30th Anniversary of The Mazda 787B’s Victory At Le Mans
The 787B is one of the all-time greats. It has a stunning livery, it sounds like hell, and it made Mazda the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans.
It’s written in the petrolhead handbook that you have to know about the 787B. Some recognise it from its racing pedigree and others will have discovered it whilst playing video games like Gran Turismo.
The rotary is an unorthodox engine compared to most race cars and road cars. It’s well known for its distinctive sound and high-revving nature, but unfortunately also known to be high maintenance and unreliable in road cars like the Mazda RX-7 and RX-8. The four-rotor 26B found in the middle of the 787B is a work of art with a soundtrack to match. Johnny Herbert, driver of the no.55 Le Mans winning car, stated that the engine was “silky smooth and bulletproof in terms of reliability”.
Mazda had been using rotary-engined cars at Le Mans since the early ‘70s but had no overall wins. The Japanese company knew that 1991 was the last year that a rotary car could compete due to regulation changes for the 1992 race. Mazdaspeed improved on the 787 from 1990 by lengthening the wheelbase 25mm, fitting carbon brakes behind larger 18-inch wheels, and then improving the aerodynamics and cooling capabilities of the car. The result was a 700hp fire-breathing monster that revved to 9000rpm.
Mazda took three cars to the ‘91 race, two 787Bs and one 787. The number 55 787B was shared by a trio of Formula 1 drivers in Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler, and Bertrand Gachot. At 4am, the halfway point of the race, the number 55 car sat in 2nd place behind the leading Mercedes-Benz.
With three hours to go, the Mercedes suffered an engine failure, leaving the 2nd placed 787B with the pleasant task of running down the final laps to victory. The other 787B finished in a respectable 6th, with the older 787 not far behind in 8th.
The winning car, chassis number 002, now finds itself in Hiroshima at Mazda HQ where it’s maintained and kept in full working condition. The 787B remains a famous car in both the physical and virtual world even after all these years since its victory.
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