What happens when the rules of a sport change just as a team is at their best? How will the changes affect the sport? More importantly, how will it affect the teams competing? Will they adapt to the change? Or will they stick to what they know, and win with what they have? Mazda decided to go with the latter going into the 1991 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Mazda challenged all other manufacturers by racing with rotary engines, instead of using conventional piston engines. The stakes could not be higher, with this race being the last for Mazda to race their rotary engines, and the title of being the first Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Can they do it, or would it all be for nothing?
Before we can answer that, we need to go back to 1951. Our story starts with a German engineer, Felix Wankel, who had just begun developing his rotary engine. A rotary engine works in a very different way than regular piston engines. In a rotary engine, a triangular piece rotates within an oval chamber, with intake and exhaust ports on one side, and spark plugs on the other—removing the need for any weight costing parts like cylinder heads and camshafts and making the engine extremely light and compact. Because of these changes, a rotary engine can rev to extremely high speeds—nearly 11,000 revolutions per minute. Rotary engines can also run more efficiently and economically than piston engines in racing circumstances. But they require high maintenance, as the seals within the engine wear and break more commonly than in their piston counterparts, giving them a shorter life.
Felix Wankel made his first test run of his new rotary engine prototype in 1957. While revolutionary, it needed some improvements. Those improvements came in 1961, when Mazda bought Wankel’s designs, and got to work implementing the engine into a car. In 1967 Mazda released the Cosmo Sport. The first rotary engine powered car for the general public, which featured a two rotor engine. They worked to improve and innovate with the engine, eventually creating the iconic RX7. With the compactness of the engine, engineers could place the engine further into the car. This gives the car a near perfect weight displacement, along with being far lighter than its competition. Making rotary powered cars extremely competitive and agile on the road. While Mazda worked on furthering development of the rotary into their sports cars. Mazda’s race team, Mazdaspeed, went to work on making a race car out of the Cosmo Sport.
Mazdaspeed brought their Cosmo Sports to the 1968 Marathon de la Route. An eighty-four hour endurance race around one of the most legendary circuits in the world, the Nurburgring in Germany. Being a course of country roads, the track was unforgiving to any driver mistakes, and has taken the lives of many previous drivers. Even so, Mazda was ready to put their new sports car on display for the world, and prove its capability. Mazdaspeed entered two Cosmo Sports, numbered 18 and 19. As engineers made their final inspections, they placed their hopes in the drivers, as they made their way to the starting grid. The green flag flew, and the two cars sped away on the long and dangerous series of back roads. The race was long and cruel, testing not only the cars, but the drivers as well. Against all odds, by the eightieth hour, both Cosmos were running fourth and fifth in the race. But, misfortune can fall on anyone, and Mazda was no exception. The rear axle on car number 18 gave out, sending the car veering into a forest. Fortunately, the driver came out unharmed. But, not even misfortune could break Mazda’s spirit, as car 19 came across the finish line in fourth place, proving the power of the rotary engine. Now, Mazda was determined, and began work on a new race car. This car would compete in prototype racing, and was designated the 767.
The two rotor engine Mazda had been using in their sports cars was not enough to power a racecar. Mazdaspeed got to work on a new racing engine, creating the 2.6 Liter four rotor racing engine. Mazda raced the 767 first in 1988, and continued to work and develop it into the 767b, and eventually the 787. Mazda entered the new 787 in the 1990 race season with high hopes.
Starting the season, Mazda ran their new 787s, numbered 201 and 202, at the second round of the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship. The two 787s qualified 22nd and 23rd, and ran a majority of the race quite well. That was until the heat from the engines put a quick end to the race for the 787s. Number 201 sprung an oil leak that took the car out of the race, and Number 202 developed an electrical fire which would bring its race to a fiery end. These issues chased the 787s all throughout the rest of the season, causing early endings and undesired finishes for Mazdaspeed. Not only did the cars suffer from overheating, but the suspension geometry was hindering the cars’ performance, as the steering and suspension limited the tire size on the cars. This meant that the cars could not control as well as the drivers wanted them to, and slowed them down through the corners.
During the off-season, the Mazdaspeed spent their efforts on reworking and updating the 787’s design. The suspension and steering got reworked and rebuilt allowing better and wider tires to be fitted, and giving the drivers more control of the car as well as reworking the cooling of the engine, creating new ways for air to reach the engine and coolant systems. After running test and practice laps, the team was happy with the new and improved design. The engineers designated it the 787b, and began preparing it for race day.
