Mazda's giant-killing '91 Le Mans win: 'None of us thought we could actually win it'

Le Mans News

In 1991, the small Mazda car firm somehow slayed the giants of Mercedes, Jaguar, Peugeot with its iconic 787B to win Le Mans – the car's designer, Nigel Stroud, remembers the journey

AUTO - LE MANS 24 HOURS 1991 - PHOTO: CLAUDE SAULNIER / DPPI VOLKERT WEIDLER - JOHNNY HERBERT - BERTRAND GACHOT / MAZDA 787 B MAZDASPEED - ACTION - WINNERS 787B

30 years a go today, Mazda took on the most unlikely wins in Le Mans history, with Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler at the wheel

CLAUDE SAULNIER / DPPI

Picture the unlikely scene at this year’s Le Mans. The manufacturer muscle of Toyota falling short, the fail-safe LMP1 of Alpine somehow retiring – leaving a small squad like Glickenhaus to pick up the pieces and take the most unlikely of wins in the 24-hour race.

30 years ago today, a scenario of similarly long odds actually did play out, as the unfancied Mazda squad took the 1991 Le Mans victory – with Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler at the wheel.

“There was a lot of scope for design in sports cars”

Using a finely-honed car design, superior fuel economy, some clever politicking of the rules and a heroic final stint from Herbert, they defeated the might of the Mercedes-Sauber C11s, the powerful Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguars and new manufacturer entrant Peugeot to win the classic enduro. It was true David vs Goliath stuff.

The car that won it, the Mazda 787B, became an instant cult classic. Decked out in the orange and green colours of the Renown clothing brand and powered by the screaming banshee of Mazda’s signature Wankel engine, the Hiroshima company’s challenger became the last real icon of the Group C era.

The 787B was designed by Nigel Stroud who, in recalling the win to Motor Sport, said: “It was amazing – I don’t think any of us thought we could really win it.”

757

757 was Stroud’s first sports car effort with Mazda

Having previously worked for Hesketh (whilst also running his own furniture design business, naturally), March and Lotus in F1, Stroud had come into sportscars by way of IndyCar, but the freedom offered by endurance racing lured him into the discipline.

“As a freelance designer, you’re not going to get much work in F1 – everyone works in-house,” he says. “Then in IndyCar [in the early ’80s], they were all running bought-in cars, apart from a few who wanted a new front wing or something to be a bit different from the rest. In sports cars, there’s a lot of scope for design.”

The search for lateral thinking freedom led Stroud first to help design the Argos JM16 sports car, and then a modified Porsche 956 for Richard Lloyd Racing, creating a new-monocoque for its version of the all-conquering Group C car.

Lloyd recommended Stroud to Mazda when the Hiroshima firm was after a new designer, and the lessons learnt from the Porsche were carried over.

First of all though, the race team – Mazdaspeed – needing whipping into shape. Stroud wasn’t impressed with what he found.

Mazda Jaguar Le Mans 1991

Big cat on the hunt: Mazda had to take on the power of TWR Jaguar as well as Peugeot and Mercedes

Newspress

“The first time I went to Le Mans, I just couldn’t believe lacklustre it all was,” he says. “A lot of gentlemen drivers in their cars. They just didn’t seem to have the urgency that I was used to in F1.

“Looking at the car they had when I arrived [the 737], it just seemed horrible to me. They didn’t do their aerodynamic work in a decent wind tunnel.

“The mechanics worked in not very nice conditions – it was like a dungeon!”

“I mean, they did the best they could obviously. But there was so much more that had to be done to compete at the top level. It was difficult to sort of push Mazda a bit, but that changed over the years.

“I hope I helped, but I probably annoyed the hell out of them!”

Despite the initial lack of urgency, the Mazdaspeed team was still supported by its loyal staff, with a passionate boss that really understood the world of sports car racing.

From the archive

“The incredibly loyal mechanics there really were amazing,” Stroud recalls. “They’d been with Mazda for years and worked bloody hard, in not very nice conditions in Tokyo – it really was like working in a dungeon!”

