Identifying the coolest car of endurance racing’s infamous Group C era should be an exercise fraught with risk and potential disquiet. After all, this was the era which gave the motorsport world such immense machines as the Jaguar XJR-9, the Porsche 956 and the Sauber C9. All immensely potent, significant and cool cars in their own right, no doubt about that, yet all found wanting when ranged against the subject of this piece, a fully paid-up Retropower Hero and also one the most evocative race cars of all time – the Mazda 787b. 

Part of this is the sheer chutzpa associated with taking a thirsty, complex and famously temperamental design of engine, the rotary, then setting about using it to form the basis for one of the most gruelling motorsport showcases ever conceived, the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Actually achieving its aim took Mazda many years of bloody, sweat and tears, a massive percentage of the company’s treasure reserves and a smidge of luck, but Mazda did eventually crack it. The 797b took overall victroy in the 1991 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, becoming in the process the only Japanese car maker to have done so (until Toyota’s somewhat hollow win last year), and also the only victory for a car powered by something other than a reciprocating engine.

Mazda first tasted rotary flavoured endurance success with the RX7 of 1981, the winner of the 24 Hours of Spa

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because the story of the 787b actually began in the early half of the 1980s, when Mazda was a tiny (tinier) car company with a correspondingly small range of models. A rotary powered, TWR-developed RX7 won the Spa 24 Hours in 1981, effectively a warning shot across the bows for the conventionally powered opposition – but one almost completely overlooked all the same. 

The failure of Jaguar, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan and co to take Mazda’s sporting ambitions seriously are more understandable when you consider the scale of the challenge it still faced. It was one thing taking a production car like the RX7, fettling it for race use and doubling down on reliability to allow it to last for a long haul endurance like Spa, quite another to design a clean-sheet racer to compete in Group C, the top of the Sports Car tree. 

The Mazda 787 of 1990: close, but no cigar

Fast forward a little under a decade, and your average race fan could have been forgiven for thinking that the challenge had proved too great. Mazda were still competing at Le Mans and had taken massive strides in performance, reliability and competitiveness, but it was still not in a position to win. The 787 of 1990 had been fast but thirsty, and both cars retired before half distance. 

Mazda went back to the drawing board, committed to making the 787’s successor more reliable, frugal, easier to drive for extended periods of time…and also more powerful. The addition of a fourth rotor back in 1989 had been challenging enough, so extracting more power (as much as 100bhp more) while at the same time enhancing the R26B’s power band was no small task, particularly given its famed thirst and the tightly worded regulations of the time.

A variable induction system was a big part of Mazda’s eventual success in this regard, as were revision to the ignition setup, and meant that the ‘b’ would now deliver 95% of its peak torque figure between 6000 and 9000rpm. Good, but not quite enough, at least as far as Mazda’s now fanatically efficiency minded engineers were concerned.

The 787b’s quad rotor R26B engine

The then recent addition of chicanes to the Mulsanne straight had placed a renewed importance on braking efficiency while also presenting Mazda with an opportunity. By swapping the 1990 787’s iron discs for carbon ones the team was able to reduce weight and therefore improve both acceleration and handling. This was good, but more importantly from an efficiency point of view was that the carbon brakes would last for longer and could therefore be counted on to last the distance of the full 24 Hours. Less time spent stationary in the pits was the be all and end all, and only completed laps mattered.

This commitment to maximising the team’s lap tally through fanatical fuel efficiency was at its most obvious when it came to the drivers tasked with getting it to the end of the race. Volker Weidler (a seasoned rotary racer), Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot were asked to relearn their approach to driving a race car: nailing fastest laps for pace alone was out, replaced by a commitment to netting 1.85km per litre of fuel – with the quickest lap possible while remaining within this window the overall aim.

Driving within Mazda’s strict fuel consumption window proved taxing for all concerned, but there could be no doubting its worth come the end of the 1991 race

Dull to the point of anathema to motor racing as it might sound, fuel efficiency would prove key to Mazda’s success at Le Mans in 1991. Not that the pair of 787bs (and one 787) were anything approaching favourites come the beginning of the race, and this despite its arch rivals at Toyota and Nissan having been denied entry to Le Mans through their failure to full support the Sportscar World Championship. Jaguar and Sauber-Mercedes were the undoubted favourites, not least as their respective cars, the XJR-12 and C11, were quicker than the manic, flame-spitting 787b. 

Confirmation of Mazda’s status as a rank outsider was seemingly provided come qualifying, when the lead 787b was placed 19thon the grid, leaving its crews with an uphill task. There seemed to be no way for the Japanese cars to compete for overall victory, what with their cars being at least 200bhp down on the better financed opposition. And initially at least, it showed: the XJ-12s and Sauber C11s were visibly faster, lapped quicker, and were able to make the early running. 

The more powerful Sauber C11s and Jaguar XJR-12s were expected to fight it out for the win, but fate had other ideas

Things only began to go Mazda’s way much later in the race, when the C11s began to drop like flies, felled by a litany of mechanical gremlins associated with bent selector forks, not to mention the odd off-track excursion. Over at Jaguar, and things weren’t exactly going to script, either. The venerable XJR-12s were more powerful than they’d ever been but also incredibly thirsty, forcing their drivers to coast into corners in a desperate attempt to save valuable fuel. 

The pivotal moment occurred late in the race, when the hitherto pace setting C11 pulled into the pits three hours from the end of the race, smoke billowing from its turbocharged V8. The engine, and any hopes of a Mercedes victory, was cooked. The C11’s scant, four lap advantage evaporated, and the lead of Mazda of Johnny Herbert snuck through to a lead it would hold to the end. 

There’s little cooler than a dirty race car…except perhaps a dirty race car powered by a nest of manic bees!

That victory was – and is – incredibly important, make no mistake. But it’s probably not why the 787b has left such an indelible impression on Le Mans specifically and motorsport in general. No, that probably has as much to do with the aural spectacle this thing made on each and every single spectator watching at La Sarthe that weekend. Automotive writers far, far more gifted than ourselves have tried and failed to convey the sheer drama of the R26B at full tilt, but imagine something akin to a nest of wasps being forcibly inserted into a Siberian tiger, and you’ll be somewhere close.

We can’t transport everyone reading this back to northern France, sadly, so this video of the 787b’s triumphant return in 2011 will have to do. Speakers up. Like, way, waaaaay up. 

Mazda has never been shy about trumpeting its triumphant 1991 visit to La Sarthe – and rightly so!

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