Sign Up

Our Privacy Policy identifies how we handle personal information in accordance with the Privacy Act. Read it prior to submitting your information.

By clicking “Register” you agree to our Terms Of Use and Privacy Policy.

When the Japanese won at Le Mans

During the late-1980s and early-1990s there was a race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to become the first Japanese manufacturer to win at arguably the world’s most prestigious event.

Nissan, Toyota and Mazda all entered Group C prototype Monsters at La Sarthe, but none were able to topple Porsche until 1991.

And it was the smallest manufacturer of the three.

Featuring its Wankel Rotary technology and running on a budget much smaller than its rivals, Mazda achieved a truly underdog result by taking victory with its 787B.

Marked as its final event to take the ultimate glory, it proved a successful last gasp attempt as rule changes the next year left rotaries out as the regulations moved towards units closer to Formula 1.

Mazda expanded its motorsport horizons during the 1970s by racing in Japan, Australia, Britain and America primarily with its RX-3, then latter the RX-7 winning multiple titles with its Wankel technology.

Highlighted in Britain first when Win Percy drove a Tom Walkinshaw RX-7 to title victories in the British Touring Car Championship and Allan Moffat replicated this in 1983 racing the highly competitive Australian series.

For 1983, it marked a further expansion for Mazda into prototype sports car racing where it continued to hone and develop its rotary engine from a road-going derived compromise to an absolute beast.

Featuring four rotors, with three spark plugs each, peripheral intake ports, ceramic apex seals, continuously variable, telescope intake runners to enhance torque as fuel economy was a major advantage for the Wankel engine.

Disappointment at Le Mans for Japanese manufacturers’ was not immune to Mazda as both Nissan and Toyota had experienced heartbreak there during the closing stages of the 1980s. A disappointing 1990 led to Mazda reevaluating the 787 package providing an extra 100bhp on top of the 630bhp already achieved and further improved fuel economy.

This was achieved by making 80 improvements to the engine and drivers were trained by six-time Bathurst winner Jacky Ickx to be smooth with the throttle. Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot started 19th despite qualifying 12th due to the FIA elevating entries meeting its preferred regulations into the top 10 spots, however the previous winners in the Porsche 962s and Walkinshaw Jaguars were lumped with extra weight. This had an adverse reaction to fuel economy and therefore led to these previously dominant entries to fall down the pecking order.

How was the Mazda not carrying this extra weight? Team boss Takayoshi Ohashi petitioned for an exemption and it was granted leading to the 787B weighing a remarkable 830kg.

Sauber Mercedes was the major rival to a Mazda victory, but various reliability problems ensured the challenge was stymied.

A heroic effort from Herbert, who was rising to the heights of Formula 1 after what can be described as a death-defying crash in F3000 in 1987 completed a fairytale result for the programme.

It proves memorable to this day due to the 787B’s dayglo orange and green appearance in addition to the high-pitched wail of the Wankel engine.

Experience this first hand at the Repco Adelaide Motorsport Festival on March 16-17.