While Mazda was reworking the 787, the organization that held the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), was looking to rework the rules regarding the engines of the cars. The minimum engine size was brought up to 3.5 Liters, to follow Formula 1’s rulebook. This would outlaw the 787b, as the four rotor engine that powered it displaced 2.6 Liters, 0.9 Liters under the limit. Things were looking bad for the 787b, and for Mazda as well. Their chance at being the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans was looking grim—until the lineup for the cars was announced. The sudden rule change meant that manufacturers did not have any time to adjust, or build cars pertaining to the new rule. Only Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Peugeot had cars that met the rulebook. Since the number of teams and cars was so low, the FIA had to let the cars built for the previous season compete—giving Mazda’s 787b one last shot to win Le Mans, which would make Mazda the first Japanese car manufacturer to win the European endurance race.
Reviewing the data from the 787s’ first races, engineers found that the rotary engine was more fuel efficient than competing cars. With this information, the team started making a plan for Le Mans. The team decided on taking two 787bs, and an older 787. One 787b and the older 787 were painted blue and white, while the remaining 787b boasted an orange and green paint job, sporting the number 55. Mazdaspeed assigned drivers Volker Weilder from Germany, Johnny Herbet from the United Kingdom, and Bertrand Gachot from France to Number 55. With Formula 1 drivers behind the wheel, and an experienced team working on the car, winning Le Mans seemed more and more possible.
Endurance racing follows a different set of rules compared to regular races. In a regular race, drivers have to complete a set amount of laps as fast as possible, or get the fastest time. When it comes to endurance racing, drivers must go the furthest distance. Which can become controversial as keeping track of the distance each car goes can become confusing. Even if a team holds the fastest lap time, they might get beaten by a slower team because that slower team traveled a few more miles than them. This became a controversy in 1966, when Ford wanted their GT40 cars to all cross the line together. The winners were thought to be Ken Miles and Denny Hulme, but after reviewing the data it was decided that Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. This was because since the cars finished side by side on the same lap, McLaren and Amon started from a further back starting position, going just a few paces more than Miles. This angered many fans, as this political move from Ford had just cost Miles a triple crown win. An unofficial motorsports achievement consisting of the 24 hours of Le Mans, 24 hours of Daytona, and the 12 hours of Sebring. This small difference in distance robbed Miles of the triple crown, and is still a hotly debated controversy today. Distance traveled is what wins the race in endurance, and Mazda had to make sure they made no mistakes.
Mazda arrived at Le Mans with high spirits. Since the cars met the older regulations, they were put in the C2 class. Since they were put in the C2 class, the cars had to adhere to the class’ fuel consumption regulation. This could put Mazda at a disadvantage, yet they continued forward. Gachot, Weidler, and Herbert, were instructed to drive the Number 55 as fast as possible, while the other teams would take a more conservative approach.
Car 55 qualified nineteenth, and would begin its chase for the win from there. As the green flag waved, car 55 took off at lightning pace. Quickly making its way to third, and even lapping one of the other 787s. While it was fast, it was outclassed by Jaguar, Mercedes- Benz, and Peugeot’s cars. But the crew of car 55 knew this, and had a plan. They would outlast the faster cars, with the efficiency of their rotary engine. Car 55 moved up to second, but was still chasing after first place. The drivers of the 787b ran as fast as they could to catch first place, but just could not match the incredibly fast pace of the Mercedes-Benz up front. That was until the Mercedes had to slow down to conserve fuel. This created an opening for the team of Number 55, which they took full advantage of. All four rotors of Number 55 were put to the test, as the car ran down the first place position. Lap after lap, mile after mile, they were reeling in the winning position. After hours of pushing the car to its limits, the Mazda passed the Mercedes with only two hours left on the clock. As Number 55 put more and more distance between it and the Mercedes, the team could not believe what they were seeing. They were leading the race now, and winning was within their grasp. The team asked the current driver, Johnny Herbet, if he would stay in the car to finish the race as he had the most experience driving Le Mans. Out of water and suffering from a leg injury from a previous race, which was thought to end his career, Herbert reluctantly agreed. Keeping his extreme pace, Herbert drove the Number 55 to the end and across the finish line.
With checkered flags waving, Herbert brought Mazda their only ever Le Mans win, and the title of the first ever Japanese car manufacturer to win the European endurance race. As Weilder and Gachot made their way to the podium, Herbert was rushed to the medical center. Severely dehydrated and in intense pain, he risked it all to bring Mazda their greatest win. As for the winning car, it was sent back to Hiroshima Japan, where it sits on display in Mazda’s Museum.
Mazda concluded their rotary powered racing program on a high note, and moved on to creating a racecar that followed the new FIA regulations. They would carry on the 787b’s legacy with their sports car, the RX7. Although the rules changed, that did not stop Mazda from competing at their best. With only one last shot at victory, and a unique idea powering their car, Mazda put everything on the line and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Achieving victory on the brink of defeat.