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Mazda 787B. 30 years of the only Le Mans winning rotary engine

This coming weekend we will see if Toyota repeats victory at Le Mans after three in a row. A Japanese domain that had its first step with the victory 30 years ago of the Mazda 787B. The spectacular Group C of the brand, which is the sublimation of rotary engines so important in its history. We take a look at the two-decade long career until the Japanese brand claimed victory in 1991.

After three consecutive years dominated by the Toyota TS050Hybrid, this coming weekend the 24 Hours of Le Mans are back. The moment to know if the Japanese leadership will continue, which took its first blow 30 years ago when On June 23, 1991, one of the two Mazda 787Bs entered in the race crossed the finish line winner. Behind there were 4932 kms at an average of 205'38 kms / h. A record that not only made it the first Asian car to win the most memorable endurance test on the world calendar, but also the only rotary-powered car to date.

Technology applied by Mazda in a whole saga of sports and racing cars inaugurated in 1967 with the Mazda Cosmo Sport. The formula in which Kenichi yamamoto he believed since he knew this pistonless single-cylinder engine design, patented in Germany during the XNUMXs by the engineer Felix Wankel. A type of engine endowed with smoothness and reliability, but also with high mechanical complexity and high oil consumption. Features that have been tamed by Mazda to make the rotary engine one of its hallmarks, demonstrating with victories such as the 787B that this technology has significant potential.

Of course, all thanks to a methodical planning and a perseverance typical of Japanese discipline at work. And it is that Mazda's victory in Le Mans 1991 had been brewing since 1970, when its 10A rotary engine made an appearance in the race through the Chevron B16 Mazda of Yves Deprez's private team. The first of the steps towards the creation of the official Mazdaspeed team, a bulwark from which to conquer victory at Le Mans. The demonstration that, despite being a minority technology, the rotary engine can be very effective when applied in such well thought out cars as the Mazda 787B.


In the late XNUMXs the Japanese motor industry was preparing for the immediate economic expansion of the XNUMXs. The moment in which Japanese automakers would acquire the confidence to sell with guarantees outside their borders. A context of technological progress in which Mazda acquired the patent for the rotary engine with the support of the Japanese government itself. With it in hand, the engineers were entrusted Keninchi yamamoto and Yushio Kono the leadership of a team made up of 180 professionals.

All this to implement the rotary engine in the Mazda range, making it competitive in the American market thanks to technological differentiation. A project that, on paper, had a good future but that during the tests presented serious problems. Gasoline consumption was skyrocketing. Also the oil, marked by the difficult lubrication of the triangular rotor on the cylinder walls. In addition, the combustion of so many fluids made emissions unaffordable for the levels required in the market approvals.

As it was, the outlook turned bleak for Mazda. However, the tenacity of its engineers led them to do thousands of hours of testing over almost a decade. The only way to achieve perfect tuning of rotary engines, achieving by the mid-sixties tight consumption and interesting reliability. Additionally, combustion was improved so much that Mazda rotaries were among the cleanest cars of the XNUMXs. All this with a smooth and constant power delivery. In short, characteristics that are still present in the brand, which was encouraged to take all this to the world of competition.


In 1969, and as part of the launch of the Como Sport in international markets, Mazda dared to enter several units of the model in the 24 Hours of Spa. And, although they did not win, two managed to end up demonstrating the intended reliability in their design. Nevertheless, Mazda was not interested in racing at the moment to the point of creating an official teamTherefore, its presence in the circuits was based on supplying private teams. Teams like Yves Deprez, who entered a car with a Japanese rotary engine for the first time in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Something that years later the participation of the Mazda Auto Tokyo followed. Private team with the support of the official house financed by the brand's dealer network in the Japanese capital. Composed of a modest four-member delegation, having to count on the support of Mazda-related workers in France in order to fulfill the necessary logistics at Le Mans. Precariousness that makes its presence with the RX-7 even more valuable. Models based on street units that, as of 1983, were forgotten with the appearance of Mazdaspeed.

As a result of making the small team from Tokyo the official of the brand, Mazda became involved to such an extent that it changed the cars to the typical sports prototype of Group C. In addition, logistics increased to 120 members in 1991. Suddenly, Mazda took it as a brand challenge to place its rotary engines at the top of the World Endurance Championship, thus improving its 13B and 13J mills year after year. However, victory was resisting, so a definitive weapon was needed for it. Then the R1991B engine made its appearance in 26.


For any fan of endurance racing the Mazda 787B is not only remembered for its success at Le Mans. Above all, it is because of its sound. The spectacular sharp howl of your R26B, the ingenuity with four rotors of 654cc each. Capable of delivering a power of 710CV at 9000 rpm with its peripheral injection and three spark plugs per rotor. An engineering marvel able to happily carry the Mazda 839B's only 787 kilos. Almost 200 less than the average of the rivals he facedAmong which are the Peugeot 905, Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR-12 and even a Mercedes C11 driven by Michael Schumacher.

Thus, the key was to make the most of the 787B's low fuel consumption and the reliability of its engine. Thus, the track engineers led by Takayoshi Ohashi chose a risky strategy a priori: go to the maximum from the beginning taking advantage of the reduced need of the Mazda at the time of entering the pits. Something that could be trusted, since in the design phase they had decided to sacrifice power to gain reliability and efficient consumption. A smart choice, which ultimately led to victory without notable problems for the unit marked by the number 55 and piloted by Johnny Herbert with Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot.

In addition, the other unit of the Mazda 787B was sixth, while a 787 that also competed in the previous edition of Le Mans managed to finish eighth. A historical feat of the Japanese and their rotary engines, which were so dominant that they really scared the rest of the brands. Which is why, according to the most conspirators, the regulations changed for 1992, forcing a change in displacement that left the 787B out. King for a year at Le Mans, which is now 30 years old since his feat. Undoubtedly, the culmination of the rotary of Group C.

Photographs: Mazda

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Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.

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