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.

Having assessed the situation, Rossi put his head down and re-caught Hayden - allowing The Doctor to administer a copy of the American's turn one pass on the very next lap - and, with the top three now nose-to-tail, the grand prix was to be decided by a two lap sprint.

Rossi, who later explained that his bike felt better as the tyres began to deteriorate - the loss of grip helping calm the chatter - proved typically faultless, pulling several bike lengths just when it was most needed while Hayden's Honda appeared to slide a little as he took it to the limit. A head down Rossi thus blasted past the chequered flag to win his 54th 500cc/MotoGP race since 2000 by 0.9secs, with Hayden holding off Capirossi by half a second.

After ending his three race losing streak (since Phillip Island 2005) an animated Rossi rode through the gravel and parked his M1 against a trackside barrier, under a camera boom, before dismounting and kissing the camera lens. He then returned to his M1 and enthusiastically patted the #46 before finishing his slow down lap.

Valentino's latest victory means that only Giacomo Agostini, who took 68 500cc wins, has had more success in the premier-class - and he has now climbed to fourth in the early 2006 championship standings, 14-points behind Capirossi, with Hayden and Pedrosa separating the Italians heading to round three, in Turkey, on April 30.

Meanwhile, 4.6secs behind Rossi at the flag was Gibernau, who took his first Ducati finish in fourth position. The Catalan, who was forced to retire at Jerez, rode effortlessly around Stoner on the start-finish straight with three laps to go after the Australian was thrown out of his seat on the exit of the final corner.

With Pedrosa behind Stoner in sixth, and Melandri seventh, sick front row starter Toni Elias brought the second Fortuna Honda home in a lonely eighth, 7secs behind Melandri and 3secs clear of Rossi's Camel Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards, who looks like he'll have to go back to 'first principles' with the set-up of his 2006 M1.

Kenny Roberts Jr, fastest on Thursday, collected a solid but unspectacular tenth on the new KR211V, while Nakano faded to eleventh - one place clear of the Dunlop shod Tech3 Yamaha of Carlos Checa. James Ellison boosted his confidence by finishing one place behind his experienced team-mate while the troubled Makoto Tamada and recovering Alex Hofmann completed the points scorers.

Of the three riders that failed to finish, Rizla Suzuki were the hardest hit with both John Hopkins and then Chris Vermeulen joining de Puniet on the DNF list after both suffered technical failures. Hopkins had charged from 13th on the grid to 8th when his GSV-R stopped on lap 5 and - having suffered no end of similar engine problems throughout the weekend - Hopper's patience in such failures finally ran out.

The #21 repeatedly kicked his motionless machine after dumping it against the trackside barrier, and then punched the ground as he let off further steam. Unfortunately for the Anglo-American, it was all caught on camera, but perhaps such a graphic display of total frustration will help 'motivate' the Suzuki factory into much needed action.

Qatar Grand Prix:

1. Rossi
2. Hayden
3. Capirossi
4. Gibernau
5. Stoner
6. Pedrosa
7. Melandri
8. Elias
9. Edwards
10. Roberts
11. Nakano
12. Checa
13. Ellison
14. Tamada
15. Hofmann
16. Cardoso



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