expert Edwards and, with no obvious gap available, Rossi was left to cross the line 0.4secs behind the American - and extend his title lead to 79-points. Nevertheless, the US GP marked the first time this season that Rossi has been beaten by his team-mate.

But while the factory Yamaha riders were exchanging congratulations, man of the moment Hayden was already releasing the masses of frustration and pressure which had been building for the past few seasons. The Kentuckian had punching the air with delight as he crossed the line, then picking up an American flag for the remainder of an emotional, and animated, slow down lap that saw the 58,000 strong crowd hailing their hero...

...And when he got back to pit lane, Nicky picked up something a lot more valuable than the flag - his Dad! In what was later explained as a repeat of the celebrations that followed Nicky's first major dirt track win many years ago, Earl hopped on the back of the factory RCV before his son set off for a second slow down lap! Few, except maybe a few Dorna officials, saw it as anything other than a brilliant moment.

Behind the top three, Biaggi crossed the line two-seconds from Rossi after winning a tough duel with Gibernau, which had lasted ever since the corkscrew pass on lap 3, while a massive 18-seconds would separate the Movistar Honda rider from sixth placed Bayliss.

Bayliss, Tamada, Hopkins and Nakano delivered one of the best battles of the event as they disputed the position; the Australian held firm at the head of the group for much of the race, but Tamada put a brave pass to dive inside Hopkins for seventh into turn one on lap 26.

The sole factory Ducati to reach the flag was Loris Capirossi, who finished almost three-seconds from Nakano on a day when team-mate Carlos Checa crashed out of seventh place on lap 9, the Spaniard losing the front into the turn 2 hairpin.

The fourth American in the field, Kenny Roberts, recorded a forgettable fourteenth place at the flag, but at least his father - Kenny Roberts Sr - was able to watch his rider Shane Byrne finish 15th for Team Roberts' first world championship point of the season.

US Grand Prix:

1. Hayden
2. Edwards
3. Rossi
4. Biaggi
5. Gibernau
6. Bayliss
7. Tamada
8. Hopkins
9. Nakano
10. Capirossi
11. Xaus
12. Hofmann
13. Elias
14. Roberts
15. Byrne
16. Ellison
17. Battaini