The YART Yamaha team of Karel Hanika, Niccolò Canepa, Marvin Fritz, and Reserve Rider Robin Mulhauser arrived in France at Circuit Paul Ricard for the final round of the Endurance World Championship (EWC), trailing the championship leaders by 14 points after a sensational season.
The Austrian squad finished second at the opening round in Le Mans before winning the 24H SPA EWC Motos in superb fashion, their first 24-hour race victory since 2009, which was also the last year they went to win the Endurance World Championship.
Having opened up a substantial lead at the top of the overall standings, they were battling for a podium at the legendary Suzuka 8 Hours before a minor technical issue saw them relegated to dead last within the first two hours. Showing incredible determination and tenacity, the team fought back to finish 22nd overall and 18th in class, securing two vital championship points in the process, but it seemed as though lousy luck might once again deny them the chance to fight for the title.
This meant they arrived in Le Castellet for the Bol d’Or, knowing they had to attack from the off to stand any chance of becoming champions. After showing good pace during the test and Free Practice on their Bridgestone-shod R1, a challenging qualifying saw them have to settle for fourth on the grid for the title decider.
Ahead of the race, the team revealed the eye-catching special livery they would run that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the iconic R1 superbike, based on the colour scheme of the recently launched Yamaha R1 GYTR Pro Limited Edition. Then, a couple of hours before the lights went out for the race, heavy thunderstorms hit the Côte d’Azur circuit, and a damp but drying track presented the team with a conundrum.
Play it safe and go for intermediate tyres like the rest of the other five title contenders, or take a risk and go for a full slick setup in the treacherous but drying conditions. Canepa was the rider who took the first stint, and the experienced Italian and the team chose to go with slicks, which proved to be a tactical masterstroke.
While the 35-year-old had to manage the risk during the opening few laps on the still-wet track, within 15 minutes, the surface was fully dry, and he got the hammer down, opening up a lap advantage before the end of his stint as others had to pit to swap tyres. Unfortunately, a safety car meant that his gap at the front was effectively wiped out, and the team had to settle down and do the hard work all over again.
What ensued then was an enthralling battle between the leading three teams, with YART and their two main title rivals swapping the lead consistently at seemingly every pit stop as they constantly battled each other on track, much to the delight of the tens of thousands of French fans who had created an electric atmosphere at the circuit since Thursday.
Fritz and Hanika continued the excellent pace shown by Canepa at the start, and by the eight-hour mark, the trio were in second place to claim nine championship points, closing the gap to the team leading the standings by one.
As night fell in the South of France, YART continued to push and maintain their lightning pace; then, as the 12-hour mark approached, their main championship rivals were forced to retire, effectively making it a two-way battle for the title between YART and the SERT team.
Knowing they had a comfortable points cushion over SERT, they decided to conserve their energy and pace around the incredibly demanding circuit, especially down the engine-breaking 1.8km Mistral Straight, taking no risks to ensure they finished. This tactic worked well, and they held a comfortable second position until about eight hours to go in the race.
As Canepa came into the pits, there were signs that the YART R1 was overheating, and the team spent an extra minute bringing the bike into the box to top up the water in the radiator. Undeterred, Fritz completed his next stint before the team decided to try and address the issue. This saw the German rider bring the bike back into the box again, with the team spending five minutes replenishing the water in the cooling system and trying to diagnose the cause.
Now five laps behind the leaders but three laps ahead of the team in third, and knowing that a top-nine finish would secure them the championship even if SERT won, the team wisely decided to take no chances and, during every pit stop, took the time to check the bike and carry out running repairs to ensure the issue did not become more serious.
Still, as the hours ticked away and they started to lose more and more time, the pressure began to mount. Surely they would not be denied the championship by another cruel piece of bad luck? Fortunately, this would not be the case, as the YART team managed to diagnose the problem, which turned out to be an issue with the water pump and replace it with two hours to go while they were still in fourth.
Knowing they just had to bring it home to claim their second championship as a team, all three riders completed their final stints showing nerves of steel and were utterly faultless the entire race. When they crossed the line at the end of an incredibly nerve-wracking 24 hours, they had maintained fourth and completed 705 laps, 12 behind the winners SERT, but four ahead of the team in fifth.
The impressive resolve the entire team had shown marked them out as worthy champions, and despite all of the drama, they had managed to secure their second EWC crown by a margin of 20 points, with a total tally of 181, to end the season in spectacular fashion after an incredibly tense finish.
There was more success in France for Yamaha in the Superstock class, as Team 18 Sapeurs Pompiers CMS Motostore secured a third-place finish in class after ending the race in eighth overall, with the Maco Racing Team in ninth.
The Moto Ain Yamaha EWC Supported Team fought back after some early difficulties to secure 16th, with KM Motos, who were on course for a top-six finish before technical issues in the latter stages, bringing it home in 17th, while it was a race to forget for the Wojcik Racing Team as they retired on just the second lap.