Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

| 22 Jun 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

Its howl had pierced the night’s sky every midsummer for a dozen years or more. Some thrilled to it, others shrank from it. This year, however, was to be the last spin for Mazda’s rotary at Le Mans: three young men, five starts between them, charged with a Hail Mary. Used to rubbing wheels in junior single-seaters in Europe and Japan, now they were to share a seat and fight all-for-one; Formula One dreams forgotten for 24 hours.

And it all happened exactly 30 years ago, on 22-23 June 1991.

Luxembourg-born Frenchman Bertrand Gachot arrived at La Sarthe in 1991 having recently banked his first F1 points – courtesy of a fifth for Jordan at the Canadian GP – and thus was buoyed despite a pending British court case: “My lawyer had told me not to worry.”

Brentwood’s Johnny Herbert, who had beaten Gachot to the 1987 British F3 title – but had DNQ-ed in Canada upon a second partial F1 return with Lotus – arrived determined to prove his recovery from career-threatening injuries: “That was my main reason for doing Le Mans.” 

The third man was Heidelberg’s Volker Weidler, the eldest at 29 and a member of Mazda’s squad since 1989. “He gets overlooked,” says Herbert of the 1985 German F3 champion. “He’d never felt comfortable in F1; never got in a good car. But he had the most long-distance experience and was the quickest. He qualified.” 

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

The four-car Mazda team at Le Mans before history was made, 30 years ago

Together, the trio was about to throw constitutional caution to the winds. 

Widely experienced British freelance designer/engineer Nigel Stroud – F3, F2 and F1, plus Indycars and sports cars (with Argo and privateer Richard Lloyd’s heavily revised Porsche 956) – had since 1986 been railing against the strategic conservatism of Hiroshima-based Mazdaspeed. But now he had ‘Mister Le Mans’ in his corner: Jacky Ickx, drafted in as an adviser in 1990. 

“He was great,” says Stroud of the six-time winner. “Everybody listened to him. He was God, you know. Le Mans was becoming a long sprint and luckily he was in favour of having at least one car going like hell.” Why hire hotshoes if then you get cold feet?

Distinguished team boss Takayoshi Ohashi realised that it was now or never. Not only were rotaries to be banned from 1992, but a 50kg saving coaxed from the governing body would likely put Stroud’s 787B – running without ballast at its 830kg sprint weight – in among the tonne-up boys of Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Too busy eyeing each other, the big three had failed to spot the lingering threat.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

The striking colour scheme has a cult following and was immortalised in the celebratory special-edition MX-5

“Without that we would have been history,” says Stroud. “That said, if you had a choice between a rotary with less weight or a Mercedes engine with the weight, what would you go for? 

“A rotary’s biggest drawback is that you can’t use it as a stressed member. It’s just a load of washers clamped together, so all hell breaks loose if you start twisting it. So it sat in an A-frame, not too dissimilar to Porsche’s.

“Also, I spent loads of time arguing with its designers about why it was so long. The original was a twin-rotor. To make it a triple they tagged on another at one end. To then make it a four-rotor they tagged on another at the opposite end. ‘Why can’t you put two- and two- together?’ That would have saved about 75mm. They just shrugged.”

Stroud’s basic design had undergone several evolutions since the three-rotor 757 original: 767, 767B and 787. The latter introduced a full-carbon tub by Advanced Composites of Derby. Its upgrade for ’91 featured cleaner bodywork – side radiators relocated to the nose – and modified suspension geometry to accommodate larger wheels, Dunlops and (now carbon) brakes. 

Its four-rotor R26B featured continuously variable inlet lengths and three spark plugs per rotor. Rated at 2616cc, it provided a detuned but bombproof and relatively frugal 650bhp at 8500rpm and 448lb ft at 6500rpm. Though insufficient on the shorter, punchier circuits of the Sportscar World Championship, it made for a handy race trim at Le Mans, even with chicanes.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

As the sun set and cars fell by the wayside, its race-winning threat only grew

“Normally that engine was silky smooth,” says Herbert. “But in the warm-up we had a deep vibration. They couldn’t find anything and left it.

