During the late eighties and early nineties, Japanese manufacturers had great success in motorsport. Honda’s engines dominated Formula 1, the Nissan GT-R R32 destroyed its competition in Group A and Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru had great success in the world of rallying.
One race that had eluded Japanese manufacturers was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This all changed in 1991 when Mazda’s 787B crossed the line in first place, making it the one and only time a rotary powered car has won the event.
To celebrate the incredible Mazda 787B we are going to be covering the complete history of it and some important facts you need to know about the car. This article is broken up into a number of different sections, so use the table of contents below to skip to the section you want to read.
Table of Contents
The History of the Mazda 787B
In 1951, NSU Motorenwerke AG in Germany began the development of an engine that would become symbolic with the Mazda name. The engine was developed by Felix Wankel and the first working prototype started up for the first time on February 1, 1957. This engine was of course the Wankel rotary engine that would feature in some of Mazda’s most iconic sports cars and race machines.
Mazda and NSU signed an agreement to develop the Wankel engine in 1961 and Mazda released their first rotary powered car in 1967. The company put major engineering effort into the development of the Wankel rotary engine as a way of differentiating itself from other Japanese automakers.
Make sure you check out our video on the history of the 787B below!
To develop the Wankel rotary engine and show that it was better than more conventional powerplants, Mazda decided to enter the world of motorsport. A Wankel powered Cosmo placed fourth at the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the legendary Nürburgring circuit in Germany, showing the world that the rotary engine could be incredibly reliable.
Following the Cosmo, Mazda and its motorsport team Mazda Sports Corner (known as Mazdaspeed from 1983) entered a series of different cars in various different motorsport events. Throughout the 1980s, they produced a number of endurance machines starting with the 717C prototype.
In 1988, two Mazda 767s were entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, finishing 17th and 19th overall. For the next year, Mazda returned with an upgraded version of the 767 known as the 767B. Two of these B versions of the car finished 7th and 9th overall, a lone 767 finished 12th.
While these results were promising, Mazda was still far off winning the event and many believed Toyota or Nissan would be the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans.
Developing the 787
The initial design of the 787 was based on the 767 and 767B. Many of the mechanical elements of the 767 were carried over by the 787’s designer, Nigel Stroud. However, some major changes were made to improve performance.
The most notable change was the replacement of the 767’s 13J Wankel rotary engine for the new 2.6-litre R26B engine. This custom-built rotary engine featured a near identical layout and displacement as the 13J, but featured new design elements such as three spark plugs per rotor, continuously variable intakes, carbon fibre apex seals and variable length trumpets.
With these improvements the 4-rotor, naturally aspirated R26B engine could produce as much as 930 horsepower at 10,500rpm, however, Mazda’s engineers limited it to 650hp at 8,500rpm to improve reliability and longevity.
Mazda mated the R26B engine to a five-speed gearbox manufactured by Porsche. The Porsche manufactured transmission also featured on the 767/767B.
Along with the changes made to the engine, Mazda also relocated the car’s radiators to allow for smoother bodywork. On the 767 the radiators were placed beside the cockpit, but these were replaced by a single radiator integrated into the nose of the 787.
The 787’s intake system was designed so that air would move from the front of the car, underneath the bodywork and then through the radiator before exiting in front of the windscreen. This meant that the intakes in front of the door were no longer necessary, however, to aid in engine and brake cooling, intakes were added to the side of the bodywork, immediately above the exhaust cooling vents.
Similar to Mazda’s previous prototype racing cars, the carbon/kevlar monocoque designed by Nigel Stroud was manufactured by Advanced Composite Technology in the United Kingdom and then shipped to Japan. The body, engine and other components were then assembled at Mazdaspeed’s racing headquarters in Hiroshima.
For the 1991 season, the suspension geometry was changed to accommodate larger and wider tyres. Additionally, carbon brake discs were fitted to a Mazda prototype car for the first time.
The 787 Goes Racing
Mazda’s new 787 racing prototype made its competition debut at the second round of the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC) in April 1990. The car would then be entered in the Fuji 1000 km endurance event before the team departed for Europe to prepare for Le Mans.
Mazdaspeed produced two 787s for event and they hired former Le Mans-winner Jacky Ickx to prepare the cars, as well as an older 767B, for the race. They had the following driver line-up for the event:
|787 (Number 201)
|787 (Number 202)
In qualifying the new Mazda 787s set the 22nd and 23rd fastest laps, while the lone 767B had to settle for the 34th fastest time. During the race, both 787s ran reliably for much of the race, but things started to unravel in the early hours of the morning.
