Mazda’s triumph at Le Mans, revisited 30 years later

Thirty years ago today, to the day, a moment of joyous history enveloped Mazda, of all car companies, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A rules change limiting Group C sports prototypes to 3.5 liters of displacement was mandated in 1991, which ensured that Le Mans that year turned into a wild shootout among several big names in the car world, all of which pulled into town packing brand-new Group C gear, including Mazda, which entered a pair of its 787 prototypes fabricated in the United Kingdom by Advanced Composite Technology, and powered by shrieking 2.6-liter four-rotor Wankel-cycle engines, the kind of powerplant that made Mazda famous on these shores, with natural aspiration and three plugs per rotor. When the tricolor dropped to start the race, the bullet-fast Peugeot 905s came to grief, and the new 3.5-liter cars from Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz failed to make the show. That left Mazda to scream to a nearly uncontested two-lap victory, the first at Le Mans by a Japanese automaker, and the only running of the race won by a non-piston-powered car. Subsequent rule changes all but assure that a rotary-powered car will never run again at the Sarthe.

The winning 787 was shared by Volker Wieldler, Bertrand Gachot and Formula 1 journeyman Johnny Herbert, the last of whom nearly collapsed from dehydration and had to be lifted from the car. In part due to Mazda’s parent firm, Toyo Kogyo, marking its centennial last year, the automaker has unveiled a new website that commemorates the Le Mans triumph, which you can access right here. Among the tastiness it provides is a technical history of the R26B four-rotor engine, which produced output numbers that could match the volume of its deafening exhaust: Try 700 reliable horsepower at 9,000 RPM, without turbocharging. That’s indeed a screamer.

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