Thirty years ago today, Mazda won Le Mans with the rotary powered 787B
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On this date, 30 years ago, Mazda became the first and only (at the time) Japanese car manufacturer to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race. The now iconic Japanese clothing manufacturer Renown-sponsored red and green Mazda 787B took victory, driven by Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot.
One-upping the 767’s 13J triple rotor engine, the 787B featured what is arguably one of the loudest and most intense engines in automotive history, the peripheral ported 2.6-litre 26B quad-rotor rotary engine, with variable length trumpets that telescoped depending on revs and throttle position to maximize power and torque – and also making it the first non-piston engine to win the race.
Unleashed, the engine produced 670kW at 10,000rpm, for the race it was deemed that fuel economy dictated its limited being lowered to 485kW and 8500rpm.
Mazda hadn’t been viewed as an outright contender before the race, but the team had exploited a loophole in the rules, which stated that naturally aspirated, rotary-powered old Group C1 cars could run at 850kg (not 1000kg); so the Mazda wasn't required to run at 1000kg, but at 850kg, and eventually managed to run at 830kg.
With two team cars in Mazda blue and white, a sister 787B ran a lower gear ratio to use less fuel, but was 20km/h slower, while the third car was the 1990-spec 787.
A race of survival, the three leading Sauber Mercedes suffered mechanical problems, the fourth-placed Mazda inherited the lead, and finished ahead of the three Silk Cut Jaguars to claim a popular victory.
Mazda celebrated the 20th anniversary of the victory by wheeling out the number 55 winner at the French racetrack before the 2011 event, driven by Johnny Herbert, demonstrating its piercing sound, while it continues to make appearances at events around the world including Goodwood.
Japanese brand Toyota has won Le Mans for the last three years.