Those who are familiar with the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will no doubt remember the single car that took Mazda and the whole of Japan to history books in 1991 – the orange and green-clad number 55 Mazda 787B. The win was historically significant enough that it paved the way to the minds of every Mazda fan in existence, and the fandom that came with it, immortalized in books or video games.
This is the very car that garnered firsts in its maiden victory – the first Japanese car to ever win the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the first car to win with a rotary engine – a far cry against other piston-propelled competitors in its time. In fact, Mazda has been nurturing this powertrain for decades that it has been used for numerous applications, including a long-standing racing history since the late 60s with the Cosmo Sport.
If you’re reading this and have no idea how a rotary engine works, read further. A rotary engine utilizes triangular-shaped rotors in an oval barrel-like housing instead of reciprocating pistons, rotating an output shaft to perform the same tasks as a piston engine would – drawing in the air/fuel mixture as the rotor spins, compressing it the chamber wall, igniting it with the chamber spark plugs, producing gases which exit through the exhaust port. This allows for fewer moving parts, and a smaller engine to be built, which meant better reliability, and can produce as much power as a conventional engine with a higher displacement. Since the moving parts are rotational, it allows for smoother engine movement, allowing it to reach higher revs.
In the Mazda 787B’s case, it houses the R26B, an evolved version of the 13J quad rotor racing engine that was used in its predecessor, the 767, tweaked to 2.6 liters in displacement. The engine was also used in the 787 during the previous season, and was rumored to produce onwards of 900 hp at 10,300 rpm unrestricted, but was limited to 650hp at 8500 rpm for longevity even along the long straight section at Circuit de la Sarthe, with its thirsty fuel consumption at over 200 mph being a major drawback of this engine. Other improvements made to the R26B include more durable carbon fiber apex seals for the rotor housing, variable geometry intakes, and larger intake trumpets.
A 5-speed manual racing transmission was provided by Porsche to supplement the monster behind the driver. The chassis was also made stiffer and implemented the use of carbon brake discs. Altogether, it contributed to a smoother, grippier ride than the 787 and the 767 that preceded it. The 1991 season would see the rotary engine’s final hurrah as the next season outlawed its use, so Mazda had to make those upgrades count, and with Mazda’s expertise in rotary engines that traces back to the sixties, they would finally see their labor borne much fruit.
The longevity of the 787B helped Mazda secure 4th place after being told to push hard for the first 6 hours of the race, catching up with the leading Mercedes C11s. The orange and green liveried number 55 787B, with Bertrand Gachot, Volker Weidler, and Johnny Herbert went on to capture 1st place during the last two hours of the race until the end, partly thanks to the team’s consistency throughout the race as well, beating the leading V12 powered Jaguar XJR-12s.
During the post-race inspection, officials have found out that the engine powering the Mazda 787B was still in excellent condition to run for another 24 hours. The company would hold the title of being the first Japanese company ever to win the ever-grueling, ever-punishing 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as the only Japanese company to do so for 27 years, with Toyota winning the race in 2018.
The Mazda 787B was a car that left a long-lasting legacy to fans and enthusiasts alike for generations after its win, signifying the climax of “Le Japon Attack”, Japan’s unrelenting assault in Le Mans, the only race that Japanese manufacturers are trying hard to win, and later made known that it will be an unrelenting force in the international stage.
In the 2000s, Mazda North America began to focus on motorsports again. The RX-8 GT equipped with a 3-rotor RE was entered into the 24-hours of Daytona. The RX-8 GT took GT class victory in 2008 and 2010. Gaining momentum, the number of competing RX-8 GTs rapidly increased and won the Grand Am GT series title in 2010. When the RX-8 was discontinued in 2012, it was replaced by the Mazda 6 Skyactiv-D equipped with a Skyactiv-D 2.2 engine. It became the 2013 Grand-Am GX class champion.
In 2014, when the IMSA sports car series was established, Mazda North America entered the top Prototype class category. In 2016, Mazda introduced a car equipped with a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder turbocharged engine, and from the 2017 season when the new vehicle regulations came into effect, Mazda developed the Mazda RT24-P, which incorporates the brand’s Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language. In the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which tours throughout the United States, Mazda has won three consecutive races since its first victory in 2019 and has quickly become one of the top teams. In 2020, the team finished second overall at the 24 Hours of Daytona and also won the final race, the 12 Hours of Sebring, among others.
Article contributed to Alain Geronimo