While leading the GTP class, the Number 201 car sprung an oil leak that forced the team to retire the vehicle. Two hours later, disaster struck again when the second 787 developed an electrical problem and ultimately caught on fire, leading to its retirement. Both failures were blamed on heat from the engine. Mazda’s only remaining car, the 767B, made it to the end of the race but finished a distant 20th.
While the 1990 race was a disappointment for Mazda, the team had learnt a lot from the events that happened during the race. They used this experience to help develop them develop their next endurance machine, the 787B.
Changes for the 1991 Season
The 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans race came under a new set of competition rules as the FIA, the event’s organiser, wanted to integrate a new 3.5-litre engine that lined up with Formula One regulations.
Although TWR-Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot all created cars to match the new FIA regulations for the 1991 year, the amount of privateer teams was low and there was simply not enough of these new cars to fill the places on the grid.
To combat this problem, the FIA reserved the first 10 grid places for the fastest qualifying 3.5-litre cars from the World Sportscar Championship, while the rest of the field was made up of older formula Group C cars.
In another twist, some teams which had 3.5-litre cars, but entered the previous years’ championship with Group C cars, were allowed to enter these older (but more reliable and sometimes quicker) vehicles. The only factory team that entered a new 3.5-litre engined car at Le Mans was Peugeot Sport. As a result, they started in first and second place, even though they had only qualified third and eighth.
Other private teams also benefited from the new rules, with the Number 6 Spice SE89C car of Louis Descartes moving up to tenth position when it only qualified 39th.
Developing the 787B
Following the 1990 season, Mazda continued to develop the 787’s chassis and R26B engine in order to improve performance and increase reliability. One of their key areas of focus was the intake system of the rotary engine.
For the 1990 car Mazda had already developed variable-length telescopic intake runners that helped optimise engine power and torque at various different engine speeds. Engineers at the Mazdaspeed team further improved this system by making it continuously variable instead of stepped like on the 787. It was controlled by the 787B’s ECU and increased torque to 608 Nm (448 lb ft) at 6,500 rpm.
Another major area of focus for Mazda’s engineers was the 787B’s braking and suspension setup. A change in suspension geometry allowed for larger sized wheels to be fitted along with carbon ceramic brakes, a first for a Mazda racing car.
Like the 787 before it, Mazda’s engineers limited power output to around 650 horsepower at 8,500rpm. This was done to improve the engine’s reliability and longevity for demanding 24 hour races.
Rather than gunning for more power and higher top speeds, Mazda put more emphasis on high cornering speeds and fuel efficiency. Jacky Ickx returned as an advisor to the team and under his recommendation the automaker partnered with the French Oreca team, a pivotal moment in the 787B’s career.
The 1991 Season
Mazda’s new 787B would miss out on the first event of the season in Japan, but would make an appearance at Suzuka, the debut race of the world championship. It was entered alongside an older 787 and was piloted by David Kennedy and Maurizio Sandro Sala. Despite only qualifying an eighth of a second faster than the older 787, the 787B managed to finish sixth overall and fourth in the C2 class, a good result for the new car.
Oreca and Ickx were put in charge of the 787B’s world championship campaign. They managed to convince FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) to allow them to run the 787s at a lower weight than their competitors. This meant the 787B could weigh as little as 830 kg (1,830 lb) whereas other C2 class cars had to weigh 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).
Following Suzuka, the 787B stayed in Japan while the European team raced an older 787 at Monza. The 787B managed to achieve another sixth-place finish at the 1000 km of Fuji with Yojiro Terada and Takashi Yorino at the wheel, while the older 787 finished seventh at Monza. A poor result at Silverstone added no points to Mazda’s campaign before the team concentrated on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 787B at Le Mans
Mazda arrived at the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans with two 787Bs, along with an older 787 as a backup. According to new race rules, the Mazda 787/787B, the Jaguar XJR-12 and the Mercedes C11 all had to be entered in the C2 class.
This is because cars that met the new 1991 regulations were entered in the C1 class, while others with older engines were reclassified as C2. C2 class cars had to adhere to the fuel consumption rule that Group C had been founded on. This put Mazda at a disadvantage when compared to some of its competitors.
