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Mazda’s Legendary 787B Stunned The World 30 Years Ago Today

Road & Track logo Road & Track 6/23/2021 Lucas Bell
a truck that is driving down the road: The only car to win Le Mans not powered by a piston engine. What a thing. © Mazda The only car to win Le Mans not powered by a piston engine. What a thing.

Thirty years ago today, Mazda experienced its greatest triumph in motorsports: On June 23, 1991, Mazda and the legendary 787B Group C Prototype won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With that victory, Mazda became the first Japanese automaker to win the iconic endurance race; a feat that would go unrivaled until Toyota took the top step on the podium back in 2018. Mazda is also the only company ever to win Le Mans without using a piston engine, as the 787B was powered by the four-rotor R26B engine.

Prior to that June day in 1991, Mazda’s rotary-powered Le Mans cars hadn’t made much of an impression. The automaker first ran one in 1980, and Mazda’s highest finish before the 1991 season came in 1987, when the 757 crossed the line in 7th. By the time 1990 and the 787 came around, reliability issues through the night saw Mazda muster a mere 20th place. That unfortunate finish gave way to the reworked and much-improved 787B we’ve come to revere.

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With regulation changes essentially nullifying rotary engines after 1991, Mazda had one last shot to take home a victory with its Group C Prototype. The automaker derived a new continuously variable intake runner set-up for the final effort, which negated the low-end torque failings of a traditional rotary. These changes saw the four-rotor R26B crank out 690 hp and 448 lb-ft of torque in race trim. Combined with lobbying from Jacky Ickx related to the car’s maximum allowed weight, Mazda was in the fight. The Japanese automaker was far from favored to win however, as the MazdaSpeed 787Bs started the race in 19th, 23rd, and 30th place.

History was indeed made that day. With just two hours to go, the Renown liveried No. 55 car, wheeled by Dieudonné, Yorino and Terada, made its way into first position. The team would hold onto that place, setting new course records of 362 laps completed and 4,932.2 km covered. The race was the ultimate validation for Mazda’s efforts with rotary powertrains, and an event celebrated to this day. The car itself became an instant icon, and its engine even more so.

In 1992, Mazda’s chairman Kenichi Yamamoto installed a monument at the company’s Miyoshi Proving Ground to commemorate the achievement. The small sculpture features an image of the race-winning 787B, as well as an inscription that reads “never stop challenging,” a lesson that the entire industry could take to heart, and one that Mazda seems dead set on sticking to.


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