Defying all odds, Mazda was the first and only Japanese car manufacturer to win Le Mans. The very heart that powered the 787B was going to be banned in 1992, making the 1991 Le Mans race, Mazda's only shot to win it all or lose everything. “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die” –Babe Ruth
Mazda stepped up their game into the big leagues with the 1990 Le Mans race. They were in it to win it and were running three deep with their newly developed 787s. Came game day, Mazda’s all-star line-up had injured themselves in the game...it was a fiasco. Two 787s were forced to retire with less than 150 laps in the race. The lone survivor went at it alone, but it was plagued with issues that put it in 20th place for the finish, a whole 50 laps behind the winner, Jaguar.
“Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions”
Mazda was more determined than ever to prove itself that it can build a race car that can go toe to toe with the world’s best. They gave the 787 more power while tweaking the chassis and the aerodynamics. This 787 became the 787B. Mazda caught whim of the impending rotary engine ban that would take effect in 1992…so the 1991 Le Mans was all or nothing for Mazda.
What You Need to Know
The 787B weighed 831 kg. It had a 2622 ccm 4-rotor 26B Wankel engine, mid-mounted with RWD and a 5 speed manual transmission. The Wankel had a whopping 700 HP@ 9000 RPM with 620 LB FT of torque. They fielded 3 cars again for the 1991 Le Mans run. Two of them were in Mazda’s traditional white and blue livery (#56 and #18). The third #55 car was a trendsetter with fluorescent orange and green to promote their long time sponsor, Japanese clothing maker Renown.
Mazda had an uphill battle the entire way. From the get-go, the 787s managed to only qualify in 19th, 23rd, and 30th place. They were way over their heads as the competition was as brutal as ever.
The 1991 24 hours of Le Mans started at 4pm on a Saturday evening. The three F1 powered Peugeots used its overwhelming raw power to take the lead. All three would fall silent before nightfall. Peugeot 1 suffered fire damage in the pits, Peugeot 2’s transmission gave out, and Peugeot 3 crumbled under a misfiring engine problem. With the heavyweights out of action, Mazda got the lucky break they needed. But there was no time to breathe a sigh of relief as Mercedes took the mantle with a 1-2-3 formation.
The Mercedes were outright faster than the Mazdas, but they weren’t as light or nimble as them. The #55 Mazda pushed and shoved its way into striking distance of the Sauber-Mercedes team by seizing 4th place. This became personal and the Mazda was not one to back down from a fight. The #55 car kept the pressure on throughout the night, determined not to let the Mercedes slip away.
This rivalry became a race of attrition to see who gave out first. One of the Mercedes received substantial damage from debris and suffered from a lengthy repair in the pits. The second Mercedes spun out and suffered from unrelenting transmission issues. Then there was one…Mazda stood in second place with a full 4 laps behind the leader. Mercedes had throttled back their attack as they were running low on their fuel allotments for the race. Mazda seized this chance to light them up. The #55 car raced as if it was possessed, managing to close the gap to a mere 1 lap. The Mercedes suddenly had smoke spewing from it. The Mazda had become the lion and the Mercedes was a wounded gazelle. The lead car had water pump issues and the car was getting hot, quick. Mercedes had no choice but to hit the pits for 35 minutes to fix this issue.
Mazda secured the lead and was pulling away from the competitors…it was untouchable.
Mercedes pulled the plug on its sole remaining car to risk further engine damage, guaranteeing the victory to Mazda’s #55 car. Johnny Herbert took the Mazda across the finish line and after getting out of the car, he collapsed of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Mazda sought and conquered. They proved that they had what it takes and now, the whole world knows it.
“The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete” –Pierre de Coubertin
The 787B at the 2011 Le Mans
Special thanks to Scorpiocars.net, Car Guy Dad, and Top Speed