Mazda was founded in Hiroshima Japan in 1920. The company quickly became a major player in Japan’s new automotive industry. The name Mazda was derived from the Asian god Ahura Mazda, the god of intelligence, wisdom, and harmony. They need to add rotary engines and carbon-ceramic brakes to that list.
Mazda developed the world’s first mass produced rotary powered automobile in 1967 with the Cosmo Sport. Fast Forward twenty four years into the future and Mazda is poised once again to make automotive, racing, and rotary powered history. Mazda had competed in nearly every class of the classic endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans since the early 1970’s. In 1990 Mazda entered three rotary powered 787’s in the, top level, Group C class. The results were less than favorable with two cars out early and the third struggling to finish in 20th place.
The 1991 race was extremely important to Mazda. Having teamed with winning endurance racing champions Team Oreca, Mazda’s racing division, MazdaSpeed Motorsports, had three new cars, the 787B. The Cars were similar to the 787’s that had raced the previous season. The most notable differences were the necessary suspension changes to accommodate the new, larger wheels and the, new carbon-ceramic brakes, giving the 1991 cars the 787B designation. The 787B was also the first car to use carbon-ceramic brakes in competition.
The governing bodies of European endurance racing, the FIA and the ACO, had already announced rule changes that would make the rotary illegal after the 1991 race. This was the eleventh hour for Mazda. If they wanted to win the 24 Hours with a rotary powered car, 1991 was going to be their last chance. The main challenge Mazda would face in the 1991 race came from the Peugeots and the Team Sauber Mercedes C11’s. The Peugeots led early, however all three would expire long before the halfway point. The Sauber Mercedes led 1-2-3 for a good majority until the first of the Mercedes hit debris at high speed. A second Mercedes would struggle with gearbox issues that would take them out of contention.
Having managed to put the second place, number 55, Mazda 787B four laps down,the third Mercedes C11 led all through the night but in the morning hours began to slow to conserve fuel for the finish. The leading Mercedes looked to be the favorite for the overall win. The driving trio of Johnny Herbert (England), Bertrand Gachot (France), and Volker Weidler (Germany) began to push their number 55 Mazda hard.
With just over two hours remaining, the Mazda had caught up to within a lap of the lead Mercedes. That’s when god Ahura Mazda granted the 55 car a miracle in the form of white smoke coming from the rear of the leading Mercedes C11. The Mercedes was burdened with a lengthy 35 minute repair only to pull back in and retire one lap later.
In the hands of Johnny Herbert, who stayed in the car for a second stint to avoid pitting, the number 55 787B gave Mazda three firsts when the checkered flag dropped. The first Japanese car to win Le Mans overall, the first car to use carbon-ceramic brakes in competition, and the first to win Le Mans using rotary power.
The 787B was powered by a R26B. A 4-rotor power plant, that produced about 700HP. The engine uses 3 spark plugs per rotor and produces about 400 ft lbs of torque. The Mazda team had set the cars up to be as conservative on fuel as possible. The team gave up a little speed to have longer runs between refueling. A strategy that paid off making the 787B an innovative and effective piece of auto racing history.
This is one of my all-time favorite endurance racers. Please show off your 787B diecasts in the comments!