The racing world is ready to attend the 89th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most famous endurance race that will take place this weekend on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe. An event that has always been followed with particular interest also by non-participating manufacturers, waiting for them to return to compete or make their debut in the coming years. Among these there is undoubtedly the Mazda, fresh from its centenary celebrated in 2020; the Japanese manufacturer, among other things, is experiencing the eve of the transalpine race with particular emotion and nostalgia, given that this season coincides with the 30th anniversary of the first, amazing victory obtained by the reality of Fuchu on 31 June 1991.
A race in which, in reality, Mazda itself showed up at the time under the banner of the subsidiary team Mazdaspeed without enjoying the favors of the odds. Piloted on that occasion by Volker Wiedler, Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert (with the latter two also creating an experience in F1 much more brilliant than that of the German), the 787B model number 55 took to the track with a rotary engine: a solution that led to the last appearance of a similar technology, which it would then be banned from the technical regulations starting from 1992.
In addition to this, despite other experiences of the Japanese house at Le Mans from 1974 onwards, the most accredited brands to win the 1991 edition were many others, and all based in the Old Continent: among these Peugeot, Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes. . In fact, right from qualifying, all four superpowers seemed to have all the credentials for victory, at least until the stroke of the 4th hour of competition. The first to give up is the French landlady, who has to surrender due to trouble with the engine. The same problems were then also accused by the other teams mentioned, with Mazda who, on the contrary, knew how to take advantage of the inconveniences of others by also exploiting a prudent strategy in refueling. Despite climbing up to 2nd position, the leadership of the 24 Hours was still in the hands of the last surviving Mercedes, then driven by a very young Michael Schumacher. However, even the latter had to deal with gearbox problems a few hours before the checkered flag, such as to make all the advantage accumulated on the Japanese pursuer, now incredibly in command, vanish.
Thanks to a higher fuel consumption by Jaguar, which forced the English team not to try a recovery action, at the end of the 24 hours the Japanese company officially won the most famous endurance race in the world. The resounding success, obtained with Herbert at the helm, was celebrated even before the finish line, thanks to the invasion on the track of fans euphoric for the first triumph of an Asian manufacturer. Another 27 years would pass before another reality of the Rising Sun, Toyota, would return to the top in Le Mans. The team’s festive atmosphere was not initially shared by the British driver, who in fact did not even participate in the podium ceremony, the top step of which was only occupied by Gachot and Wiedler. The reason was as simple as it was physically unpleasant: Herbert, in the throes of an illness after driving non-stop the last hours of the race (skipping an extra pit stop with driver change attached), was transferred to the medical center, where he was able to recover. altogether only later.
The Englishman, fresh from a serious accident in 1988 (which seriously risked compromising his career), today serenely remembers that victory along with the characteristics of the Mazda 787B, “Much easier to drive than an F1” thanks to the lower aggressiveness of the rotary engine, all combined with a gearbox defined with laughter by the person concerned “The slowest in the world” due to its conformation which is actually optimal for endurance races.
“The Mazdaspeed – added one of the three winning drivers of the 1991 edition – it was a small team compared to others such as Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar, but it could boast a great deal of experience accumulated over the past seasons. Thirty years after that success I still remember the fantastic roar of the 787B and the smile of our team principal Takayoshi Ohashi a few moments after the withdrawal of the Mercedes ”.