After countless near-misses throughout the 2011 season, Johann Zarco finally claimed his maiden Grand Prix victory in Japan, breathing new life into the championship fight. The Frenchman battled it out with title rival Nicolas Terol for much of the race but on this occasion the Spaniard cracked, allowing Zarco to cruise home in the latter stages and reduce his points deficit to 31 points.
The drama began before the race had even got going as Maverick Vinales hit problems. The 16 year old, due to start fourth, failed to make it out of the pitlane due to a mechanical problem and was forced to start from the back.
When the lights were finally extinguished, Terol made a typically fast getaway to blast past Zarco on the run down to turn one, with the Frenchman tucking in behind. Things went from bad to worse for the Blusens team though who, moments after seeing their lead rider slip to the back, lost Josep Rodriguez after a collision with Luis Salom.
The title contenders went to battle at the front with Hector Faubel the only man remotely capable of keeping them in sight. Keen to play a supporting role for his teammate, Faubel dived past Zarco at the end of the back-straight on lap five with the ease at which the Aspar Aprilia breezed past the Derbi giving Zarco cause for concern.
The Avant-AirAsia-Ajo rider knew he couldn't allow Terol to open up a lead and retook second on lap eight. His prodigious qualifying pace was starting to show again as Zarco piled the pressure on Terol, while the increase in pace proved too much for Faubel who quickly fell away from the leading duo.
Zarco hit the front on lap 14 after getting a better run out of turn two but Terol seemed content to follow his rival, knowing he had superior straight-line speed should he need it. Those plans disappeared five laps from home as the championship leader made a critical error, outbraking himself into turn five. Zarco's lead had now extended to over a second and Terol quickly realised the game was up.
Zarco didn't have to worry about last lap heartache this time as he eased to victory by nearly six seconds while Faubel finished a lonely third. The battle behind the leading group saw plenty of action too as well as a stunning ride from an exceptional talent.
After starting from the tail of the field, Maverick Vinales wasted no time slicing his way through the field, gaining nine positions on each of the first two laps to move up to 14th. By the end of lap four, he was into the top ten at the expense of Danny Webb and the rookie scythed past Alessandro Tonucci into ninth two laps later.
Mechanical problems for Efren Vazquez promoted Vinales to eighth and he soon had fourth in his sights as he zeroed in on a fierce battle three seconds ahead of him. Jonas Folger grabbed the advantage from Alberto Moncayo on lap 12 while Vinales disposed with Sandro Cortese and Adrian Martin in quick succession to take sixth.
Moncayo didn't hold him back for too long either and Vinales quickly turned his attention to Folger's fourth place, taking it with ease on lap 14. As if that wasn't impressive enough, Vinales took advantage of a clear track to close in on Faubel at a second per lap. The Aspar rider held on as the chequered flag came out with Vinales 3.5s adrift.
Cortese beat Folger on the line to take fifth while Moncayo held off Martin for seventh with just 0.749s covering all four riders as they completed the final lap.
Danny Kent rode superbly to finish ninth after starting back on the sixth row but Danny Webb was unable to join him in the top ten after his Mahindra broke down just after half distance. Harry Stafford delighted British fans with his second points finish of the year in 14th but Taylor Mackenzie encountered more bad luck, dropping out with three laps to go.