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How overlooked Mazda produced one of Le Mans' greatest shocks

The screaming rotary-engined Mazda 787 is regarded as one of the most popular Le Mans 24 Hours-winning cars, but was never regarded a likely victor until its surprise success in 1991. A new technical partner, some canny political manoeuvring and a rival's bizarre self-inflicted weakness proved vital, as Autosport reflected on the 30th anniversary of its success in 2021

Mazda 1991 Le Mans

There were a pair manufacturers at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours trying to make it two wins from two starts at the French classic. Jaguar was aiming to repeat its 1990 triumph, while Mercedes was looking to follow up on its 1989 victory after a year away. Then there was Porsche with the factory-backed Joest team and its flotilla of privateers, 15 Group C cars in total.

Peugeot had arrived with a big budget and ambitions to match as it flew the Tricolore in the pursuit of a first home win at La Sarthe since 1980. But there was another manufacturer going for outright honours at the 24 Hours. Mazda flew right under the radar and on to a famous victory with Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler.

There was a lot to write about ahead of Le Mans that year, so much so that one sportscar journalist of high renown omitted to mention the Japanese manufacturer in his pre-event previews. And why should he have paid much attention to a marque that had become a fixture on the Le Mans grid without bettering seventh position with its quirky rotary-engined prototypes?

Sure, there had been a quartet of GTP class victories, but they were largely won by the stroke of the pen. Mazda entered its cars from the mid-1980s in the poorly-supported US IMSA class rather than Group C in order to have a victory of sorts to shout about on Monday morning.

More to the point, Mazda's previous campaign in 1990 had been a disaster. It did notch up a fourth consecutive GTP victory, but the only one of its trio of cars to make the finish was classified down in 20th place, 55 laps behind the winning TWR Jaguar.

The failure of 1990 explains the media's oversight, but also why Jaguar, Mercedes et al didn't object when Mazda lobbied for a helping hand from the rule makers.

The 1991 season was one of transition as what was now known as the Sportscar World Championship moved over to the new 3.5-litre Group C rules. The old breed of fuel-formula car were slowed for 1991 as part of that process.

Mazda was unaffected by the weight increases of its rivals which allowed it to run more efficiently on fuel

Mazda was unaffected by the weight increases of its rivals which allowed it to run more efficiently on fuel

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The likes of Jaguar's XJR-12D and the Mercedes-Benz C11 would have to run at a whopping 1000kg minimum weight at Le Mans. The rotary Mazda was scheduled to race at 880kg. The 3.5-litre cars, Peugeot's 905 included, were down at 750kg, and with no limitation on the amount of fuel they could run.

But the Mazda didn't run at 880kg. And the reason it didn’t lay in the diplomatic skills of the late Takayoshi Ohashi, boss of the Mazdaspeed competitions department and the architect of the marque's Le Mans campaigns dating back to 1981. He persuaded the powers that be that the latest Mazda should race at the same 830kg minimum enforced the previous year.

“It was definitely Mr Ohashi getting close with the official bodies,” recalls long-time Mazda driver Pierre Dieudonne, who was transitioning into a sporting role in 1991. “But the second factor was that the other manufacturers didn’t see us as a threat – we weren’t on their radar."

"Hugues pushed for new parts to be sent from Japan, and we went again and completed the test. That was perhaps ORECA's biggest contribution to the success at Le Mans that year" Pierre Dieudonne

Mazda had introduced a new four-rotor engine in 1990, the R26B, but the step forward that it represented over its predecessor, the R13J, was masked by technical problems that resulted in that distant 20th place for its GTP 'winner' and two retirements.

"We had a much better engine for that year, but because of our problems people didn't notice the increased performance," explains Dieudonne. "If someone had looked closely at the figures, I'm sure they would have noticed."

The disappointment of 1990 with the new engine and a new car for the pen of British designer Nigel Stroud, the 787, played another role in Mazda's victory the following year. It abandoned its long-standing relationship with the British Alan Docking Racing squad in favour of going with a new partner to run its European operations. There were a number of teams in the mix, Ray Mallock Limited included, but the deal eventually went to ORECA.

PLUS: The designer behind Japan's first Le Mans winner 

Back then the French organisation wasn't synonymous with endurance racing, as it is today. Its background was firmly in the single-seater ranks in Formula 3 and Formula 3000, and its previous Le Mans campaigns were in the distant past.

Herbert, Weidler and Gachot stormed to famous win in rotary 787

Herbert, Weidler and Gachot stormed to famous win in rotary 787

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The reason for the leftfield choice was six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx. He'd been brought in as a consultant by Mazda for 1990 and had enjoyed some success in the rally-raid arena with an ORECA-built and run Lada.

"I convinced the Japanese to go with Hugues [de Chaunac, ORECA founder]," recalls Ickx. "He's unique, so professional. I knew from the Lada programme how good his organisation was."

ORECA would provide Mazdaspeed's European base, field its solo full-season SWC entry and take charge of two of its cars at Le Mans, though not the winning orange-and-green 787B. De Chaunac's legendary attention to detail would give Mazda's campaign a renewed impetus in the build-up to the French enduro in 1991.

He insisted on a programme of intensive endurance testing that year, but the first long-distance simulation scheduled for February was called off as a result of the Gulf War. Two months later, its attempt to get through a Le Mans distance at Paul Ricard was beset by problems.

