The Scream that got the Cat

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Does the sound of the Shrill rotary engine haunt Tom Walkinshaw? Mazda’s 1991 defeat of the overweight Jaguars and fragile Sauber-Mercedes was a classic. Adam Cooper saw it all

The finish of Le Mans is always a great occasion, but this one is special. The little greenand-orange Mazda has humiliated the mighty Sauber-Mercedes and Jaguar teams, not to mention ambitious newcomers Peugeot. Until now, Mazda has been a bit player at the Sarthe, getting more attention for the car-busting noise of its rotary engines than for any achievements on the track.

As the clock finally passes 4pm, Mazdaspeed boss Takayoshi Ohashi appears to be shell-shocked. A distinguished man who resembles a veteran actor, he has loyally supported Le Mans for nearly two decades. He’s always given the impression that he enjoyed the Olympian ideal ofjust turning up. Now he’s done the impossible, and there are team and hugs aplenty.

Back in Tokyo, executives from Nissan and Toyota shake their heads in disbelief as they watch TV pictures of jubilation on the pitwall. Little Mazda has done what they have failed to do despite years of trying. Now they can only be the second Japanese marque to win Le Mans.

Drained spectators go crazy as Johnny Herbert completes his victory lap. Or rather, fails to complete it, as he is waved into parrfermejust before the Ford Chicane, and is thus denied the chance to take the chequered flag and enjoy a final run past the pits. TV cameras lose track of him, so few know that Johnny is completely shattered after two hours at the wheel. He gets out of the car, is greeted by his delighted father Bob, and promptly collapses onto the sidepod. He’s dehydrated and exhausted after a long final stint; a plate of dodgy spaghetti bolognese a few hours ago did him no good.

It’s been quite a race. This is not a hollow victory; the Mazda beat a trio of healthy Jaguars in terms of pace, and was in the right place to benefit when the Silver Arrows hit a string of problems. Two of the Clls retire, while the third trails home fifth. Mazda has the reliability that the German cars were lacking, but it’s also had the pace to outrun everyone except the Mercs. So why have the underdogs suddenly become the stars? A favourable weight limit has certainly helped. The Jags and Porsches had to run a full 170kgs heavier than the Mazdas, and it showed. Andy Wallace, a rookie winner just three years ago, has to settle for fourth.

“Basically the car is just too heavy,” he shrugs, “too heavy to handle and too heavy to pull out of the slow corners. Getting through the Dunlop Chicane is a real juggle. Every time I do it I’m surprised to come out the other side. We chose the right set-up, but need more speed.”

It’s not just down to the opposition’s problems, as Mazda’s preparation has also been superb. The signs were there last year, when designer Nigel Stroud upgraded to a composite tub, and a punchy four-rotor engine was introduced. The team also backed up its regular squad of drivers with three single-seater hotshots, who were under orders to thrash the thing to bits.

Herbert, ‘Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler did exactly that, and 12 months on, Mazda has made improvements, adding carbon brakes to the package. The same three drivers returned, and their charging style has made the difference between winning and losing.

Ohashi is congratulated by Tom Walkinshaw. The Scot has a lot of respect for his Japanese colleague; a few years ago, TWR made its first steps in sportscar racing in partnership with Mazdaspeed, and both have come a long way.

Weidler and Gachot are pushed by the mob down to the new podium, part of the ultra modern pit complex. There’s no sign of Johnny, and word comes through that he is having medical treatment. Celebrations continue without him, the Mazda pair flanked by two sets of bemused Jaguar drivers.

It’s a sweet moment for the winners. Gachot’s career is on the up; he’s just scored points for the new Jordan team at the Canadian GP. He didn’t enjoy Le Mans last year, but as this race has progressed, his motivation has increased.

Few notice, unless they’ve studied lap times, but Weidler has been the anchorman. A disastrous year in F1 trying to pre-qualify the Rial appeared to finish him off, but he’s fighting back in Japanese F3000. Mazda’s top brass enjoy their podium moment, and finally the national anthems and champagne spraying are over. The winning drivers enter the 24 press room for a light-hearted Q&A with the media, but there’s still no sign of Johnny. When proceedings break up, I doorstep Gachot Was he surprised to win?

“It was a surprise for us to have been so competitive all through the race,” he admits. “But the Mazda people believed we had something special this year. We never lost hope. Also, in testing everything went well. The car was extremely good. Nigel designed a fantastic car, the team ran perfectly and we had no problems, no hiccups. The engine was extremely reliable and very good on fuel, and the other drivers did a good job, they were fantastic. I tell you, we were pushing all through the race, 100 per cent.

