Endangered species

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181

The risk of dusting off this irreplaceable Le Mans winner for a 20th anniversary test run terrified the men at Mazda. But their fear couldn’t quench the fun for our lucky driver
By Sam Hancock

If I tell you not to think of an elephant, what do you do? If I then repeat myself and suggest – this time more sternly – that you really ought not to think of a giant grey elephant with its long trunk, floppy ears and twinkling tusks, what do you do? Of course you immediately picture said mammoth in all its gargantuan glory, unable to prevent even the finest details from manifesting themselves in your mind in full HD.

So after being handed the metaphorical keys to arguably one of Japan’s finest exports since sake, I try desperately to close my ears as long-time Mazda works driver and brand ambassador Pierre Dieudonné suggests that I “really ought not to crash this car”. And just to be absolutely sure that he has done everything he can to eradicate such tragedy from my mind, he quickly reinforces his point – this time more sternly – with, “This is the very car that won Le Mans in 1991. Every component on the car today was there at that moment 20 years ago when it crossed the line in first place. If you destroy it, there are no spare parts – and even if there were it would mean the car was no longer the same car that won the race. So this is truly a piece of history that has been in Mazda’s Hiroshima museum for 20 years, and a month or so from now will be back in that museum where it belongs, almost certainly for ever. So Sam, you really ought not to crash it.”

Thanks Pierre, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Pondering the sensibilities of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mazda’s extraordinary Le Mans victory – to this day it’s still the only Japanese manufacturer ever to have won the great enduro – by allowing a select clutch of salivating journalists behind the wheel of its unique rotary-engined 787B prototype, on a dusty Mallorcan circuit that can only be described as the absolute antithesis of the Circuit de La Sarthe, is a discussion I was only too keen to gloss over. After all, if you score a date with a supermodel, you don’t ask yourself why on earth she would ever want to go out with you – you just get the hell on with it!

Adorned in the glorious fluorescent green and orange colours of the Japanese Renown clothing company that helped earn it an almost cult-like following among hardened race fans, Nigel Stroud’s 787B design encapsulated an era.

It was one in which arguably the most iconic sports racing cars ever produced looked like fighter jets, spat flames from their snarling exhausts and so effortlessly topped 240mph on the Mulsanne Straight that race organisers were forced to mutilate it with fun-sponging chicanes.

The cornering forces became so extreme during this period (before power-steering) that stories abound of drivers having to wedge elbows into doors or even ‘hug’ their steering wheel in a vice-like embrace, just to maintain their trajectory through the quick stuff!

Throw in the fact that their necks would also make a routinely early retreat from their battle against the forces of g, leaving their heads lolling on their shoulders through corners, and you start to understand how the uninspiringly titled ‘Group C’ era would, in years to come, render grown men misty-eyed at its very mention.

Throughout this magical period Mazda didn’t have access to the vast resources of its Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes rivals, and as such the 787B didn’t possess the raw pace to place it any higher than 19th on the grid for what was then the 59th running of Le Grand Prix d’Endurance.

But the fact is that David still beat several Goliaths that June day in 1991, and the chariot upon which he rode to victory now stands before me, warmed up and beckoning me to ‘come hither’.

*

Slack-jawed and still in slight awe at the idea of driving the snarling beast parked next to me, I was swiftly called to attention by Hiroki Namura, one of the original chief mechanics on the winning team who now manages the immaculately prepared car’s celebratory reemergence. With a wag of his finger, Hiroki-san requested my presence in the cockpit in a manner that left no room for questioning.

I knew at a glance that I wasn’t going to fit in the car. The average height of a Japanese man according to the arbiter of all things accurate and factual – Google – is 5ft 7in. And while the winning driving crew of Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot originated from countries several thousand miles west of Japan, they would at least have enjoyed a view through the windscreen and down the road rather than my less useful close-up of the door seals cut deep into the roof.

Twisting and contorting my body to slide into the all-carbon tub, sheer will alone saw my bottom eventually sink fully into the suede-lined bucket seat. I was in, but I had absolutely no idea how I’d ever get out.

“Oh don’t worry about the seat belts Hiroki, they’re about as necessary as taking sand to the beach.” Not a flicker of laughter.

In a scene reminiscent of The Karate Kid, Mr Miyagi – I mean Mr Namura – then repeated Pierre’s original advice in his own inimitable style. “Only two rules.”

Yes, Sensei?

“First rule: you no crash.”

Yes, Sensei!

“Second rule: learn first rule!”

Yes, Sensei!

This time he cracked a smile which, with the twinkle in his eye, I took to mean something along the lines of: “I’m joking… Well, not really.”

And before I knew it, he had flicked the ignition switch, pressed the starter, slammed the gullwing door (straight down onto my protruding head) and seemingly lit the fuse to a missile to which I was inexorably strapped.

Waaapaaa, waaapaaa, waaapaaa – forget 700 horses sitting behind me, the extraordinary wail over my left earlobe as I rocked my right heel sounded more like seven thousand cats being stung by seven thousand wasps.

Let the revs drop a little too low, however, and the shrill harmonic disintegrates into a threatening, cacophonous growl, alerting all those in the Mazda’s path to stand well back.

