Mazda 787B triumphs at Le Mans - Motorsport Moments

The spectacular rotary-engined Mazda 787B screamed its way into endurance-racing history in 1991

Before Toyota’s breakthrough victory in 2018, fellow Japanese brand Mazda had spent close to 30 years basking in the status of being the only Japanese manufacturer to have won the Le Mans 24 Hours outright, succeeding where its bigger and better-funded compatriots had failed. And it remains the only brand to have won the race using anything other than a conventional piston engine, with its rotary-powered 787B.

The car that was driven to victory in the 1991 event by Bertrand Gachot, Volker Wiedler and Johnny Herbert has since become one of the most iconic and recognisable racing machines of all time. That’s thanks in part to the unmistakable green-and-orange livery of the works team’s main sponsor (Japanese clothing company Renown), but also to the technical innovation of the car’s four-rotor engine – and the unearthly scream it made while powering through the gears out of a corner.

Mazda rotary engines have a long history at Le Mans, first appearing back in 1970 in a Chevron B16 chassis that was driven by the Belgian pair of Yves Deprez and Julian Vernaeve. Efforts gathered pace in the early eighties following the debut of the rotary-engined RX-7 road car, with works entries from the company appearing in 1981 and 1982 in the production-based GT class.

The company’s first Le Mans prototype was the 717 of 1983, which contested the Group C Junior class. Next up was the 757, which won races in the IMSA series in the US from 1987 to 1989, hinting at the marque’s potential. The crowning glory for the programme came with that overall win in 1991, however.

Improvements over the 1990-spec 787 (hence the ‘B’ added to the name for 1991) included extra mid-range torque for better driveability, while maximum torque rose to 608Nm. Larger 18-inch wheels were fitted, as well as revised suspension geometry and reworked aerodynamics for more downforce. The car’s R26B quad-rotor engine (right) featured peripheral port injection and three spark plugs per rotor, producing a total output of 700bhp at 9,000rpm.

Running faultlessly, the winning car completed 362 laps of Le Mans (a distance of 3,065 miles) at an average speed of 127.62mph. All three 787s entered by Mazda that year – two ’B’s and one 1990-spec car – completed the race, which saw only nine classified finishers out of a starting grid of 38. Such was the cachet of Le Mans in Japan that several of the country’s television stations interrupted their normal programming and switched to live coverage when it became clear on Sunday morning that the 787B was headed for victory, having seen off the challenges of the favourite Mercedes and Jaguar works entries. 

Famously, having driven the final stint, Brit Herbert was so fatigued after the race that he was unable to join his co-drivers Gachot and Wiedler on the Circuit de la Sarthe’s famous podium.

Race organiser, the Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO), made up for that in 2011, when the restored number 55 (which had been immediately retired to Mazda’s Hiroshima museum in 1991) and Herbert returned to Le Mans for demonstration laps to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mazda’s win. The three-time Grand Prix winner finally got the chance to properly celebrate one of his most treasured victories.

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mazda's rotary engine...

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