Back in 1991 on 23rd June, Johnny Herbert crossed the finish line and won the Le Mans 24 Hour race and Mazda became the first Japanese manufacturer to win the world’s most famous endurance race.
The number 55 Mazda 787B proved the reliability, efficiency and performance of its unique rotary engine as it covered 362 laps of the famous French circuit. Over the course of its 28 pit stops, the winning Mazda received just one oil top up, a change of brake discs and pads, plus a nose change.
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 6pm number 55 was into the top ten. By the halfway point of the race at 4am 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. Small manufacturer, Hiroshima, took Mazda to their first outright win at Le Mans. Even more poignantly, Mazda 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. 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, they will always remember 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.
Number 55 Mazda 787B has become one of the most famous Le Mans winners, with help from Japanese clothing sponsor Renown. 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 all over the world 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.
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