"The April test was plagued by poor weather and electrical problems for the car, and the Japanese were ready to go back home, but Hugues said, 'No, we have to find a solution'," recalls Dieudonne. "Hugues pushed for new parts to be sent from Japan, and we went again and completed the test. That was perhaps ORECA's biggest contribution to the success at Le Mans that year."

De Chaunac remembers long-distance conference calls back to Japan with the late Ohashi.

"I was trying to convince Mr Ohashi that we must try again," he says. "I kept telling him 'you must believe me'. We did the test and it as a big success. We did 24 or 26 hours without a problem."

ORECA boss de Chaunac (right) was key in ironing out Mazda's reliability issues

ORECA boss de Chaunac (right) was key in ironing out Mazda's reliability issues

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Mazda had an unburstable car by the time June rolled around and the trio of young guns were told to drive the thing flat out. Ickx had convinced his sometimes conservative paymasters to adopt what was then a new strategy for the marque.

"We'd always been pushing to run faster, but the Japanese had always been so conservative," recalls long-time Mazda designer Stroud, who had refined his 787 for 1991. "I remember the big strategy meeting on the Friday [of race week] and Jacky saying, 'Let's go balls out'.

"Once they'd heard it from him, it sealed it. To them, he was God."

"We were told to just go for it, and if we crashed or the car didn't last it didn't matter," recalls Gachot of a group of drivers nicknamed 'The Hooligans' on their debut with Mazda the previous year. "We were supposed to be the rabbits. We took every kerb, but we were confident that the car was going to last. I think we had one bulb go, that's all."

"Gachot really won that race for us. Weidler was out and out the fastest of the three, but Gachot went the quickest on the least amount of fuel. That gave the other two something to aim for" Nigel Stroud

Dieudonne remembers a single mistake by the winning trio. He can't be sure, but he thinks it was Herbert. But the gyration had little consequence: "He definitely kept it on the road."

The B-spec version of the 787 was loved by its drivers. Stefan Johansson, who ended up sixth in the second of the Mazdas along with David Kennedy and Maurizio Sandro Sala, describes it as "an incredible racing car".

"It wasn't twitchy or nervous as cars of that era could be," he says. "It was a strong and simple car that was easy to drive even though it didn't have a lot of downforce. And the engine was amazing. It was bulletproof: you couldn't overrev the thing if you tried."

Designer Stroud credits Gachot (right, with Herbert) as being the lightest on fuel

Designer Stroud credits Gachot (right, with Herbert) as being the lightest on fuel

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The second of the 787Bs — the third car was still in 1990-spec — was never in the hunt come the race. Kennedy persuaded the team to go for a low-ratio top gear ahead of the start, a move that blunted its chances.

"I went out of the pits on the first lap and thought, tell me this isn't true?" remembers Johansson. "We were sitting on the straight on the rev-limiter, using more fuel than the other car."

The fuel mileage the winning Mazda could attain proved crucial in its battle with the trio of Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-12Ds that finished in second, third and fourth positions. TWR had to tell the drivers of the second-placed car, Raul Boesel, Davy Jones and Michel Ferte, to back off in the final hours to eke out their fuel allocation, while the other two Jags suffered minor delays.

"We had to instil into the drivers that it was all about going as fast as possible on the least amount of fuel," says Stroud. "Gachot really won that race for us. Weidler was out and out the fastest of the three, but Gachot went the quickest on the least amount of fuel. That gave the other two something to aim for."

If Ohashi, Ickx, de Chaunac and Gachot were central to Mazda's victory, so too was an unidentified individual who made what seemed like an inconsequential decision deep inside the Mercedes engine department at Unterturkheim in Stuttgart.

The German manufacturer should have won the race that year and was on course to do so with a little over two hours left on the clock. The carbon-chassis C11 that had helped the Sauber-run team blitz the previous year's championship was the class of the field at Le Mans that year. The car shared by Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass and Alain Ferte was three laps up the road when the alternator bracket failed just as the last-named was passing the pits.

Insight: The greatest cars never to win Le Mans

Both the alternator and the water pump were driven by the same belt, so by the time the Frenchman completed the long Le Mans lap, the engine was rooted. The sister car shared by young guns Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Fritz Kreutzpointner had sustained an identical failure just half an hour before, but it had been caught before the twin-turbo engine was damaged.

Schlesser, Mass, Ferte Mercedes C11

Schlesser, Mass, Ferte Mercedes C11

Photo by: Motorsport Images

With such a healthy margin at the front of the field, Sauber had considered changing the bracket on the lead car as a precaution. It was concluded, however, that the failure was a one-off. The offending part that had never shown any weakness since Sauber had started running the Mercedes V8 back in the mid-1980s.

Friday favourite: The ultimate Group C turbo car that missed its main objective

What wasn't understood at the time was that bracket had been be anodised for 1991 in an attempt to make the engine bay look just that little bit prettier. It caused what Leo Ress, the designer of the car, describes as an "overageing", resulting in the component becoming brittle.

How and why the bracket came to be anodised, Ress isn’t sure. “That’s the problem when organisations get bigger,” he says. “I don’t want to blame Mercedes, but I’m sure someone there knows.”

The stars had aligned to make Mazda the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans overall. No one saw it coming, not the so-called experts of the press and certainly not its rivals.

Herbert's victorious Mazda is greeted by fans as it returns to the paddock

Herbert's victorious Mazda is greeted by fans as it returns to the paddock

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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