Clutch down, it’s an easy dog-leg to the left and back on the right-hand-mounted gear lever to engage first, before pulling away unchallenged by the friendly kickback on the pedal.

I immediately discover who’s boss. The 787B doesn’t like slow. Forget any reprieve to find your bearings through the first few painfully tight corners, she demands speed with such impatience that staying off-throttle feels as suffocating to her Wankel engine as a pillow over the face. Like a caged thoroughbred, she bucks and bronks and gurgles and burbles until finally I can set her free with a boot-full of loud pedal onto a back stretch so short it doesn’t really justify the word ‘straight’.

Brief though it may be, this momentary gallop is blissful in its purity. Cracking out of the dog-leg and into second gear with a pump of the clutch, the revs leave and rejoin the race with absolute efficiency, losing not a single pound of their punch in the taller ratio so able is the torque. Into third now, and the blurred view through the letter box windscreen adjusts towards a peaceful focus. Like the Starship Enterprise reaching warp speed, the resonance through the chassis and the wail from the rotors behind me blend to a melodiousness at a quick pace that only the finest orchestra could hope to match.

But there’s no time to absorb the beauty of the moment, let alone the lust for more, as suddenly I’m over a crest and presented with a first-gear hairpin right that seems all too close for the surprisingly wooden feeling that greets me via the brake pedal. I plead with the cold carbon discs to drop anchor this instant, which thankfully they do, albeit with the urgency of a teenager getting up for school.

Down through the ’box, and so responsive is the blip as I roll my foot from toe to heel that I have to repeat the process to ensure the revs remain where intended by the time I’ve released the long-throw clutch pedal and engaged the lower cog via an unexpectedly clunky downshift. Back across the gate now and down into first from second, and despite my best efforts on the throttle it’s more mesh than synchro from the Porsche gearbox, taken originally from the 956. Nevertheless, the lightning-fast leap, leap, leap of the revs on the counter and the accompanying soundtrack is more than enough to put a toothy grin on my face and send a poignant tingle down my spine.

Leaning on the chassis now for the first time on turn-in, and with no chance of activating the awesome ground effects on this oh-so-twisty circuit the spool differential pushes the car into understeer at an apex you’d struggle to negotiate with a shopping trolley.

To its great credit, however, the 787B responds enthusiastically to my requests for quick direction change through the left-right flick that follows, belying the fact that she is set up aerodynamically for the long straights of the Mulsanne and still geared accordingly.

Confidence growing into the next lap, I push this priceless creation a little harder as heat develops equally through brakes, tyres and cocooned driver. I forgive the hint of jelly-like response from the chassis in the faster corners and remember how welcome a little softness of ride is for a Le Mans driver deep into an exhausting 24-hour race.

Hard on the power now in first gear, exiting the hairpin again, and finally I challenge the hitherto harmonious relationship between tyre and track surface. So eagerly is the torque delivered and by such an intuitive throttle that the resultant oversteer can be savoured for just a moment longer than is necessary before the Dunlops rediscover their bite and gorge on the Tarmac ahead. Cue another toothy grin.

It quickly becomes apparent, though, that this simply isn’t a suitable arena to test the limits of a chassis designed for 3.7-mile straights and some of the fastest corners on the planet, so instead I decide to concentrate on the sheer delight that is the R26B, 2.6-litre, four-rotor Wankel engine.

The R26B is the ultimate evolution of an engine which started life as a two- and then three-rotor design used by Mazda over previous years, before a fourth rotor was added in response to the astonishing and seemingly implausible demands of another 100bhp by then-senior executive officer Yasuo Tatsutomi following the 1989 Le Mans (and, as legend has it, a few celebratory beers).

Tatsutomi had earned a class win in IMSA GTP that year but was floored by a journalist questioning Mazda’s well-known fighting spirit if it wasn’t gunning for outright victory. That sealed it: from then on, only the overall win was good enough, and in the months that followed he made a request for the fourth rotor that was received by Mazda’s engineers “like an order from God”.

Unbelievably, and in the ultimate illustration of fighting spirit, they reacted by taking just 12 days to produce the first working example.

Like an icy cold beer on a hot day, the combined intake and exhaust note of the R26B engine hits the spot with such accuracy that I can’t help wondering if there is another stimulant in the world quite so potent. Learning my lesson from earlier, I concentrate on keeping the revs singing high and enjoy the glorious symphony of an extra shift or two spliced in wherever I can. If you’ve heard the unmistakable wail from trackside, I am thrilled to report that, for those lucky enough to have experienced the soundtrack from within the cockpit, it is identical. Thank goodness I turned down Pierre’s offer of earplugs!

All too soon my time is up, and as I hand 787B back in one piece to her clearly relieved custodians I can’t decide whether I am the luckiest guy in the world to have sampled this glorious creation, or if I feel ever so slightly short-changed by the tight confines of the circuit which have kept me on too tight a leash. On reflection, I’ve decided in favour of ‘lucky bugger’ – but boy, what I’d give for a second date.

Sam Hancock is an official factory driver for Aston Martin Racing, currently competing in the Le Mans Series (in which he is a former LMP2 champion) for Jota Sport AMR aboard an Aston Martin GT2 Vantage.

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