Johnny Herbert on Le Mans and his rotary-engined screamer

| 9 Feb 2016

From its distinctive orange and green livery to the shriek from its rotary engine, the 1991 Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B remains one of the distinctive cars from the tail end of the fabulous Group C era. 

Its unlikely victory in the 24 Hours is one of the most famous in the race’s long history. Still the only occasion on which a Japanese team has come out on top in the endurance classic, it was achieved despite the presence of the next-generation Peugeot 905s, the TWR Jaguar squad, and the usual array of Porsche 962s run by crack privateers.

That’s not to suggest that Mazda wanted for talent. Its World Championship programme was run by the ORECA team, and Jacky Ickx acted a consultant. Nigel Stroud designed the car, and the winner was driven by Volker Weidler plus then-current F1 racers Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert.

The trio had also shared a 787 at La Sarthe in 1990, but retired.   

“My only experience at Le Mans was after they’d put in the chicanes on the Mulsanne,” remembers Herbert. “I never did it when they had the full straight, when you’d sit there were waiting for things to go wrong… 

“It doesn’t look like a particularly technical circuit, but it’s a challenge – a deceptive challenge. The Porsche Curves, for example, were brilliant, and then you’d arrive at the Ford Chicane, where you had to be very precise.”

Ahead of the 1991 event, Mazda secured dispensation to run at 830kg – a significant saving over the likes of Jaguar and Mercedes – but were still bound by Group C’s fuel-consumption formula. The only hope was to run flat-out in the hope that its rivals broke, and Peugeot’s fast but fragile 905s soon did just that.

“Going into the two chicanes, we didn’t have the same sort of engine braking as the other cars,” says Herbert, “so we were relying on aero to slow down before getting on the brakes. It was a different type of driving, but that ‘lift and coast’ aspect helped with fuel consumption. 

“You just had to adapt your style so that everything happened in a fluid manner. You had to rely on your knowledge, feel and ability – getting to the end of the race by not going over the kerbs, that sort of thing. The advantage was that you could replicate that technique fairly easily over a 12 or 13-lap stint.”

The physical challenge was key for Herbert. Perhaps the most naturally gifted of a peer group of British drivers that included Damon Hill, Mark Blundell, Julian Bailey and Martin Donnelly, his career was almost ended after a horrific F3000 shunt at Brands Hatch.

“One of the main purposes of the whole thing was to prove that my feet were okay!” he says. “The overall braking effort was far less than in Formula One – it wasn’t as tough. 

“Technology has got better and better since then, which has made life easier, but in those days it was a different skill set. The younger generation wouldn’t understand this, but we had a thing called a gearstick, for example. For much of the lap, you were driving one-handed and it gave you blisters. That made you change gear in a different manner. At least in a Grand Prix you only had to drive for an hour and a half, then you had a two-week rest!”

The Mazda was soon up to fourth behind the Mercedes, and took the lead as each of them fell by the wayside. The 787’s reliability was paying off, but Herbert’s personal troubles were just beginning. 

“I used to get very, very nervous,” he explains, “and when you’re nervous you can’t eat properly. You can’t put energy into your body. I lived on noodles that weekend, and they had almost no nourishment - I learnt from that in later years. 

“I’d been up for ages, too, not helped by the fact that all you could hear when you tried to sleep were our cars going around! And I didn’t have enough fluids, either. All of those things added up.”

As the clock ticked down, it became less a matter of whether or not the car would last, and more about whether or not a shattered Herbert – who did a double-stint to finish - could keep going. 

“Concentration got me through, but it was the ghost of me that finished! I remember that year was really hot, and it was sweltering in that cockpit. It was just tough overall.” 

When he finally got out of the car, Herbert promptly collapsed across it, and missed out on the podium ceremony. He went on to claim three Grand Prix victories in a long Formula One career, but success at La Sarthe ranks high on the list of achievements for the likeable Brit. 

One of his team-mates went on to play his part in F1 history, too. Not long after Le Mans, Gachot was jailed for an attack on a London taxi-driver. In sudden need of a replacement for the Belgian Grand Prix, the Jordan team signed one of Mercedes’ young chargers: Michael Schumacher.

“It didn’t sink in at the time because I was in hospital!” concludes Herbert. “As you get older, though, you look back more. It surprises me that we were the first, and still the only, Japanese team to win – and it was only a small outfit, with Ickx involved, which was great. It’s a wonderful memory, and a special win.”

Thanks to Kate Rock and James Bailey at Goodyear Dunlop Tyres