“I believe that if you are a young guy, and you go hard at it for 24 hours, you can make a good result. Normally, sportscar racing doesn’t ask for the last tenth, but I think it’s changed. We were giving our very best. Let’s say the effort I put into driving, Johnny put into driving, and Volker put into driving, was like in a GP. Look at Johnny — he’s in hospital now because of collapsing.”

The stops have also been remarkably efficient. A couple of new noses didn’t cost much time, and the only delay came with scheduled attention to the brakes.

“We had to change the front discs only once. This was the big improvement from last year. The car has been improved in lots of details, so this was probably our best chance, and they knew it from the start.”

Out in the paddock, mechanics are busy packing up, and drivers are rapidly disappearing. There’s one man I must find, and! track him down in a caravan in the Mazda encampment.

Ohashi-san speaks English well, but the emotion has knocked him for six; his loyal secretary translates his thoughts.

“We aimed for it, but we couldn’t believe the victory,” she says.

“Not expected!”, Ohashi chimes in.

With the rotary outlawed from next year, was he determined to win on this last appearance? “In fact, the situation was that it was the last race for the rotary, but he tried not to think about that, because he didn’t want to get any tension from that”

He’s cagey on the subject of the weight limit that has clearly helped so much.

“If this year’s cars weighed 50kg more, our brakes would be more stressed.”

I offer him my congratulations again, and head for the Mot et Chandon compound, where teams traditionally celebrate victory. There, I bump into Johnny. It’s good to see he’s up and about, but he’s not sounding healthy. Still in a bit of a daze, he signs a few autographs on the way in.

His colleagues are already there, along with the crews of the other Mazdas, which finished sixth and eighth. There’s a good crowd of team insiders; loyal Mazda veterans Pierre Dieudonne, Maurizio Sandra Sala and David Kennedy say they would have loved to have been in the winning car, but they know the winners reached a level they could not have sustained.

Johnny is still zonked, and after the speeches he’s taken to a quiet, dark room for some further rest. The effort of the previous day and night has really caught up with him, but I take my chance and grab him. His voice is hoarse, his words slow.

“No one was pushing us, and the Jags were probably hoping we were going to breakdown. Driving was not a problem, but I’d been feeling a little bit funny in the stomach. It was just when I got out of the car that I felt bad.”

It’s yet to sink in that this is the greatest moment of his career to date. It comes just a few weeks after his retum from exile in Japan to a seat with Lotus’ F1 team.

“I don’t normally get excited anyway. But I’m happy just from the point of view of my feet; I’m really happy they went the whole way through and I just had no problem whatsoever. I’m sure people are still going to say things, but I’ve got that for the rest of my life. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all behind me now.” In four days he will be in the F1 car in testing at Silverstone, and he’ll win another personal battle — he’ll be quicker than team-mate Mika Hakkinen.

How Mazda played the weighting game

Mazda’s quirky engine design was the entire raison D’etre of their competition programme, and ensured the cars always ran in a weird IMSA category or some such. A Mazda engine was run in a private Chevron B16 at Le Mans as early as 1970-, and from ’79 the company began to take the race seriously, initially with an RX-7 IMSA car. A siring of class victories was secured, but nobody really noticed. And nobody paid attention in the winter of 1990-91, when FISA ratified the World Sportscar Championship rules. We were in limbo between the old Group C days of lumbering turbos and fuel consumption, and a new era of 3.5-litre aimos. Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot backed the F1-car-with-doors formula, but to fill grids, the Group C machines were given a stay of execution. Porsche 962s made up the field in the WSC sprint races, while a reluctant Mazda had to enter its GIP car in the full series in order to be eligible for Le Mans.

No-one expected the 3.5s to survive the 24 Hours; Jag and Merc revived their mothballed V12 and V8 turbos respectively.

The penally was a 1000kg weight limit, at Peugeot’s insistence.

The limit for the IMSA class, populated solely by Mazda, was originally set at 880kgs. Takayoshi Ohashi politely informed RSA this was not acceptable. With Nissan and Toyota waiting on the sidelines, both the governing body and the Automobile Club de l’Quest were keen to keep Mazda and thus a token Japanese presence, so the limit was dropped back to 830kgs, the figure the cars ran at in sprint races. The opposition didn’t complain, and Ohashi’s softly-softly approach paid off.

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