How Mazda won 24 Hours of Le Mans
Thirty years ago, at 4 pm on Sunday June 23, 1991, as Johnny Herbert flew down the Mulsanne Straight in his orange Mazda 787B, he received crackly news over the team radio. Herbert and his Mazdaspeed teammates—Mazda’s motorsports subsidiary—had won the brutal 24 Hours of Le Mans, endurance racing’s most famous event. It was an enormously popular and historic victory. No other rotary-powered car had ever won the race before, and Mazda was the first Japanese manufacturer to win the event. On the 30th anniversary of this famous victory, Mazda Stories looks back at how it came about, and what makes it so special.
The live French television broadcast of the race emphasizes how unexpected Mazda’s victory was in 1991. The commentator applauds the “rampaging” Johnny Herbert as he closes in on victory, and states that “no one would have bet a single yen” on Mazda winning before the race. (Dubbing and subtitles unavailable.)
The 787B’s success at the 1991 Le Mans race weekend was a decade in the making. In 1967 Mazdaspeed started life as an independent motor racing team launched by one of Tokyo’s largest Mazda dealerships: Mazda Auto Tokyo. Run by the indefatigable Takayoshi Ohashi, the team first entered Le Mans in 1974 and returned 13 times over the next 18 years. In 1983 Mazdaspeed became a subsidiary of Mazda Motor Corporation, and by the end of the 1980s Takaharu Kobayakawa—Program Manager of the Mazda RX-7—was responsible for Mazda’s motorsports activities; he and Ohashi would oversee the Le Mans initiative.
A regulation change meant Mazdaspeed knew the rotary engine that powered the car would be banned for the following season. It was now or never for the 787B. Elsewhere, Ohashi scored a small, but critical, victory in securing an amendment from FISA (the motorsports governing body at the time) allowing the 787B to run in its standard configuration, while the competition was required to add ballast as part of a new regulation. Finally, in the no. 55 car the three F1 drivers—Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot—gave Mazda hope that an overall win was possible.
The majority of the race was uneventful. A strong start saw Weidler carve through the pack and the car worked flawlessly through the night. With three hours to go, the Mazda no. 55 car was in second place. Suddenly, the first-placed Mercedes-Benz suffered engine complications and was forced to retire. The race was now Mazda’s to lose. The no. 55 stayed out front, securing the first overall victory for a Japanese team at Le Mans. And the team’s other race cars, the no. 18 and no. 56, prospered in the race, too, finishing sixth and eighth respectively, a huge achievement.
Johnny Herbert: the driver who finished first
Johnny Herbert belongs to an exclusive club of winners who never made their Le Mans victory podium. Rather than celebrating the trophy presentation with Mazdaspeed, he was unconscious at the track medical center. The race had taken its toll. Over the weekend Herbert had struggled for sleep, and nerves had meant only instant noodles would both stay down and provide sustenance.
As the final few hours of the race progressed, Mazdaspeed Team Principal Takayoshi Ohashi and Consultant Team Manager Jacky Ickx radioed Herbert asking him to extend his driving stint to the end of the race. With victory so close, Ohashi was unwilling to risk the uncertainty of an extra pit stop and driver change. Herbert agreed but, exhausted and badly dehydrated, it was only adrenaline that got him past the 24-hour mark to confirm the win.
Herbert had been introduced to the Mazdaspeed team by Mazda driver David Kennedy in 1990. Recovering from injuries sustained in a near career-ending crash in 1988, he was highly regarded and had good Formula 1 (F1) experience. Herbert says the Mazda was “a lot easier than an F1 car” to drive, with downforce and g-force both significantly less aggressive. The cabin of the 787B was beautifully laid out and comfortable, and “the rotary engine was absolutely fantastic.” He remembers it as “silky smooth” and, crucially, bulletproof in terms of reliability. Herbert laughs when he recalls the gearbox as the “slowest in the world,” but it was designed for endurance over speed. While contemporary Le Mans teams can change a gearbox in five minutes during a pit stop, in 1991 the box had to last the full 24 hours.