Mazda’s driver line-up was much the same as the previous year, except for a few small changes. Maurizio Sandro Sala replaced the newly retired Katayama and Dieudonné moved to join Terada and Yorino in the lone 787.
|787B (Number 18)
|787B (Number 55)
|787 (Number 56)
|Maurizio Sandro Sala
Unlike the other two cars that were painted in the team’s standard blue and white livery, Number 55 was given a vibrant orange and green paint scheme. This was done to honour Japanese company Renown, one of Mazda’s major sponsors and the supplier of the team’s clothing since 1988.
Mazda was certainly not the favourite to win and the new rules meant that they started 19th (No. 55), 23rd (No. 18) and 30th (No. 56), despite being the 12th, 17th and 24th fastest qualifiers respectively.
During the qualifying, the team had already discovered that the 787B was lapping around five seconds faster than the older 787, but in order to achieve better fuel efficiency, Ickx instructed the drivers to concentrate on smooth braking and acceleration.
To assist them, Mazda fitted the 787B cars with a bespoke fuel gauge so that they could tailor their driving style to maximise power and fuel efficiency. The team worked out that if the drivers kept the engine speed between 6,000 to 8,500 rpm they could hit 95% of the engine’s maximum torque, while keeping fuel consumption to 1.85 miles per one litre of fuel.
However, while the Number 18 car was instructed to follow this fuel saving plan, team manager Takahashi Ohashi told the drivers of the Number 55 car to drop the conservative strategy and push for faster laps.
This decision to change the strategy was made because Ohashi and Mazda’s engineers realised how fuel efficient and reliable the new 787B was during testing at the Paul Ricard circuit. The carefully learned driving techniques intended to improve fuel efficiency and reliability were no longer needed and were discarded for the drivers of Number 55.
In the early stages of the race, the Number 55 car of Gachot, Weidler and Herbert made its way from 19th to third, while the Number 18 car was two laps behind. Not only were the drivers of Number 55 told to push harder, but the car was also set up with a higher gear ratio. The lower gear ratio of Number 18 increased fuel efficiency but reduced top speed by 20 km/h (12 mph).
To win the race, Mazda needed a good bit of luck and some incident free driving. While the 787B was faster than the previous year’s 787 car, it still couldn’t match the single lap pace of the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C11, the Jaguar XJR-12 and the Peugeot 905. However, the 787B was reliable and fuel efficient, an important characteristic for demanding 24-hour races.
The Number 55 787B moved up into second place when the Mercedes-Benz C11 of Michael Schumacher, Fritz Kreutzpointner and Karl Wendlinger went of the track and later pitted with transmission issues.
While second place was good, the 787B was still far away from the leader. A win didn’t look likely until the lead car had to reduce its speed to increase fuel efficiency. With two hours to spare, the Number 55 787B passed the Mercedes-Benz C11 of Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass and Alain Ferté after it retired due to mechanical issues.
An air of disbelief spread around the Mazda pit after it became obvious that they would probably win the race. Technical director Hiroki Namura and Jacky Ickx decided that Johnny Herbert should stay in the car as he was the most experienced at the circuit. He was left to finish the final three stints (45 minutes long) and crossed the line two laps ahead of the second place XJR-12.
Upon his return to the pits, Herbert had to be assisted out of the car and had to be taken to the circuit’s medical centre. As a result, he missed the podium celebration. Herbert later commented that the cause of his illness was due to a “dodgy” spaghetti he had eaten before his stint in the car.
Mazda’s winning 787B worked almost flawlessly for 362 laps and it covered at total of 4,932.2km, a new record for the recently modified circuit. It’s only two problems were a blown headlamp bulb and a precautionary rear wheel bearing change during a pit-stop. Mechanics also had to change three front brake pads, one rear brake pad, and a front brake disc, although these replacements were expected.
The team’s other two cars, the Number 18 787B and the Number 56 787, finished sixth and eighth respectively. Places two to four were taken up by the Jaguar XJR-12, while the C11 of Wendlinger, Schumacher and Kreutzpointner would take fifth.
What Happened After the Race?
Following the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans, Mazda retired the winning car (787B-002) but continued to race the two other 787Bs (001 and the new 003). The Mazda team would go on to finish fourth in the Japanese championship and fifth in the World Championship.
A third-place finish at the 1000 km of Fuji in October would end the 787B’s Japanese season on high. The last World Sportscar Championship event the 787B competed in was the 1991 430 km of Autopolis in Japan. Unfortunately, the 787B would only manage to place ninth and tenth.
