Alvaro Bautista got his 250cc championship challenge back on track with victory in the Japanese Grand Prix at a sunny Motegi - a race that saw reigning champion Marco Simoncelli's hopes of spectacular return end with a flat front tyre.
Pole sitter Simoncelli, who withdraw from the season opening Qatar Grand Prix due to pain from his freshly fractured wrist, emerged on top of a frantic opening lap to lead until lap eight - when a mistake into the final turn saw the Italian hit the inside kerb hard and allow home hero Hiroshi Aoyama ahead.
Simoncelli, already doubtful to last the race distance due to his fragile right wrist, then saw his problems magnified when he ran wide at the next turn - the first signs of a flat front tyre, presumably caused by the kerb collision.
The Gilera star was forced to pit for a tyre change and returned one lap down in 20th position. The Italian finished the race 17th and his only comfort will be that he also scored no points in the first two rounds of last season.
Meanwhile, Aoyama came under increasing pressure from Bautista, who had fought back from a poor start - the Spaniard was only eighth at the end of lap one - to get within half a second of the Scot Honda rider with ten laps remaining.
Bautista, only seventh in Qatar two weeks' ago, ended what could well have been Honda's best hope of a home grand prix victory in the 50th anniversary year of its road racing grand prix debut by overtaking Aoyama at the end of the back straight with just over five laps to go.
A fired-up Aoyama tried to cling with Bautista, but the #19 was unstoppable and rode to a decisive 5.889sec victory over the Japanese. Rumours are already circulating that Bautista, title runner-up to Simoncelli in 2008 and now a seven-time 250GP race winner, will ride an Aspar Yamaha in MotoGP next year.
Meanwhile, Mattia Pasini claimed third position, a massive 21.832sec from Bautista, after a quiet ride for Team Toth Aprilia.
Qatar winner Hector Barbera was just 20th at the end of lap one and could only reach eleventh by the chequered flag. Barbera is now third in the standings, behind Bautista and Aoyama.