Memories of 24 Hours

Twenty-four years ago, Mazda became the first – and so far only – Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Mazda North American Operations Vice President of Operations Robert Davis, who also happens to be a racer himself, says he is often asked when he will stop talking about Mazda’s 1991 victory in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. His stock answer is, “When another Japanese manufacturer wins.”

So far that hasn’t happened. Mazda is the first, and so far only, Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On the eve of this year’s edition, it seems fitting to look back on that victory.

In 1991, Group C, which formed the top class of endurance racing, was in a state of transition. The rules had changed for that year, with the prototypes using the same engine rules that Formula 1 was using at the time, 3.5-liter, normally aspirated, piston engines. The only problem is there simply weren’t enough of the cars that complied with the new rules to fill the grid. So older Group C cars were allowed to compete in the race – the only reason the Mazda R26B 2.4-liter four-rotor-powered 787Bs were able to start.

The plan was to reserve the top 10 spots on the grid for the cars meeting the current rules. However, several manufacturers that had both chose to race the older-spec cars, meaning only Peugeot raced cars meeting the 1991 regulations.

But the Peugeots, in their inaugural year, were not reliable (but would go on to win in 1992 and ’93). Neither were the Sauber Mercedes. But the No. 55 787B in its now-famous orange-and-green argyle paint job – courtesy of sponsor Renown, a Japanese clothing company – was not only fast, it was nearly flawless. With reliability and fuel economy on their side, the team of Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot came from their mid-pack qualifying position to cover 362 laps and 4932.2km, a record on the Circuit de la Sarthe, modified with the Mulsanne Straight chicanes a year before.

The other two 787Bs entered by Mazdaspeed finished sixth and eighth, with three Jaguar XJR-12s following the No. 55, a Sauber Mercedes-Benz C11 in fifth and a Porsche 962C in seventh.

While there are no Mazdas in this year’s edition of the race, Mazda has stated its desire to return with an LMP2 car in 2016, should the rules allow it. Until that time, enjoy this video of Herbert driving the winning No. 55 at Le Mans on the 20th anniversary of the victory in 2011. And, if you’re anywhere near the Goodwood Festival of Speed later this month, don’t miss this and several other historic Mazda racecars as the event celebrates Mazda’s motorsports heritage.