Herbert insists the excellent 787B was a product of a team operating at the peak of its powers. Ohashi was “very shrewd and had a great sense of humor.” He had spent the previous decade enrolling some “brilliant engineering minds” and embraced a truly international recruitment policy, getting in the likes of British car designer Nigel Stroud and Belgian six-time Le Mans winner Ickx as an advisor and consultant team manager.
“Mazdaspeed was a very small team compared to the might of the competition, such as Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar,” says Herbert. But by June 1991 the team was “in a perfect position because it had been through a huge learning process” over the previous years. Seasoned drivers such as Pierre Dieudonné and Yojiro Terada (among others) brought experience to the Mazdaspeed driving roster and, despite being considered underdogs, there was no doubting the “hard-earned” nature of the victory that would come.
Thirty years after the event, Herbert’s memory of the race is unclouded. He remembers the camaraderie with his fellow drivers as they competed to get as much speed from the car while sticking to the prescribed fuel economy figures (4.4 mpg of fuel). He remembers the “beautiful” scream of the 787B’s engine “as it ricocheted through the main grandstand and the paddock complex,” and through the night he remembers watching trackside race fans asleep in their chairs and sleeping bags, lit up by the 787B’s exhaust flame as he downshifted through the Indianapolis corner.
Mostly, though, Herbert remembers the “huge smile” that spread across Ohashi’s face as their main competition, a Mercedes-Benz, overheated and retired, ceding the race lead to the no. 55 787B. As the 24-hour mark was reached and the victory confirmed, Herbert recalls the fans rushing onto the track to confirm an “extremely popular” win. The no. 55 car became an icon, and that it took “27 years for another Japanese team to win Le Mans” is testament to the scale of Mazda’s achievement.
12th: Mazda’s starting place on the track
127.588 mph: the average speed of the winning 787B
1,829 lb: vehicle weight (374 lb lighter than the standard race cars)
Takaharu Kobayakawa, Mazda Motorsports Program Manager in 1991
Kobayakawa says that Pierre Dieudonné’s demand in 1989 for 100 hp more from the rotary engine stunned the engineering department at Mazda. It was left to Yasuo Tatsutomi, Mazda’s inspirational General Manager of Product Planning and Development, to find the extra power despite some of the team calling it “impossible” to achieve. Nevertheless, they rolled up their sleeves, canceled vacations and worked every hour possible. Eventually over 1,000 improvements for the engine were proposed. Ultimately, 80 of these were implemented and featured in the 1991 787B engine. After the win, the engine was returned to Japan and Kobayakawa asked for it to be stripped for analysis, and invited journalists to attend the process. The race engine was in such good condition Mazda believes it could have run another 24-hour race.
Pierre Dieudonné, Mazdaspeed driver of the no. 56 787 in 1991
Having won the 1981 Spa 24 Hours endurance race in a RX-7, Dieudonné was no stranger to success in a Mazda. But his memories of the 1991 Le Mans race are particularly special. During the race he recalls Johnny Herbert “suffering like hell” from his 1988 crash injuries, and watching bits of carbon work their way out of his feet between stints. “The team were not considered favorites,” he recalls, “[but Mazdaspeed] were technically strong and knew they had a chance.” He was also impressed by the Mazda team’s “relentless pursuit” of their ambitions and beliefs. Since 1991, Dieudonné has exclusively driven Mazdas. He currently owns a Mazda3; his wife drives a CX-5.
About Mazda racing
Mazda burst onto the global motorsports scene with the audacious entry of two rotary-powered Cosmo Sport 110Ss into the 1968 Marathon de la Route. This grueling 84-hour race at Nürburgring, Germany, was a huge challenge, yet one of the Cosmos nearly won, finally finishing fourth after experiencing a technical issue. With this race, Mazda had simultaneously announced its technical and racing prowess.
Since then, Mazda has seen much activity and success on the international motorsports stage, and that prowess looks set to continue. Very few manufacturers do as much to promote and fund grassroots motorsports. Mazda’s MX-5 sports car is one of the most widely raced vehicles in the world, and the marque’s specially prepared Global MX-5 Cup car variant has competed in numerous series.
In the U.S., Mazda is currently enjoying sustained success with the RT24-P endurance racing program in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Words Tommy Melville
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