The YART Yamaha team started the weekend by ending Thursday’s Free Practice in second before securing a third consecutive pole position at the iconic Bugatti Circuit in North-West France on Friday. Glorious weather greeted the riders for the entirety of the 24-hour race, as the passionate French fans returned to Le Mans for the first time since 2019 due to the global COVID-19 Pandemic.
Czech rider Karel Hanika, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Thursday, lined up for the traditional endurance starting procedure, but an unfortunate technical issue meant he could not get his bike going on the grid and dropped down to last place.
Confounding this issue was a nasty crash at the start that saw the safety car deployed immediately, meaning that Hanika could not begin a charge through the pack until racing resumed after eight laps. Undeterred, the former Moto3 rider started to battle his way through the crowded field and by the end of the first hour, he handed the YART Yamaha R1 over to his teammate Marvin Fritz in fifth. The German rider kept this momentum going with some superb riding, and by the end of his first stint, the team were up to third.
Italian Niccolo Canepa took the next stint, and by the time he came in to swap the bike, the team had clawed back an impressive amount of time and were up to second and involved in the battle for victory, just 15 seconds behind the leaders. Sadly, more drama was to follow, as, in the EWC, two safety cars feature for each incident. On Hanika’s second stint, he was stuck behind a different safety car than the leaders, losing 45 precious seconds.
Once again, adversity brought out the true character of the YART Yamaha team, as all three riders got their heads down and applied themselves in their efforts to hunt down the race leaders. What followed was an intriguing endurance battle, with two teams using different tactics in an attempt to emerge victorious. The YART Yamaha team had the pace, but their rivals appeared to be able to make the Bridgestone tyres last longer.
For the rest of the race, a fascinating pit-stop cat and mouse game ensued, with all three of the YART Yamaha riders setting an incredible pace throughout the night and on Sunday morning to give the team a chance of victory. They continued to reduce the deficit to the leaders during every stint, only to see them open a one-lap gap again after each round of pit stops. The team responded by giving it everything, not placing a wheel off track during the entire 24 hours and maintaining an impressive pace throughout, with all three riders pushing to the limit.
As the hours passed, the race looked like it would go down to the wire. YART continued to pressure their rivals to force them into a mistake. With just 25 minutes remaining on the clock, Canepa returned to the pits for a “splash and dash” strategy and handed the reigns of the R1 to Hanika to set up a dramatic finish.
Unfortunately, a crash almost immediately after the team’s stop saw the safety car deployed and while racing would resume with a couple of minutes on the clock, that was how things would finish, with the team completing 840 laps in second place, 1:45.582s behind the winner and securing their first podium at Le Mans since the 2016-2017 season. It was an excellent start to the championship and the team managed to secure 55 points from the race and qualifying, leaving them only eight points behind the leaders with three more races left on the calendar, two of which are 24-hour races.
There was more joy for Yamaha as the Team 18 Sapeus Pompiers CMS Motostore of Hugo Clare, Baptiste Guittet, and Phillip Steinmayr claimed the Dunlop Superstock Trophy victory after finishing fourth overall. The Maco Racing Team of Anthony West, Enzo Boulom, and Richard Bodis fought valiantly despite several issues to finish the race in 32nd. At the same time, the Viltais Racing Igol team, made up of Florian Alt, Erwan Nigon, and Steven Odendaal was looking on course for a podium until disaster struck. A technical fault saw them forced to retire from the race in hour 19. Team Moto Ain’s British rider Bradley Smith got hit from behind during the crash at the start of the race and was taken to hospital for further checks before the team withdrew from the race during the third hour. There were also retirements for the Wojcik Racing Team after 14 hours due to a crash, and the 3ART Best of Bike team as the demanding Bugatti Circuit took no prisoners over the 24 hours.
Up next on the 2022 FIM Endurance World Championship calendar is the Spa EWC Motos at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on the 2nd-5th of June.