(Reuters) - MotoGP’s youngest world champion Marc Marquez won the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix on Sunday after a thrilling duel in Doha with the old master of motorcycling, Italian Valentino Rossi.
Starting from pole position at the Losail circuit only six weeks after he broke his leg in a training accident, the 21-year-old Spaniard crossed the finish line a mere 0.259 of a second ahead of the 35-year-old great.
Dani Pedrosa, Marquez’s team mate and compatriot, was a distant third.
Marquez’s leg, fractured when he fell off a dirt bike near his home last month, had been the rider’s biggest worry with the Spaniard barely able to walk a week ago but he looked comfortable throughout.
“I enjoyed that race a lot,” he smiled. “After the injury and everything I did not expect that result, honestly.
“But yesterday I had a good feeling and today, the last lap with Valentino, I didn’t think about the leg, I didn’t think about the injury. I pushed 100 percent.”
In the end it was the resurgent Rossi, seven times a champion in the top category of motorcycling but seemingly entering the twilight of his career, who posed the biggest threat of the night.
Starting from 10th place on the grid, the Italian was leading after nine laps with early leaders Jorge Lorenzo and Stefan Bradl both crashing out into the gravel in a shower of sparks.
“Starting from 10th position, already second is a great result,” grinned Rossi. “I had the potential to try, I tried and tried but unfortunately at the end I was a little bit too far (behind).
“I enjoyed it very much, it was a great race. I hope to continue like this,” added the Italian, who also finished second in 2013 when Marquez came third on his debut.
“Last year I fought here with Valentino, he won that battle,” said Marquez. “And this year we won.”
Lorenzo, the twice world champion who won in Qatar last year, seized the lead from the second row at the start but crashed before the lap was out when the front end of the bike went from under him.
With an ice pack on his left elbow, the Spaniard blamed himself.
“I made a mistake. The tires were different to last year, the temperature was a little bit colder than yesterday because the race was two hours later than qualifying,” said Lorenzo.
“I didn’t count these things...I made a mistake of juniors.”
After he went out, Britain’s Bradley Smith took the lead briefly before Bradl slipped past followed by Marquez. The German then lost the front end and slid out with 16 of the 22 laps to go.
Marquez and Rossi traded the lead to the flag, with four changes of lead on the penultimate lap alone.
Smith crashed with four laps to go, with Spaniard Aleix Espargaro finishing fourth and Ducati pair Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow fifth and sixth.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Josh Reich