In the list of 16 manufacturers to have won Le Mans since the end of World War II, only one of them hails from the “land of the rising sun”. Mazda is the only Japanese marque to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall. Recently, the race winning Mazda 787B was restored and driven in demonstration laps at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. You may have seen the videos, but do you know the whole story behind that historic win? Read on.
Mazda has an incredible racing history, and group C sports car prototypes are just one facet of the Mazda racing diamond. However, as professional racing goes, this facet was their most successful. Having competed in every Le Mans event for nearly twenty years, Mazda stepped up to the top level class in 1990 with the 787. The 1990 race was not very favorable toward Mazda, as two 787s retired having completed just fewer than 150 laps. The third 787 did finish the race, however troubles mired them down in 20th position, finishing more than 50 laps down to the winning Jaguar.
Upping the power, adjusting chassis components, and tweaking the aero, Mazdaspeed Motorsports reaffirmed their desire to win with the newly constructed 787B for 1991. With rule changes coming in 1992 that would effectively ban the rotary-engined cars, this was Mazda’s last shot at the title with the current car. It was a now or never attitude, and they pulled out all the stops. Mazda realized that winning took experience, patience, and perseverance and decided to hand over the day-to-day operations to Le Mans battle-hardened Team Oreca. Again entering a three car squadron of Group C cars, Mazda and Oreca descended upon the La Sarthe racetrack. Two team cars were prepared in Mazdaspeed’s traditional blue and white (#18 and #56), while the third car was given a special hyper-visible nuclear orange and green livery to promote Japanese clothing brand Renown, a long time supporter of the team.
The ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) and the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the joint ruling bodies of Group C racing, had decided on a “transition year” at Le Mans. The outgoing Group C classification cars would be allowed to compete alongside the new 3.5-liter specification, with the Group C classified cars being given a weight penalty. As a way of promoting longevity, and attempting to reduce costs, the governing bodies wanted international sports cars to share the same engines as Formula 1 cars used at the time. Jaguar and Mercedes entered their old Group C cars concurrently with their new 3.5 liter cars, however, the 3.5 liter cars were too slow and did not qualify for the race. Since Peugeot Sport was the only team with 3.5-liter powered cars, they were gifted the pole and outside-pole positions (though not through merit, as they had qualified 3rd and 8th respectively on lap times). The Mazdas qualified 19th, 23rd, and 30th. It was clear that the 787B was not on the same level of outright pace as the rest of the field. The team would have to push extremely hard to remain in contact with its competitors, while preserving the longevity they had become known for.
The race began at 4pm on Saturday with the F1 powered 3.5 Peugeots jumping out to an early lead, however, neither would remain in the battle past nightfall. One Peugeot suffered fire damage in the pit lane, and eventually fell out with transmission failure, while the other required a wiring harness replacement due to a misfire that would eventually destroy the fragile engine. With the first six of 24 hours completed, the Sauber team Mercedes cars led the race in 1-2-3 formation. On a charge, however, the #55 Renown Mazda had managed to climb its way into 4th. The Saubers had a speed advantage; however the Mazda was lighter and slightly easier on fuel and the driver.
Driven by an enigmatic and eclectic crew of fringe-of-F1 drivers, the team included popular Englishman Johnny Herbert, French favorite Bertrand Gachot, and German Volker Weidler. Herbert had recovered from a horrific Formula 3000 incident where he nearly lost the use of his legs to find his way into Formula 1, and by 1990, had become a member of the Lotus team. Gachot was also a part of the Formula 1 circus in 1991, driving for Jordan Grand Prix, and showing substantial results for the small team. Weidler was given a chance at F1 racing in 1989 with the Rial Ford team, though the car was clearly uncompetitive as he failed to qualify at every round it contested. After his bout with the back of the F1 grid, Weidler moved to Japan where he contested the Japanese Formula 3000 series to much greater success.
Overnight, the battle was on to see who would falter first. The #55 Mazda kept applying pressure to the Saubers, and waited for the moment when they could move forward. The Sauber-Mercedes C11 coupes were a few seconds per lap quicker than the Mazda, but they never really moved out of reach. The first of the Saubers to drop out of contention was attributed to contact with debris at extremely high speed. This resulted in a lengthy repair, replacing the car’s aerodynamic undertray. Just after the halfway point, Karl Wendlinger had a spin on the track and brought his Mercedes through the pit lane informing his team that there were subsequent issues with the transmission gear selection. They tried soldiering forward over the next few hours with a succession of temporary fixes, but all was for naught and they eventually brought the car into the garage to change the entire gear cluster which dropped them well out of contention several laps adrift of the lead.
Coming through the overnight section of the race, Mazda held on to second place, only four laps in arrears of the lead. It soon became apparent that the leading Mercedes was in fuel conservation mode, and there was a possibility that they would not make the finish with their fuel allotment. Turning the wicks back up, the Mazda team clawed back to just over a lap behind the lead with two hours remaining. At this point in the race, a puff of smoke was visible coming from the leader. It seemed that the alternator stand had failed, snapping the water pump belt in the process and making the Mercedes engine a bit hot under the collar.
When the lead Mercedes pulled into the pits to fix the overheating issue, they lost 35 minutes, as well as the lead, to the Mazda. Only one lap later, the car would be pulled into the garage to avoid risking further damage. It was decided, and the race had been won. Superior longevity had bested outright speed, and the 787B had won the day. Herbert, showing his dedication to victory had opted to stay in the car at the end of his stint, and upon crossing the finish line and pulling the car to a stop, he collapsed of heat exhaustion and dehydration. He was taken to the track-side hospital for examination while his compatriots were ushered to the podium to accept their trophies.
Mazda had finally won the great event, and through perseverance had proven that they could take on the world. Where other Japanese efforts of the day, driven by Toyota and Nissan, had failed, Mazda stuck with a proven concept and developed it to the point of victory. While others had spent the preceding years adopting and dropping new chassis, suppliers, engines, drivers, and team members, Mazda had stubbornly developed and improved their concept until victory was possible.
After spending the last twenty years under lock and key at Mazda’s headquarters, 787B #55 has been fully restored. Occasionally being brought out of its hiding place for press events, Mazda fanatic car shows, and vintage exhibitions such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Monterey Historics at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the car has predominately been aging quietly in the Mazda museum. Bringing the car back to its former glory was no simple task, and the team has been hard at work for several months in preparation, but the fruits of their labor have finally been unveiled.
Wheeled out for a few demonstration laps at the 2011 Le Mans 24 hour event last month, the 787B looked as at home now as it did twenty years ago. The car was driven very carefully around the circuit by Mazda spokesman, semi-professional racer and automotive nut, Dr. McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey. Upon crawling from the prototype Dempsey mentioned that the car “has lots of personality”.
The following day, just before the start of the event, Johnny Herbert was reunited with his chariot of 20 years past. The event was emotional for Herbert, and he clearly enjoyed himself. While not exactly putting his foot in it, he certainly was not bashful in piloting the priceless piece of history around the lengthy circuit. Upon exiting the cockpit, Herbert provided some comic relief by re-enacting his famous fainting fit. After the hugs and handshakes, Herbert was invited to finally stand on the top step of the podium at Le Mans to celebrate the victory, only twenty years too late.