HOW MAZDA WON 24 HOURS OF LE MANS

Thirty years ago, at 4pm on Sunday 23rd of June 1991, as Johnny Herbert flew down the Mulsanne Straight in his orange Mazda 787B, he received crackly news over the team radio. Herbert and his Mazdaspeed teammates – Mazda’s motorsport subsidiary – had won the brutal 24 Hours of Le Mans, endurance racing’s most famous event. It was an enormously popular and historic victory. No other rotary-powered car had ever won the race before.

Mazda 787B

THE RACE

The 787B’s success at the 1991 Le Mans race weekend was a decade in the making. In 1967 Mazdaspeed started life as an independent motor racing team launched by one of Tokyo’s largest Mazda dealerships: Mazda Auto Tokyo. Run by the indefatigable Takayoshi Ohashi, the team first entered Le Mans in 1974 and returned 13 times over the next 18 years. In 1983 Mazdaspeed became a subsidiary of Mazda Motor Corporation, and by the end of the 1980s Takaharu Kobayakawa – programme manager of the Mazda RX-7 – was responsible for Mazda’s motorsports activities; he and Ohashi would oversee the Le Mans initiative.

A regulation change meant Mazdaspeed knew the rotary engine that powered the car would be banned for the following season. It was now or never for the 787B. Elsewhere, Ohashi scored a small, but critical, victory in securing an amendment from FISA (the motorsport governing body at the time) allowing the 787B to run in its standard configuration, while the competition was required to add ballast as part of a new regulation. Finally, in the no. 55 car the three hot-shot F1 drivers – Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot – gave Mazda hope that an overall win was possible.


Bertrand Gachot, Volker Weidler & Johnny Herbert

The majority of the race was uneventful. A strong start saw Weidler carve through the pack and the car worked faultlessly through the night. With three hours to go, the Mazda no. 55 car was in second place. Suddenly, the first-place Mercedes-Benz suffered a fault and retired. The race was now Mazda’s to lose. The no. 55 stayed out front, securing the first overall victory for a Japanese team at Le Mans. And the team’s other 787B – the no. 18 and 787 no. 56 – prospered in the race, too, finishing sixth and eighth respectively, a huge achievement.

JOHNNY HERBERT THE DRIVER WHO CROSSED THE FINISH LINE FIRST

“I was exhausted and dehydrated. It was only adrenaline that got me to the 24 hour mark”

Johnny Herbert belongs to an exclusive club of winners who never made their Le Mans victory podium. Rather than celebrating the trophy presentation with Mazdaspeed, he was unconscious at the track medical centre. The race had taken its toll. Over the weekend Herbert had struggled for sleep, and nerves had meant only instant noodles would both stay down and provide sustenance.

As the final few hours of the race progressed, Mazdaspeed team principal Takayoshi Ohashi and consultant team manager Jacky Ickx radioed Herbert asking him to extend his driving stint to the end of the race. With victory so close, Ohashi was unwilling to risk the uncertainty of an extra pit stop and driver change. Herbert agreed, but exhausted and badly dehydrated it was only adrenaline that got him past the 24 hour mark and confirm the win.

Herbert insists the excellent 787B was a product of a team operating at the peak of its powers. Ohashi was “very shrewd and had a great sense of humour”.

He had spent the previous decade enrolling some “brilliant engineering minds” and embraced a truly international recruitment policy, getting in the likes of British car designer Nigel Shroud and Belgian six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx as an advisor and consultant team manager.

Herbert had been introduced to the Mazdaspeed team by Mazda driver David Kennedy in 1990. Recovering from injuries sustained in a near career-ending crash in 1988, he was highly regarded and had good Formula 1 (F1) experience. Herbert says the Mazda was “a lot easier than an F1 car” to drive, with downforce and g force both significantly less aggressive. The cabin of the 787B was beautifully laid out and comfortable, and “the rotary engine was absolutely fantastic”. He remembers it as “silky smooth” and, crucially, bulletproof in terms of reliability. Herbert laughs when he recalls the gearbox as the “slowest in the world”, but it was designed for endurance over speed. While contemporary Le Mans teams can change a gearbox in less than two minutes during a pit stop, in 1991 the ‘box had to last the full 24 hours.

Takayoshi Ohashi, Mazdaspeed team principal

“Mazdaspeed was a very small team compared to the might of the competition, such as Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar,” says Herbert. But by June 1991 the team was “in a perfect position because it had been through a huge learning process” over the previous years. Seasoned drivers such as Pierre Dieudonné and Yojiro Terada (among others) brought experience to the Mazdaspeed driving roster and, despite being considered underdogs, there was no doubting the “hard-earned” nature of the victory that would come.

Thirty years after the event, Herbert’s memory of the race is unclouded. He remembers the camaraderie with his fellow drivers as they competed to get as much speed from the car while sticking to the prescribed fuel economy figures (1.9 l/km of fuel). He remembers the “beautiful” scream of the 787B’s engine “as it ricocheted through the main grandstand and the paddock complex”, and through the night he remembers watching trackside race fans asleep in their chairs and sleeping bags, lit up by the 787B’s exhaust flame as he downshifted through the Indianapolis corner.

