The YART Yamaha Team of Karel Hanika, Niccolò Canepa, and Marvin Fritz displayed sensational pace on Friday and Saturday in Japan as they aimed to secure their dream maiden podium at the legendary endurance race. The Austrian squad qualified in first position for the Top 10 Trial and then set a new fastest lap for Yamaha at the Suzuka 8 Hours during the showdown to secure second on the grid, adding to their confidence heading into the main event.
The forecast rain on Sunday had not materialised, and conditions were hot and humid when it was time for the race to get underway at 11:30 am local time (UTC+), with Canepa taking the first stint and lining up for the traditional “Le Mans” running start.
The Italian got away cleanly and settled into third at the first corner before leading the race during the early stages. He then became involved in an enthralling battle at the front for several laps, giving as good as he got, with the Italian continuing to set a lightning pace before handing the #7 YART Bridgestone-shod R1 over to Hanika in a comfortable second.
Maintaining the excellent start and managing the gap well, Hanika was consistently lapping in the 2:09s before an electrical issue near the end of his first stint caused the bike to stop on track. It could not have happened at a worst place location-wise, with no service road meaning the Czech rider had to show his grit by pushing the R1 all the way back to the pits from the Spoon Curve, conscious of the time they were losing.
After he made it to the box, the team diagnosed and repaired the issue within a few minutes, and Fritz rejoined the race in 43rd position, but unfortunately, the incident had cost them over half an hour. The German rider continued the team’s almost metronomic lap times but was forced to pit again within ten laps to repair a minor issue with a fairing.
The quick work of the YART mechanics meant Fritz could rejoin without losing track position, although they were now 15 laps down on the leaders, but from then on, the fight back began. All three riders pushed on during their second stints and were routinely the fastest bike on the track, which saw them starting to make up places. With just over four and a half hours gone, Hanika set the team’s fastest lap of the race, a 2:07.745, demonstrating their pace at this stage.
After six and a half hours of racing, YART were up to 30th when the expected rain started to arrive, although only on parts of the circuit. Canepa has shown in the past that he excels in these mixed conditions, and with other teams unsure of what strategy to adopt, he decided to bravely stay out on slicks and attack.
The 35-year-old put the hammer down to close the gap to the riders in front and cut his way through the traffic to make up swathes of time before handing over to Hanika for the final stint, the YART R1 rejoining in 26th place with 45 minutes left on the clock.
Hanika kept up the pace as night fell at Suzuka, the dark adding to the tricky conditions, but the 27-year-old showcased the team's spirit by fighting right to the end, aiming to secure a top-20 finish and pick up some points.
Continuing to catch and pass riders until the line, by the time the fireworks lit up the Suzuka sky at the finish, Hanika had made up another three places and sealed a fantastic comeback by bringing the R1 to the finish in 23rd place overall after completing 203 laps in total. Following their earlier issues, during their memorable charge through the field, the team managed to make up 20 places and close the gap to the winners by over one and a half laps to just 13 by the chequered flag.
Their incredible comeback meant they finished 19th in class and collected two vital points. Despite relinquishing their lead in the Endurance World Championship (EWC) standings, when added to the five they picked up during qualifying, the YART Yamaha team leave Suzuka second overall with 125 points, 13 behind the leaders.
With the unique scoring system the EWC uses, there are still 85 points available to teams at the final round of the season, the Bol d’Or. This is because the points awarded at the end of the last race of the year are multiplied by 1.5, with the winner standing to collect 60, which, when added to the ten on offer at the eight and 16-hour marks during the race, plus the five up for grabs during qualifying, mean anything can still happen at the championship decider.
The NCXX Racing with Riders Club team won the National Superstock class for Yamaha by finishing 15th overall as the leading R1. There were also strong performances from Team Kodama in 22nd and KM Motos, with the full-time EWC team securing 28th in their debut Suzuka 8 Hours.
The 2023 EWC season will culminate in a 24-hour showdown at the Bol d’Or at Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet, France, on the 14th-17th of September, with both the team and manufacturer titles still on the line.