The YART Yamaha team of Karel Hanika, Niccolò Canepa, and Marvin Fritz lined up on the grid in third for the legendary endurance race after a superb qualifying performance that saw all three riders lap in the 2:05s on Saturday. The predicted thunderstorms stayed away on Sunday, with temperatures rising to 32 degrees Celsius in Japan as the teams assembled for the traditional Le Mans running start. The YART team had been fast since the first day of testing, but the extra heat and humidity on Sunday brought an element of uncertainty, with track temperatures soaring to the highest they had been all week.
YART were not only spearheading Yamaha's attack in Suzuka against the other factory teams but were also looking to close the 27-point gap on their rivals in the EWC standings. Unfortunately, when the flag dropped, Canepa had an issue getting the YART Yamaha R1 started and found himself down in 25th position on the opening lap. Immediately, the 34-year-old Italian set about making up places and his pace meant he had made his way up to 17th by the time they deployed the safety car on lap three after a crash.
When the race resumed, Canepa scythed through the pack to mount a sensational fightback and was up to third by the time he handed the bike over to his teammate Fritz. The 29-year-old continued the excellent work, lapping metronomically and staying in touch with the two factory teams before passing the baton to Hanika. The Czech rider upped the pace even more, setting the team's fastest lap of the race, a 2:07.781, as he began hunting down the leaders.
As the hours went by, all three riders maintained a relentless pace and consistently lapped in the 2:08s around the 5.821km Suzuka Circuit. By hour five, they were up to second and battling with the factory Kawasaki (KRT) team, plus they had opened up a gap of over one and a half minutes over the team in fourth. YART had the better pace, but KRT were averaging three laps more per stint. The two teams kept swapping places each time they pitted, and it seemed like it would all come down to the wire to decide the final two spots on the podium. During their seventh pit stop, as Canepa handed the bike back to Fritz, a minor issue with the rear tyre saw them lose just over 30 seconds, but a quick repair by the team meant they re-joined in third, and although they had lost touch with KRT, they managed to retain a 14-second gap to the team in fourth.
Then, with an hour to go, disaster struck, as Fritz crashed after making contact while overtaking another bike at Turn 13. The German rider heroically dug the bike out from the air fence and brought it back to the pits despite significant damage to the #7 R1. Miraculously, the YART team repaired the bike in under nine minutes to send Hanika back out on track in seventh, five laps down on the leaders with 40 minutes to go.
The 26-year-old got his head down and managed to make up one place before being forced to enter the pits again, due to the fact the officials were not ready during the previous pit stop, to complete a stop-and-go penalty as a consequence of the earlier crash. Visibly frustrated at the decision but remaining focused, Hanika battled to the end to secure a heroic seventh place overall and second amongst the full-time EWC teams after completing 209 laps.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on their first Suzuka podium, the team showcased their pace once more and managed to secure three championship points for qualifying in third, plus another 14 for their seventh-place finish. This sees them remain third in the overall standings with 93 points, 34 points behind the leaders. The Yamalube YART Yamaha Official EWC Team returns to action at the final round of the season, the Bol d'Or on the 16th-18th of September, with everything still to play for with a possible 96.5 points up for grabs due to the fact EWC rules mean that any points scored in the last race are multiplied by 1.5.