Despite qualifying fourth on the grid, behind three Michelin-shod Yamahas, Stoner was a firm pre-race favourite - but the young Australian had to work hard before he finally hit the front, on lap 8 of 22.

Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa got a lightening start from eighth on the grid to lead the 18-rider field into the first turn of the 2008 season, with rookie James Toseland and Tech 3 Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards second and third, just ahead of rookie pole sitter Jorge Lorenzo of the factory team.

Valentino Rossi began his first grand prix with Bridgestone tyres by gaining two positions through the opening turns, placing the seven-times world champion between new team-mate Lorenzo and sixth-placed Stoner.

Stoner appeared to almost sit back and wait during the opening laps, while those ahead of him frantically fought for position, although a more technical theory was that he was saving fuel to be unleashed later.

By contrast, Lorenzo proved his nickname correct with a brave 'around-the-outside' pass on both Tech 3 riders at turn one, only to find combative fellow rookie Toseland shoving brutally back past him soon after.

Rossi then relegated Lorenzo a further position, before both Fiat Yamahas used their pneumatic-valve power to demote Toseland two places in one move along the 1 km main straight.

The Doctor was now free to hunt down Pedrosa, who had capitalised on the battles behind to build an early lead of 1.5secs - despite an injured hand - and the Spaniard was soon being reeled in by the charging Italian.

Rossi took the lead for the first time in 2008 on lap 5, but had dragged Lorenzo, Stoner and another fast rookie, Andrea Dovizioso, with him.

Pedrosa soon lost second place to countryman Lorenzo, then handed third to Stoner by running wide at turn one while trying to retaliate. It was now lap 7 and Stoner was firmly on the attack, the #1 slipping neatly past Lorenzo before, in a repeat of one year ago, rocketing by Rossi along the home straight - his Desmosedici now showing the kind of peerless top speed expected.

But the race wasn't over yet. Just behind Stoner, Lorenzo proved he isn't afraid to take on illustrious team-mate Rossi as the reigning 250cc world champion ran the Italian right to the edge of the track as he retook second position.

Lorenzo was predicted to run a strong race and the #48 kept his hopes of a dream debut victory alive by closing quickly onto Stoner's rear wheel - then sticking with him as the pair pulled clear of Rossi, who was left facing increasing pressure from Pedrosa, Dovizioso, Toseland and Edwards.

Stoner eventually broke Lorenzo's spirited challenge with seven laps to go, then built up a five-second victory margin by the time he took the chequered flag, but the Australian will surely be seeing a lot more of his former 250cc rival in the races ahead.

Meanwhile, the battle behind was much closer, with Rossi clearly struggling for grip during the second half of the race and, after holding off Pedrosa for several laps, the Spaniard out-accelerated Rossi onto the main straight to take third place on lap 15.

Valentino was unable to respond and instead had his hands full trying to defend fourth from rookies Dovizioso and Toseland. Dovizioso plucked up the courage to dive inside The Doctor on lap 20, but Rossi quickly swatted his young countryman back to fifth.

However, the 250cc title runner-up - himself under pressure from Toseland - repeated his hairpin move on the very last lap and this time Rossi couldn't counter attack, Vale crossing the finish line just 0.017secs behind the satellite Honda rider.

Toseland completed a very impressive grand prix debut by finishing a fraction behind Rossi in sixth, with team-mate Colin Edwards seventh after a much more 'quiet' than his one-second deficit to Toseland might suggest.

Of the top seven riders, only Stoner and Rossi were on Bridgestone tyres and - despite Stoner's victory - the Japanese manufacturer's pre-race fears over the cool temperatures seemed to prove accurate, with the last seven riders all on Bridgestones.

Loris Capirossi was the third best Bridgestone rider in eighth, on his Rizla Suzuki debut, while Randy de Puniet dropped from fifth to ninth during his first race for Honda LCR.

Third placed Pedrosa - pushed into parc ferme after his 2008 Honda ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap - was all smiles as he returned to pit lane, but Repsol Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden - riding a 2007 spec RC212V - had a race to forget, the 2006 world champion crossing the line in tenth position.

Eleventh for Stoner's team-mate Marco Melandri was actually a substantial improvement on his practice form, while John Hopkins finished his Kawasaki debut in a disappointing twelfth.

A fast late-race fall for Alex de Angelis meant Shinya Nakano was the only San Carlo Honda Gresini rider to reach the flag, in 13th, while Alice Team riders Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli collected the final world championship points for 14th and 15th.

Hopkins' factory team-mate Anthony West was spared the embarrassment of finishing last, but only after countryman Chris Vermeulen was forced to make a pit stop due to apparent tyre problems.

Qatar Grand Prix:

1. Stoner
2. Lorenzo
3. Pedrosa
4. Dovizioso
5. Rossi
6. Toseland
7. Edwards
8. Capirossi
9. de Puniet
10. Hayden
11. Melandri
12. Hopkins
13. Nakano
14. Elias
15. Guintoli
16. West
17. Vermeulen



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