Movistar Yamaha MotoGP's Spanish rider Maverick Vinales celebrates after winning the 2017 Qatar MotoGPMovistar Yamaha MotoGP's Spanish rider Maverick Vinales celebrates after winning the 2017 Qatar MotoGP (AFP Photo/Karim JAAFAR)
Doha (AFP) - Spain's Maverick Vinales on a Yamaha won a dramatic season-opening Qatar MotoGP on Sunday, finally beating off Andrea Dovizioso after the pair swapped the lead several times over the final seven laps.
The 22-year-old Vinales, who took all the headlines in pre-season testing as well as practice in Qatar, shrugged off a poor start from pole position under the desert floodlights to win and further enhance his growing reputation.
"It feels great," he said immediately afterwards.
"Honestly, the track was so difficult. I was taking so much care at the start.
"Anyway, the bike was great. I have to say thanks to the team. Even if the conditions were difficult we were there all the time."
Vinales triumphed in a race reduced to 20 laps after rain and a wet track had delayed the start by 45 minutes and in a high-quality field which included 10 world champions.
In fact organisers were extremely lucky as the heavens again opened up immediately after the race ended in a weekend dominated by wet weather in Qatar, and which saw qualifying cancelled on Saturday because of thunderstorms.
Dovizioso on a Ducati finished a determined runner-up, while nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi took third on the second factory Yamaha despite having started in 10th place on the grid.
"It was very difficult," said Dovizioso. "We knew the race couldn't be so fast.
"At some points I tried to stay with Maverick until the end. I tried to overtake him on the last lap but he was too far."
Rossi said: "I don't know what happened but I was good.
"I was good in braking. I hope we understand enough in this race to continue in this way."
Defending world champion Marc Marquez, who had made it clear before the race he would be happy with a podium finish, was just edged out into fourth place on a Honda.
Vinales looked to have blown his chances early on after his poor start.
The early leader was France's Johann Zarco, who on his MotoGP debut riding a Yamaha Tech3, dominated the early laps taking a lead of more than a second into the sixth lap, before dramatically crashing out unchallenged at the head of the race.
But Vinales always stayed in contention and with seven laps to go was on the wheel of leader Italian Dovizioso.
His nimble Yamaha was enough to ensure he took the lead with a third of the race left but Dovizioso was far from finished.
There then followed a fascinating race of cat and mouse as Dovizioso regained his lead several times on his faster Ducati.
Adding more drama, 38-year-old veteran Rossi was always in touch and threatened to pull off a memorable victory.
But with two laps to go, Vinales finally took a decisive lead of over half a second and held on for victory.
Also crashing out were Italian Andrea Iannone, who left the race at the halfway mark while in third position, and Britain's Cal Crutchlow, an early faller.
It is the 14th time the race has been held in Qatar, the 10th time under floodlights.
The racers now head to Argentina for the next race on April 9.
In the Moto2 race, Italy's Franco Morbidelli, riding a Kalex, clinched a lights to flag victory.
The 22-year-old from Rome had started on pole position and took his first career win ahead of fellow Kalex riders, Thomas Luthi of Switzerland and Japan's Takaaki Nakagami.
Spain's Joan Mir, on a Honda, won the Moto3 event for his second career success.
The 19-year-old finished ahead of Britain's John McPhee and Spanish compatriot Jorge Martin as Honda swept the podium.