1991 Le Mans 24 Hours report: the one that Mazda won

The writing was on the wall. Thousands of British enthusiasts made the ritual visit to the famous Restaurant des Hunaudieres, to find that this bastion of French cuisine, right alongside the fastest Part of the Le Mans circuit, had a new sign over the door: Shanghai les 24-Heures.

The Orientals had arrived, and by Sunday evening they’d conquered. Mercedes were the pace-makers, running in formation at the head of the field on Saturday evening, but only one of the three cars reached the finish after costly delays put it down to fifth. . . . and Mazda was the winner, a seemingly impossible result that made sense when you thought about it rationally.

Jaguars were placed 2-3-4, but to everyone’s amazement they were just not fast enough, handicapped (as were the Mercedes and Porsches) by FISA’s heavy 1000 kg scrutineering weight.

Early in April FISA did Mazda a big favour, but the European manufacturers were so busy eyeing each other’s preparations that they didn’t take proper note. The controlling body slipped an amendment through allowing Mazda to retain the scrutineering weight of 830 kilogrammes all season, removing the need to ballast up to 880 kg for Le Mans.

It was a crucial concession. Mazda’s quad-rotor engine develops at least 630 horsepower, but less than the 700 bhp claimed for it. The power-to-weight ratio was in the order of 760 bhp per tonne, higher than the ratio for the 1000 kg Mercedes, Jaguars and Porsches. In fact Mercedes and Jaguar both claimed an output of 730 bhp, and the 3.2 litre Porsches would have reached 720 bhp.

The Mazdas were correspondingly lighter on their brakes (like Mercedes, Mazdaspeed used carbon brakes this year), suspensions and tyres; it was easier work for the drivers, and the cars were more economical. When the true test came, they were consistently three or four seconds a lap quicker than the Jaguars, and this advantage was fundamental to the result.

There was one more ingredient for Mazda, and that was the role of six-times winner Jacky Ickx as management consultant. The Belgian has always been surrounded with an aura of success in sports car racing, especially at Le Mans, and he handled his duties with the benefit of great experience.

Winning drivers Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot worked more as a team this year despite a hint of longstanding bad feeling between Gachot and Weidler, and unlike last year there were no silly incidents involving the 787B going off the road in the first hour of the race.

Underlining the success, David Kennedy/Stefan Johansson/Mauricio Sala were sixth in a Mazda which was slightly delayed by a driveshaft that needed to be changed, and eighth in the older, slower 787 model were Pierre Dieudonné, Takashi Yorino and Yojiro Terada.

Mazda was the first Japanese manufacturer to win at Le Mans in the 68-year history of the race, and it was a very well deserved success. Managed by Takayoshi Ohashi, Mazdaspeed has supported the 24-Hours strongly and sportingly since 1982, always with rotary-engined cars and, except for last year, with great reliability.

The rotaries have won the IMSA GTP class for the previous three years and had best results of seventh overall in 1987 and 1989, but they hid their real form under a bush last year with a bout of unreliability, both from drivers and the cars.

Nissan and Toyota must surely have been in mourning when the result came through. The two major Japanese manufacturers have spent heavily at Le Mans since 1986 but success has eluded them. This year, for whatever reasons, they have not supported the Sportscar World Championship and were not eligible to compete at Le Mans, a situation that must have seemed unbearable when news came of Mazda’s victory.

The race went very well for Mercedes until lunch-time on Sunday. Jean-Louis Schlesser snatched pole position in dramatic fashion, beating the superquick Jaguar XJR-14, with the other team cars fourth and fifth. Due to FISA’s odd regulations, though, the first ten places on the grid were reserved for 3.5-litre cars and the Silver Arrows were pushed back to the sixth and seventh rows. . . . not that it mattered, once the race was under way.

Tom Walkinshaw had already made his first controversial decision, increasing the engine capacity of the venerable Jaguar stock-block V12 from 7.0 to 7.4 litres. Last year his successful team hadn’t used all its fuel allocation, he explained, so this time the drivers would have more power at their disposal.

Yet the XJR-12s were 100 kg heavier and the net result was cars that were terribly heavy on fuel. Davy Jones, John Nielsen and Michel Ferté, who eventually claimed second place, resorted to tricks like coasting into corners and shifting early, but it wasn’t the sort of race they could enjoy.

Derek Warwick and Andy Wallace both had minor “offs” which could be blamed on the unusual driving style, more in keeping with the Mobil Economy Run than the Le Mans 24-Hours, and they had to be content with fourth place a couple of laps behind Teo Fabi, Kenny Acheson and Bob Wollek.

It was not a happy race for the Porsche teams, and we soon saw the Porsche’s early forecast was correct — several experienced a variety of suspension breakages, and those that didn’t succumbed to overheated engines!