At the end of the season, the Group C series was replaced by the 3.5-litre World Sportscar Championship which meant that the rotary powered 787B could no longer compete. As per the FIA’s decision, 3.5-litre engines similar to those used in Formula One were mandatory for the 1992 season. This meant Mazda needed to develop a new car for the series.
Mazda’s 1992 MXR-01 was radically different to the 787B of the previous year. To save costs, Mazda purchased GV10 F1 engines from the British racing engine manufacturer, Judd. They then made some modifications to the engine and renamed it the MV 10. The Mazda team also acquired a Jaguar XJR-14 chassis from Tom Walkinshaw Racing and based their new car around that.
At the 1992 Le Mans race, Mazda could not repeat the success of the previous year. The team sent over two MXR-01 cars; one of which finished fourth, while the other retired from the race.
Following the 1992 season, the FIA decided to cancel the World Sportscar Championship, bringing an end to 40 years of competition. This was because Nissan decided to cancel the development of their P35 race car and the only factory team that could really compete was Peugeot.
With the cancellation of the series, Mazda ended their involvement in world endurance racing. While they would not return to Le Mans, the manufacturer’s 787B racing car would go on to become a legend of the motoring world.
The winning 787B is displayed at the Mazda factory in Hiroshima, along with its incredible 2.6-litre R26B rotary engine. Mazda’s 787B would make a return to the circuit that made it famous 20 years after its victory.
The 787B was brought in as a demonstration vehicle at Le Mans with none other than Johnny Herbert at the wheel. Additionally, the 787B has made an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and is displayed on a semi-regular basis at motoring events and races across Japan.
How Did the 787B Win Le Mans?
It’s easy to forget that the Mazda 787B was the underdog when it came to the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans. People often ask, “how fast was the 787B?” and “how did it win Le Mans?”.
In terms of pure speed, the 787B wasn’t as fast as its competitors. This can be seen through the car’s qualifying at the 1991 Le Mans race. The fastest 787B could only qualify 12th, while the other qualified 17th (they would then be moved back to 19th and 23rd due to the new FIA rules). Additionally, the 787B did not win another race in its single year of competition.
While the 787B’s raw pace wasn’t as fast as its competitors, it had two major advantages that were incredibly important to endurance racing. The car’s incredible fuel efficiency and reliability played a major part in its success.
Other cars had to slow down or were plagued by reliability issues during the race. This meant that the 787B could sneak into the lead and cruise across the line.
When Mazdaspeed’s engineers took the winning 787B’s engine apart following the race they concluded that the R26B powerplant would still be able to cope with another 24-hour race without any maintenance. This shows just how reliable and hardy the rotary engine was.
Another major factor in the 787B’s success was due to the fact that the car did not need to spend much time in the pits. Mechanics had to replace very few parts on the car such as brake pads and discs.
This was in part due to the 787B’s low weight. Other Category 2 cars had to weigh 1000kg, whereas the 787B could weigh as little as 830kg. Hiring Hugues de Chaunac’s Oreca team was one of the most important components of Mazda’s success and was an incredibly important decision.
Mazda 787B Specifications
Engine – Mazda R26B
|Telescopic intake manifold system (Not to be confused with variable-length intake manifold)
|2.6-litre (2,616 cc)
3 per rotor
Nippon Denso electronic fuel injection
700 hp (520 kW) at 9,000 rpm
448 ft lb (607 Nm) at 6,500 rpm
|Power to weight
843 horsepower per ton (0.843 HP/ kg)
Porsche 5-speed manual
Chassis and Body
|Kevlar and carbon composite monocoque
Double wishbone pullrod operated inboard Bilstein spring dampers.
Double wishbone top rocker-operated inboard spring dampers.
rack-and-pinion, hydraulic power assisted
Brembo carbon ceramic discs
Brembo carbon ceramic discs
Length, Width, Height
|4,782 mm (188.3 in) / 1,994 mm (78.5 in) / 1,003 mm (39.5 in)
|2,662 mm (105 in)
|Track front, rear
Front: 1510 mm (59.4 inches), Rear: 1535 mm (60.4 inches)
Front: Dunlop 300/640 – 18
Rear: Dunlop 355/710 – 18
830 kg / 1,830 lbs
The Mazda 787B is an icon of the motoring world. It was David battling Goliath and will forever be remembered for its incredible win at Le Mans and its monstrous sound that can’t be mistaken for another car.
If you like this article, make sure you check out some of our other history articles as well.