Glorious weather and ideal conditions greeted the FIM Endurance World Championship (EWC) teams on Thursday and Friday during the final round of the 2023 season as the sun shone down on the 5.673km Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet.
Heading into the title decider, the YART Yamaha team of Karel Hanika, Niccolò Canepa, Marvin Fritz, and Reserve Rider Robin Mulhauser were second overall and trailed the championship leaders by just 13 points. Therefore, with 85 points on offer over the race weekend, their aim was clear: to claim pole position, win the race and secure their first EWC crown since 2009.
After a test at the Côte d’Azur circuit on Tuesday, the track action kicked off in earnest on Thursday with a two-hour Free Practice session. Using the time wisely to work on their setup with the YART R1, it was also a chance for the team to finalise their Bridgestone tyre choices for the 24-hour race, and they demonstrated their excellent pace by ending the session in second with a time of 1:52.188, just 0.062s off the top of the timesheets.
Next, it was time for the first qualifying sessions in the heat and humidity of Thursday afternoon. Realising that they would have a better chance of setting a quick time in the cooler conditions of Friday morning, the Austrian squad decided to save their allocation of soft qualifying tyres and sent all four riders out on the same set of race tyres during the first sessions.
It is standard practice in the EWC, where teams have two bikes, to have one machine in race trim while the other is used for qualifying and set up for a single flying lap. For YART, it was a trickier qualifying than they have been used to lately. This was because, try as they might, they could not quite find the same feeling on their qualifying bike as on the race-prepped R1, but they still ensured that they kept their championship hopes alive with another strong team effort.
Heading out in the Blue rider’s group, Italian Canepa set a 1:52.654, which was good enough for fourth, 0.8 seconds behind the fastest team. He handed the R1 over to his teammate Fritz, who was next in the Yellow group. The German almost matched his teammate's pace with a 1:52.663, which was good enough for fourth, before Hanika finished the Red session in third after setting a 1:53.055.
Then it was time for a one-hour Night Practice session, which could prove essential with it being the only track time teams have had riding in the dark at the circuit since last year’s race. YART used the time wisely to work on their setup in the colder conditions and further consolidate their tyre compound choices, finishing the session in third overall with a 1:53.678.
Friday morning rolled around, and the team’s tactical choice to save their soft tyres seemed like a masterstroke, with cooler track temperatures leading to even better conditions for the riders. In the EWC, five points are awarded during qualifying to the leading five teams, so the YART riders set out to claim pole and make a first dent in the gap to the championship leaders.
Unfortunately, with 47 bikes on track, traffic and unlucky timing would hamper their chances, with a slipstream down the 1.8km Mistral Straight crucial to setting a decent time, plus the fact that on a couple of occasions when the riders were on a hot lap, red flags appeared to curtail the action.
Canepa was the first to hit the track, and the 35-year-old improved his time to a 1:52.212, which was good enough for third in his group, but despite being quicker in the first and third sectors, traffic meant he could not pick up the perfect draft down the longest straight on the EWC calendar to go any faster.
It was a similar story with his teammate Fritz, with the 30-year-old pushing to the limit, but due to a red flag and being caught in traffic, like most of the riders in his session, he could not improve his time. He ended with a 1:53.020, but his lap from Thursday was good enough for fourth in his group.
Hanika was determined to show the true one-lap pace of the YART R1, but halfway through his session, the red flags came out again for a crash, causing a lengthy pause as track barriers were repaired. Undeterred by the interruption, the Czech rider improved his time from Thursday’s qualifying by over a second to set a 1:51.882 to top the session and finish second overall in his group.
Reserve Rider Mulhauser did his usual good work, focusing on helping to set up the race bike, with the Swiss rider setting a best time of 1:54.139 on Friday to finish third overall in the Green rider’s group.
In EWC, the two fastest riders' times are combined to give the overall result. So, by using Hanika and Canepa’s best efforts from Friday, the team had an average time of 1:52.047, 0.22s faster than the previous pole lap record, which meant they qualified in fourth and, in the process, secured two championship points. With these points, the YART team remain second in the championship standings, 14 points behind the leaders, with 80 still available during the race.
This is due to the unique way in which points are awarded in the EWC; 10 are up for grabs at the eight and sixteen-hour marks, and because it is the final round of the season, there are one and a half times the number of standard points available for a team’s final race position, with 60 awarded to the winners.
With this in mind, there are still six teams with a mathematical chance of being crowned champions, so YART’s goal is to go into full attack from the start, pick up the ten points on offer at the two intervals, and win the race to put themselves in with the best chance of claiming the title.
It was another impressive qualifying performance from the Belgian-based KM Motos team in their debit EWC season, with Bastien Mackels, Lucas Mahias, and Florian Marino combining for a time of 1:53.285 to start from sixth. The Moto Ain Yamaha Supported EWC Team of Corentin Perolari, Roberto Tamburini, and Mathieu Gregorio made it three R1s in the top ten after setting a time of 1:53.761, while podium finishers at the 2022 Bol d'Or, Wojcik Racing Team’s Sheridan Morais, Matthieu Gines, and Isaac Vinales, qualified in 12th with a time of 1:54.245.
Maco Racing Team’s Enzo Boulom, Balint Kovacs, and Martin Vugrinec combined for a time of 1:56.083 and will start from 22nd on the grid, while in the Superstock class, 3ART Best of Bike’s Martin Renuadin, Ludovic Cauchi, and Alex Plancassagne are one of ten teams who came to the Bol d’Or still in with a chance of winning the FIM Endurance World Cup. The trio set a 1:56.502 to qualify in 28th overall and 13th in class, ensuring they remain in the hunt for glory.
The 86th edition of the historic Bol d’Or kicks off on Saturday at 3 pm local time (UTC+2) with the traditional “Le Mans” running start, and there is sure to be drama on the cards as all five EWC team and manufacturer titles are still on the line.