MOTOGP: Round 1 – Losail, Qatar – 11 April

Habitual Qatar MotoGP winner Casey Stoner looked well on the way to cruising to another victory here, topping every timesheet ahead of the race itself and effortlessly securing pole. None of his rivals seriously thought they were doing anything more than fighting for the runners-up positions. And yet it’s precisely when the outcome is so assured that the funniest things happen …

It wasn’t the best of starts for Stoner, sluggish off the start allowing Valentino Rossi to get past him while Dani Pedrosa surpassed them both with a trademark flying effort from ninth on the grid to lead into the first turn. Instead of flying off into the distance, Stoner was left to squabble over fourth place with his own team mate Nicky Hayden.

But normality was soon restored: Stoner was finding his natural pace to ease past Rossi on lap 2 and then following it up by blasting past Pedrosa down the start-finish straight into turn 1 on lap 3. Stoner look comfortable in front, setting a new fastest lap and pulling out more than a 2s lap over Rossi, Pedrosa, Hayden and Dovizioso after five laps. All was going to plan.

And then the plan disappeared in a puff of gravel dust, as Stoner simply lost the front end of the Ducati and went skating off the track. That was it – the dead cert winner was gone, and Rossi suddenly found himself gifted the ideal opportunity to grasp 25pts in the championship.

Not that it was plain sailing for Rossi, because he would be challenged all the way to the end of the race – just not by Danid Pedrosa. Pedrosa’s flying starts may be spectacular but they’re also short-lived, and sure enough the Spaniard was soon plummeting down the order. However, almost acting as a counterweight to his rapidly declining performance was his team mate, Andrea Dovizioso, who got better and better as the laps went by, besting Hayden and then slashing the gap to the leader in the middle stages of the race.

Dovizioso’s Honda was performing spectacularly well, out-gunning both Rossi’s Yamaha and even the legendary grunt of Hayden’s Ducati down the lengthy start-finish straight. It was soon dawning on Rossi that he was a sitting duck going into turn 1 and it was only a matter of time before Dovizioso would roar past him. Rossi had to focus on pulling out enough of a gap through the twisty infield where the more nimble Yamaha had the advantage, and then blocking for all he was worth down the straight. Dovizioso was even credited with the lead at the end of lap 16, before Rossi managed to narrowly outbrake him into the first corner to take back the top spot.

That was the high water of Dovizioso’s challenge, with increasing pressure from Hayden behind starting to distract him from fighting Rossi. Hayden managed to briefly take second on lap 17 before Dovizioso once again applied that massive Honda horsepower to the problem to wrest the position back down the strart-finish straight a few corners later. But it was also very close, very fierce racing.

And then from behind a new threat reared. Jorge Lorenzo had been almost anonymous throughout the race, seemingly settling for a lonely sixth position almost from the green flag as a good damage limitation result given his nasty hand injury. But the Dovizioso/Hayden battle in front seemed to inspire new fire in him in the closing three laps, as first he caught the battling duo and then pulled off two highly aggressive and even more effective overtaking moves to suddenly pop into second place and make it a Yamaha one-two. Small wonder that the Spaniard was beaming from ear to ear afterwards, and hailing this success as better than some of the race victories he’s had.

Dovizioso and Hayden continued their battle right to the end, exchanging places twice on the final lap and then having it all come down to the superior Honda engine power down the final straight to let Dovizioso sneak the final podium position by a cat’s whisker (or 0.011s in technical terms.)

Right behind them, MotoGP rookie (and world superbikes champion) Ben Spies had a highly satisfactory and impressive run to fifth place ahead of Randy de Puniet and Pedrosa, who had finally slumped back to seventh place. Retirements included Mika Kallio (who lost the front and skated off into the gravel on lap 2), Aleix Espargaro (engine problems) and Alvaro Bautista, who crashed on the final turn of the race while battling with Marco Simoncelli.

All in all though it was an exciting and highly unpredictable start to the MotoGP season – really not at all what we expected, and all the better for it. Just to add to the slightly surreal outcome was the sight of Rossi coming to a halt out on track and needing a lift to get back to the winners’ enclosure, seemingly the result of running out a fuel after that extended battle with Dovizioso. That was cutting it very, very fine!

No matter – it was the only glitch in the world champion’s triumphant floodlit evening in Qatar.

Race result

Pos  Rider                 Bike           Result
 1.  Valentino Rossi       Yamaha     42m50.099s
 2.  Jorge Lorenzo         Yamaha        +1.022s
 3.  Andrea Dovizioso      Honda         +1.865s
 4.  Nicky Hayden          Ducati        +1.876s
 5.  Ben Spies             Yamaha        +3.903s
 6.  Randy De Puniet       Honda         +9.322s
 7.  Dani Pedrosa          Honda        +16.508s
 8.  Colin Edwards         Yamaha       +19.867s
 9.  Loris Capirossi       Suzuki       +20.893s
10.  Hiroshi Aoyama        Honda        +21.100s
11.  Marco Simoncelli      Honda        +31.638s
12.  Hector Barbera        Ducati       +32.573s
13.  Marco Melandri        Honda        +40.780s

Not Classified

     Alvaro Bautista       Suzuki        +1 lap
     Aleix Espargaro       Ducati       +15 laps
     Casey Stoner          Ducati       +17 laps
     Mika Kallio           Ducati       +20 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver            Points
1   Valentino Rossi   25
2   Jorge Lorenzo     20
3   Andrea Dovizioso  16
4   Nicky Hayden      13
5   Ben Spies         11
6   Randy de Puniet   10
7   Daniel Pedrosa    9
8   Colin Edwards     8
9   Loris Capirossi   7
10  Hiroshi Aoyama    6
11  Marco Simoncelli  5
12  Hector Barbera    4
13  Marco Melandri    3

Pos Constructor       Points
1   Yamaha            25
2   Honda             16
3   Ducati            13
4   Suzuki            7
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