“In terms of set-up Volker had been given the freedom to do what he wanted. But I don’t remember any of us complaining. We were focused on the same things.” 

This fastest Mazda (of three) started 19th, having been relegated seven places because the front of the grid was reserved for the category’s 3.5-litre (piston-engined) non-turbo future. Peugeot’s fleet and favoured 905s led initially but soon wilted. The Mazda, in turn, was flowering.

“We were told ‘Go as fast as you want!’,” says Gachot. “It’s surprising we didn’t crash because really we were on the edge: 45 minutes, then switch, and after each stint we were finished physically. We raced each other all the time.”

Herbert: “The main thing was to go as fast as we could while driving to a precise fuel delta. It wasn’t basic lift-and-coast – a rotary doesn’t have engine braking – it was also about how quickly and smoothly we came off and got back on to the throttle. In F1 back then there was a lot of throttle modulation – but that uses too much fuel. So Bertrand and I were learning during the race and getting faster and faster: a big gain. Volker was still the quickest but we were there and thereabouts by the end.”

Gachot: “The Jaguars [V12s out from seven to 7.4 litres] were challenging. But we knew we could continue like this whereas we hoped they were bluffing, over-using their fuel allowance. People were not taking us seriously enough. They did not expect us to keep it up.”

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

The screaming rotary was unmistakeable on the long Mulsanne straight, with two chicanes for the first time

The threat, however, had dawned on TWR-Jaguar boss Tom Walkinshaw, whose relationship with Mazda stretched back to the 1970s and included Mazdaspeed’s first two Le Mans attempts, with IMSA RX-7s, in 1981 and ’82.

“He had one of his henchmen in our pit when it started looking as if we were going to beat them,” says Stroud. “They had seen us putting oil in the fuel, which you have to do with a rotary, and were arguing that it was lessening our consumption. There was a big to and fro with officials at about midnight before it blew over.”

When it came to the crunch the vivid green-and-orange Mazda, gentler on its tyres and brakes, was 3-4 secs per lap faster than the purple XJR-12s. A trio of 5-litre twin-turbo Mercedes-Benz C11s maintained their edge nevertheless, but the hard-pressed Mazda, with fewer disc and pad changes than had been anticipated and no major problems – a blown headlight bulb and a precautionary change of rear wheel bearing – was keeping the Silver Arrows honest.

“The car was amazing and my co-drivers were fantastic,” says Gachot. “I don’t know if it was the British part, the Japanese part or the European part [French team Oreca was assisting], but I do know that really we had a good team.”

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

Staying out of the pits, and quick work while on pitlane, was pivotal

Stroud: “The guys who deserve much credit are Kiyo Okawa and his mechanics, who had overseen the day-to-day build and preparation. Kiyo worked his arse off; I don’t think it would have been successful without him.”

Mazda rotaries had won Le Mans categories in 1983 (Group C Junior), 1984 (C2, in the back of a Lola T616) and four successive years from 1987 (IMSA GTP) without ever finishing higher than seventh overall. “Third or fourth is still nowhere, right?” says Stroud. “But we started thinking, ‘Hey, this is looking good.’ We just needed a few more to drop out.”

Merc’s youngsters – Michael Schumacher/Karl Wendlinger/Fritz Kreutzpointer – spun on cold tyres and dropped to sixth while the damage was repaired. (They eventually finished fifth after extended stops because of a bent selector.) 

A winner in 1989, Stanley Dickens’ C11 struck debris, damaging the floor and an engine mount, and a failed crankshaft damper caused its retirement around breakfast-time on Sunday. 

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

Many British fans followed the Mazda, because of Essex lad Johnny Herbert

And with three hours remaining the leading C11, with Alain Ferté at its wheel, pitted smoking heavily. A broken bracket had allowed the water pump to freewheel, cooking the engine in the three minutes it took to get back from Tertre Rouge. With an unexpected victory in sight, the Mazda team strategists reverted to type: in conservatism, however, lay a gamble.

