The YART Yamaha team of Karel Hanika, Niccolò Canepa, and Marvin Fritz have demonstrated an intimidating pace in every session at Suzuka, from testing on Wednesday, right the way up to the nail-biting finale that saw them miss out on pole position by just 0.190s on Saturday afternoon.
The Austrian squad got their Friday off to the perfect start by topping the morning’s Test session with a 2:06.424. They followed that up by fine-tuning their race setup during the final Free Practice, which saw them finish in fifth after setting a 2:07.736.
The action began in earnest on Friday afternoon with each rider's first qualifying sessions. Canepa was the first out in the Blue group, and the Italian, despite suffering from a fever and not feeling 100%, set a 2:06.513 to finish second in the 20-minute session. Next up was his German teammate Fritz, who topped the Yellow session with a 2:07.084, impressively set on used tyres.
Hanika took over the #7 Bridgestone-shod YART R1 for the final qualifying session on Friday and made sure it was a strong finish for the team as he set their fastest lap of the day, a 2:06.009, to end on top of the timesheets in the Red group. The team then showcased their impressive speed in the dark by also setting the fastest time during the one-hour Night Practice with a 2:07.669.
YART’s times during Friday’s qualifying sessions meant they occupied provisional second overnight, and they made sure they came out all guns blazing on Saturday morning. Canepa immediately improved his time from the day before, setting the team’s first 2:05 lap with a 2:05.948 to top the final Blue rider’s 20-minute time attack.
Fritz continued this form into the Yellow session. With a fresh set of tyres, he went over a second faster than his time from Friday, recording a 2:05.845 to top his group. Finally, Hanika made it all three riders in the 2:05s when he finished quickest amongst the Red group with a 2:05.870.
In an incredible display of consistency, they were the only squad with all of their riders to break the 2:06 barrier, and the trio lapped the 5.821 km Suzuka Circuit within 0.103s of each other. This also meant that by combining Fritz and Hanika’s fastest times, the YART team had secured first position for the next qualifying stage.
In endurance, the qualifying format is usually that the fastest two rider’s times are combined to give an average, which decides the grid. While this does determine the start positions for the teams eleventh and below, the leading ten teams at Suzuka face off against each other in the Top 10 Trial. This unique showdown sees each squad's two fastest riders head out on track one after the after, riding alone and setting one flying lap each, with only the best time counting towards the final position.
Because the YART team had secured first place overall during qualifying, they got the advantage of taking to the track last after their rivals. Hanika went out for the first lap, and the 27-year-old set the pace with the weekend's fastest time at that point, a 2:05.519, much to the delight of the team and passionate Japanese fans. It was an incredible effort and saw Hanika set his and the team's personal best around the circuit, and it was also the fastest-ever lap time for Yamaha at the Suzuka 8 Hours.
During the second series of flying laps, YART were knocked back to second overall, which meant Fritz knew he had just one chance to beat their rivals 2:05.329 and secure pole. It went right to the wire, with the 30-year-old giving it absolutely everything and up in the first two sectors before losing time in the third, eventually setting a 2:06.115.
Agonisingly close to a memorable Suzuka pole position, the team were still delighted because, by virtue of Hanika’s record-breaking lap, they will start from second on the grid as they aim to secure their goal of a dream maiden podium at the legendary endurance race.
By qualifying in second, they also collected four of the five points on offer; plus, as the leading full-time Endurance World Championship (EWC) team, they extended their advantage in the overall standings to five points, with another 30 up for grabs during the race.
There will be eleven R1s lined up on the grid in total for the race, with Team Kodama qualifying in 13th after setting a 2:07.798, plus the Belgian-based KM Motos team impressed on their Suzuka debut to record a combined best time of 2:09.165 and secure the full-time EWC team 23rd on the grid.
Sunday at Round 3 of the FIM EWC involves a 45-minute Warm Up Session at 8:30 am local time (UTC+9) before the main event kicks off with the traditional running start at 11:30 am. Despite the conditions remaining dry so far this week in Suzuka, the weather is almost sure to play a part during the eight-hour race, with torrential rain and thunderstorms forecast.