Search CarGuide.PH

June 19, 2021

30 Years Ago, Mazda Won The 24 Hours of Le Mans

At 4 PM on the 23rd June 1991 Johnny Herbert crossed the finish line at the Le Mans 24 Hour race to mark a unique achievement. Mazda had become the first Japanese manufacturer to win the world’s most famous endurance race, not only that they’d done it with a totally unique engine that had captivated the fans at the track with its ear-piercing soundtrack.

The number 55 Mazda 787B had covered 362 laps of the famous French circuit and over the course of its 28 pit stops the winning Mazda had received just one oil top up, a change of brake discs and pads, plus a nose change. Aside from that, the 700-horsepower four-rotor R26B powered 787B had just required fuel and tires as it faultlessly proved the reliability, efficiency and performance of Mazda’s unique rotary engine technology.

Sharing the winning car with Herbert were fellow Formula One drivers Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot, and for this trio of young chargers it was a largely uneventful race. A strong start saw Weidler make places from the 787B’s 23rd place on the grid and by 6 PM number 55 was into the top ten. By the halfway point of the race at 4 AM the Mazda’s pace and reliability meant it was running in third place, and with three hours to go, the Mazda was in second place when the leading Mercedes-Benz suffered engine troubles and retired.

This left the number 55 Mazda 787B to click off the laps and cross the line to take overall victory for Japan in a race that Toyota and Nissan had tried to win throughout the Group C era. Yet it was the relatively small manufacturer from Hiroshima and its rotary engine that had taken the first outright win at Le Mans for a Japanese brand. Even more poignantly, Mazda already knew the rotary engine would be banned from Le Mans in 1992, so the 1991 victory was the last chance to win with a rotary. With a chassis designed by Briton Nigel Stroud, the Mazda 787B was also the first car to win Le Mans with carbon brakes. To top off a great race, the sister number 18 Mazda 787B finished in sixth with the older number 56 Mazda 787 in eighth—a huge achievement for Mazda.

Commenting on the Mazda 787B, Johnny Herbert said: “the cabin of the 787B was beautifully laid out and comfortable, the rotary engine was absolutely fantastic” He remembers it as “silky smooth and bulletproof in terms of reliability” Adding, “Mazdaspeed was a very small team compared to the Mercedes and Jaguar teams but by 1991 the team was in perfect position because of the huge learning process in the previous years”.

For the fans at Le Mans in 1991 the overriding memory will likely be the incredible scream of the Mazda rotary engines and the flames licking from the exhaust at night as the trio of Mazdas raced through the darkness. For the hard-working rotary engine engineers from Mazda achieving the ultimate recognition of their work will live long in their memories, while the winning team was a truly international effort, with Mazdaspeed’s efforts assisted by the French ORECA organization, while British chassis designer Nigel Stroud, and Belgian team consultant six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx played big parts in the success, too.

Helped by the bold livery of Japanese clothing sponsor Renown, the Le Mans winning number 55 Mazda 787B has become one of the most famous Le Mans winners. Immediately retired from competition after the race, Mazda 787B chassis 002 now takes pride of place at Mazda’s HQ in Hiroshima. Maintained in full working order it still captures the hearts of car fans the world over when it’s demonstrated.

Thirty years after its pioneering victory it remains an icon in the motorsport world and a landmark moment in the 101-year history of Mazda.


Feel free to comment or share your views. Comments that are derogatory and/or spam will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to moderate and/or remove comments.