Mostly, though, Herbert remembers the “huge smile” that spread across Ohashi’s face as their main competition, a Mercedes-Benz, overheated and retired, seeding the race lead to the no. 55 787B. As the the 24 hour mark was reached and the victory confirmed, Herbert recalls the fans rushing onto the track to confirm an “extremely popular” win. The no. 55 car became an icon, and that it took “27 years for another Japanese team to win Le Mans” is testament to the scale of Mazda’s achievement.

MAZDA 787B NO. 55 IN NUMBERS

  • Grid Position: 12th – Mazda’s starting place on the track
  • Speed: 205.333 km/h – the average speed of the winning 787B
  • Weight: 830 kg – vehicle weight (170 kg lighter than the standard race cars)


“The no. 55 became an icon.
A little bit of magic surrounds that car after the Le Mans win”

PIERRE DIEUDONNE, MAZDASPEED DRIVER OF THE NO. 56 787 IN 1991

Having won the 1981 Spa 24 hours endurance race in an RX-7, Dieudonné was no stranger to success in a Mazda. But his memories of the 1991 Le Mans race are particularly special. During the race he recalls Johnny Herbert “suffering like hell” from his 1988 crash injures, and watching bits of carbon work their way out of his feet between stints. “The team were not considered favourites,” he recalls, “[But Mazdaspeed] were technically strong and knew they had a chance”. He was also impressed by Mazda’s “relentless pursuit” of their ambitions and beliefs. Since 1991, Dieudonné has exclusively driven Mazdas. He currently runs a Mazda3, his wife drives a CX-5.

“1991 was the perfect demonstration of Mazda’s determination to never give up”

TAKAHARU KOBAYAKAWA, MAZDA MOTORSPORT PROGRAMME MANAGER IN1991

Kobayakawa says that in 1989 Pierre Dieudonné’s demand for 100hp more from the rotary engine stunned the engineering department at Mazda. It was left to Yasuo Tatsutomi, Mazda’s inspirational general manager of Product Planning and Development, to find the extra power despite some of the team calling it “impossible” to achieve. Nevertheless, they rolled up their sleeves, cancelled holiday and worked every hour possible. Eventually over one thousand improvements for the engine were proposed. Ultimately, eighty of these were implemented and featured in the 1991 787B engine. After the win, the engine was returned to Japan and Kobayakawa asked for it to be stripped for analysis, and invited journalists to attend the process. The race engine was in such good condition Mazda believes it could have run another 24 hour race.

TAKAHARU KOBAYAKAWA, MAZDA MOTORSPORT PROGRAMME MANAGER IN1991

THE ROAD TO VICTORY

While the legendary 787B is remembered to this day for being the rotary engine race car to take first place, its predecessors should not be forgotten as well. After all, those were the ones to pave the way on the road to victory. Racing cars with rotary engines by Mazda had entered the Le Mans race as early as 1970 and kept competing in the following years, among them modified a Chevron B16 as well as Mazda MC73, MC74 and Mazda 252i, 253 and 254, based on the Mazda Savanna RX-7. Unfortunately, none of them was granted a victory.

The first Mazda car specifically designed for racing was the Mazda 717C with the 13B rotary engine. Three of them entered Le Mans in 1983, two crossing the finish line – one winning the Group C Junior class in its inaugural year, the other finishing second in its class. The 717C with the number 60 also recorded the best fuel economy throughout the race with 3.2km/L. At the 1984 Le Mans, four rotary engined cars entered the renamed C2 class (formerly Group C Junior), two 727Cs run by the Mazdaspeed team and two Lola T616s Mazdas from the American B.F. Goodrich team. All cars successfully completed the full 24 hours, with the leading Lola T616 taking tenth place overall, winning the C2 class.

At Le Mans 1986, Mazda moved up to the IMSA-GTP category, allowing a lighter car, but with the same fuel allocation as the C1 class. The two Mazda 757s of that year experienced technical issues, but a clear improvement in power gave the team renewed hope for the future. And their hopes were confirmed the next year, when an improved Mazda 757 achieved the best ever finish for a Japanese car: seventh overall and first in the IMSA-GTP class. 1988 saw the introduction of the four-rotor engine in the Mazda 767 that, in a later stage, would bring victory for the Mazda 787B. In 1989, with an improved 767B version, Mazda achieved an impressive 1-2-3 victory in the GTP class. And while the Mazda 787 in 1990 did not finish the race, it still laid the foundation for victory in the following year.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MAZDA AT LE MANS

In honour of the 30th anniversary of Mazda’s extraordinary achievement, a special website has been created. Click below to join the celebrations.

https://www.mazda.com/en/innovation/lemans30th/


Associated Assets

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