“They said ‘Bertrand, this is so important. Everything is going so well. We want to keep Johnny in the car’,” recalls Gachot. “I didn’t understand at the time. But then I thought, ‘I’ve done my bit. I haven’t messed up.’ Volker had done a great job, too. ‘Hey, if they want Johnny to finish it, let’s do it!’ He made a superhuman effort to bring it home.”

Herbert had not come this far since that horrendous Brands Hatch F3000 crash of August 1988 by wimping out: “I was pleased to do it. Three and a half stints. In 90% of my F1 races my right big toe, which doesn’t bend and has a callous underneath, would become painful and sensitive for the last 20 laps or so. The Mazda’s pedals did not give me the same gyp – and I wasn’t braking as hard.”

But trouble of a different kind was brewing.

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

And he returned the favour with a heroic final triple stint to the flag

“In the final stint I began to get an empty-stomach feeling,” continues Herbert. “I used to get nervous in the early days and found it difficult to eat. So I was trying to be healthy by only eating Pot Noodles! They have no nourishment whatsoever. It was hot, plus I’d run out of water before they asked me to do those extra stints.”

Despite the best efforts of Jaguar’s reigning victor John Nielsen, six laps down in fourth place but trying to harry the leader into an error, Herbert made it. Just.

“The mechanics climbed on board and I drove into parc fermé, revving on the limiter,” he says. “Everybody was happy-happy. But when I climbed out my ‘body’ was still in the cockpit. Feeling really light-headed, I walked to the other side of the car and went to sit down. That’s when I collapsed. On to my dad.” 

The hero of the final few hours would be on a drip in the medical centre while his teammates sprayed champagne on the rostrum.

Stroud: “Had we known he was that dehydrated, I think we’d have pulled him out.” 

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

But it was a team of Formula One hopefuls, each with a very different future ahead of them

The three Mazdas finished in the top eight places. The second 787B, driven by Stefan Johansson, David Kennedy and Maurizio Sandro Sala, and running different ratios and fuel strategy, was sixth.

“I don’t think even Mazda thought we could win,” says Gachot. “We were the hare, pushing rival teams to the limit. It was the other car that should have won. That was their plan. But we won because of aggression, tactics and talent.”

The following week Herbert tested a Lotus at Silverstone and was quicker than Mika Häkkinen. From 1992 he would enjoy the full-time F1 seat that his skill had always merited but which fate had so far denied him. 

“The whispers about my injuries never went away,” he says. “Le Mans was the type of race, I thought, that would make a statement. But F1 is only interested in F1.” 

Classic & Sports Car – Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

It took a quarter of a century – and many near misses – for the second Japanese win at Le Mans

Weidler never would get another F1 chance, even though he outperformed Herbert, albeit in more competitive equipment, in Japanese F3000 in 1991. He was in the running for its ’92 crown when, struck down and disorientated by severe tinnitus, he retired altogether mid-season. 

And Gachot? “I had never thought that I would go to jail,” he says. “We thought I would get a fine or a reprimand. I didn’t attack anybody. I had been defending myself.”

Days after setting fastest lap in August’s Hungarian Grand Prix, he was sent down for 18 months in HMP Brixton for aggravated assault; he had used CS gas, illegal in the UK, during a fracas with a London cabbie in December 1990. Though he would be released on appeal after two months, his F1 momentum had been lost – in sharp contrast to that of his replacement at Jordan: Schumacher, setter of the fastest lap at Le Mans in 1991.

“I have great memories of that Le Mans,” says Gachot. “And it had been a good year until my season was interrupted; but I could have broken a leg in an accident or caught an illness. Nobody wants to go to jail, of course, but it was a very interesting human experience. I came out of it pretty good and it taught me a lot.”

Moments of madness, 24 hours of brilliance, months of reflection; and glory, injury, illness: life. Some thrill to it, others shrink from it. 

Images: Getty/Mazda


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