Seventh place overall for Hans Stuck, Derek Bell and Frank Jelinski was all the most successful Porsche team, that of Reinhold Joest, could manage this time.

Mercedes looked in good shape. There had been some mild criticism of the decision to run the C11 for Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass in the sprint races, but it had paid off handsomely. Mercedes led the Teams’ Championship after Silverstone, Schlesser and Mass led the Drivers’ Championship, and most importantly, the turbo V8 model had been thoroughly developed at 1000 kg.

When the Sauber Mercedes team started running at Le Mans the engineers and drivers had almost nothing to learn about the cars at 1000 kg. . . . Jaguar and the Porsche teams were just beginning!

With just a touch more boost (“no more than I could use in a race”) Schlesser made the fastest time of all on Thursday evening at 3 min 31.270 sec, edging out Andy Wallace’s 3.5 litre XJR-14 by three-quarters of a second. Wallace had over-revved the Grand Prix parented engine, too, and Walkinshaw was so angry at the whole business that he flung his earphones on the floor and withdrew the fragile prototype!

Walkinshaw intended to withdraw the 14 from the race, anyway, after half an hour. It hadn’t been designed or developed for 24-hour racing and wouldn’t have lasted until dusk. He entered the car because FISA insisted (Mercedes also had to enter the C291, but ran only two qualifying laps) and to claim pole position.

With Schlesser’s Mercedes put back to 11th place Wallace should have been on pole, but Walkinshaw’s fit of pique allowed Peugeot to line up at the front, and very popular that was with the quarter-million crowd.

Philippe Alliot and Keke Rosberg set off in great style to head the race for 45 minutes, until the first refuelling stops were due. Team director Jean Todt was realistic enough to know that his V10-engined 905s would not last until nightfall, this being a preparatory exercise for 1992, but a fierce fuel fire wasn’t part of the plan at the first stop.

Alliot’s 905 was surrounded with flame just as Jean-Pierre Jabouille prepared to climb aboard, but the fire marshals moved fast to extinguish the blaze. The car was soon back in the race but retired with a failed engine in the second hour. Rosberg’s lasted until evening, then retired with a broken transmission.

Only Oscar Larrauri’s hard-driven Repsol Brun Motorsport Porsche 962C separated the Mercedes after two hours, and at the three hour mark they were in 1-2-3 formation nearly a lap ahead of all rivals. Leading the race, on their first visit, were rookies Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Fritz Kreutzpointner, and there they stayed until Wendlinger, the 22-year-old Austrian, made an untypical mistake and spun out of the Dunlop chicane, straight from the pits on cool tyres.

The damage wasn’t great, just a new rear wing being required, but the C11 went down to sixth place nearly two laps behind the Jonathan Palmer/Stanley Dickens/Kurt Thiim Mercedes. It was now that the inexperience of the young crew showed up, because they spent the next six hours striving to catch Schlesser’s car.

It was pointless, of course, as the private Porsche teams were breaking up, the Jaguars were too slow, and with 18 hours to go the contest had really only begun.

Soon after dark Schumacher carved nearly five seconds off the lap record, established last year by Steve Millen in a 900 kg Nissan R90C, but soon after that the Mercedes plan began to fall apart.

Stanley Dickens ran over some accident debris in the C11, losing time straight away while the floor was patched up. It transpired later that the forward engine mounting was damaged and eventually the crankshaft damper failed, forcing retirement at breakfast time on Sunday.

The youngsters, meanwhile, had reported their C11 jamming in fourth gear. Two lengthy stops to adjust bent selectors took 35 minutes, nine precious laps, and in the final analysis the Wendlinger/Schumacher/Kreutzpointner Mercedes lost the race by seven laps.

For Mercedes, everything depended on Schlesser’s car which rumbled along in the lead from the sixth hour like a silver metronome. It looked bomb-proof, but with little more than three hours to run, and with a cushion of four laps over the Mazda, Alain Ferté came to the pits with steam pouring from the engine.

The alternator support bracket had fractured, allowing the water pump drive belt to free-wheel. It was as simple as that, but the 730 horsepower engine couldn’t cope without water circulation for three minutes (the time it took the Frenchman to drive from Tertre Rouge) and the V8 was cooked.

There was a time when it looked as though Mercedes couldn’t lose. Some people in the team might have wished they were at Le Mans in 1990 to iron out the minor, but costly, problems because there won’t be another chance for the C11. Next year all the major players will start as equals with their 3.5-litre engines, but we can suppose already that Mercedes will start favourites because of the nature of the C291.

A few crumbs of comfort were available to Jaguar. It was actually the best team result since 1957, although the last D-type success included a victory; it put the Silk Cut Jaguar team at the head of the Teams Championship and Teo Fabi ahead of Schlesser and Mass in the Drivers Championship.

The 1991 Le Mans race will always be remembered, though, as the one which Mazda won.– MLC

Race Results – 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours