Mugen driver Naoki Yamamoto claimed an authoritative win in the opening round of the Super Formula season at Suzuka.
Yamamoto drove away cleanly from pole position, with teammate and Honda junior Nirei Fukuzumi slotting into second place.
Meanwhile, Real Racing’s Koudai Tsukakoshi was rapidly moving up the order after starting from P5, passing slow-starting Tomoki Nojiri at Turn 1 before reeling in Takuya Izawa at the final chicane.
At the start of Lap 3, Tsukakoshi pulled off a brilliant move on Fukuzumi on the outside of Turn 1, and was on the back of race leader Yamamoto in no time.
The leading pair ran nose to tail until Lap 10, when Yamamoto finally managed to break away from the Real Racing driver.
It turned out Tsukakoshi was on an aggressive two-stop strategy, allowing Yamamoto to cruise up front and score his first Super Formula win since 2016.
Impul’s Yuhi Sekiguchi finished a surprise second after completing a mammoth total of 25 laps on soft tyres, before switching to the medium compound for the remainder of the race.
Sekiguchi had to withstand a hit from teammate Ryo Hirakawa, who tried to attempt an overambitious move at the hairpin. The two made light contact and Hirakawa went straight into gravel, while Sekiguchi managed to carry on and score his sixth Super Formula podium.
Despite a poor getaway that dropped him to seventh in the opening laps, Nojiri recovered enough to secure the final spot on the rostrum, 10 seconds behind the leading pair.
Defending champion Hiroaki Ishiura was classified two seconds adrift in fourth, while Izawa made it three Honda-powered cars in the top five.
Tsukakoshi could best manage sixth after his early race heroics, taking the chequered flag 31.285s behind race winner Yamamoto.
Nick Cassidy put on an impressive drive after getting eliminated in Q1 on Saturday, finishing seventh after passing Kazuki Nakajima late in the race.
Kamui Kobayashi and Kenta Yamashita were engaged in a wheel-to-wheel scrap right till the final lap, with Yamashita coming out on top to finish ninth.
Apart from Hirakawa, fellow Red Bull-supported driver Fukuzumi was the only driver to retire from the race. The Honda junior was running in podium contention but lost drive shortly after making his sole pitstop.
Nobuharu Matsushita, another driver from the Honda stable, wound up in 12th position in his maiden Super Formula race, just behind series returnee and Andre Lotterer’s replacement, James Rossiter.
Reigning Formula V8 3.5 champion Pietro Fittipaldi likewise endured a difficult debut, the 21-year-old’s race getting compromised when he suffered a right rear puncture shortly after his pitstop.