“It was a good atmosphere though, and I got on well with the team boss Takayoshi Ohashi. He understood the Western racing culture more than the rest of the Mazda executives. He was the one that pushed quite hard for any development that Mazda couldn’t really understand.

“I think that happens in any company-derived race team, when the top brass can’t understand what the hell’s going on!”

Ohashi had been running racing programmes using Mazdas since 1967, first entered Le Mans in ’74 and then ran the works Le Mans programme from 1983. Without Ohashi’s astute politking, the 787B wouldn’t have even made the ’91 Le Mans starting grid, never mind been competitive.

He managed to persuade the ACO – who were desperate to keep field numbers up with a Japanese presence – to allow it to run at 830kg instead of the 1000kg all other Group C cars were required to run, plus keep its Wankel rotary engine for just one more year before it would be outlawed the following season. The opposition didn’t see Mazda as a threat, and didn’t protest. This was Ohashi’s last real shot at Le Mans glory with Mazda.

Together, Ohashi and Stroud gradually managed to bring about the changes needed to make themselves into a race-winning team with a car to match.

Mazda Mulsanne Le Mans 1991

The high-powered Wankel rotary engine pumped out 700bhp – perfect for the Mulsanne straight, even if it had been tamed slightly

DPPI

Stroud had come in when the team were still running the Mazda 737, and used his 956 knowledge, not to mention considerable F1 expertise, to then design the subsequent 757 in 1986, then three more cars culminating in the 787B.

“Working on the Porsche 956 was quite a good learning experience. You knew that was a car that was very, very successful long term because the package was right,” Stroud says. “But packaging the rotary Mazda engine wasn’t very easy.”

Hiroshima was insistent on using the Wankel rotary power unit, its signature scream becoming a well-known noise down the Mulsanne straight.

Year on year, a search for more power meant the engine was growing in length, and accomodating it was a headache for Stroud.

“We had a bit of banter with the power unit guys because with two rotors, it was obviously quite a short, stubby little thing,” he recalls.

Mazda pit Le Mans 1991

The 787B’s superior fuel economy meant it had to make less pit stops, allowing it climb the running order

DPPI

“The 757 went to a three-rotor, and what they did was to just add the rotor on one end of the original engine. Then when they went to the four-rotor R26B for the 787B, they simply added one up the other end.”

“I asked why they couldn’t just put two rotors together, to save on spacing, but they said they wouldn’t be able to build it, so that’s fair enough, isn’t it?”

The bigger the engine, the bigger the problem…

“The rotary bit is a non-stressed member of the car. So it’s very difficult to go to get enough rigidity in the engine bay area, as it was with the Porsche really.

From the archive

“And, of course, the stiffer and stiffer you make the chassis, the more difficult to keep up with engine bay stiffness.”

After years of fine-tuning the cars, and with not much to show in terms of results so far, Stroud felt himself and the team might be getting somewhere in terms of geting a decent result in 1991.

“The 787B really was just capitalising on, you know, everything we’d learned with the 787 and 767 and making everything better – better brakes, better engine etc.

“We used basically the same design right through from 757 to the 787B, except for the latter we went to full carbon [monocoque].

“Mazda never really had loads of money, but we pushed and pushed and got the carbon chassis.”

At full whack the engine was capable of pumping out 900bhp, but this was tuned down to 700 horses for the sake of reliability. Mazdaspeed still felt they it had enough power in its pocket to outdrag others on the long La Sarthe straights, until some layout changes threw the plans in disarray.

“The 1991 race was a bit sad, really, because they’d just done away with the long straight, and we’d really designed the car for top speed and low downforce,” Stroud says. “The rules changed and we had no time to do much about the car.”

 

The two Mulsanne chicanes meant the car’s main strong point – its power and top speed – was negated.

Issues with torque meant the car was simply no match for other Group C challengers on circuits where strong acceleration out of corners was needed, as results in the World Sportscar Championship in its Le Mans-winning year show.

Apart from its 24 Hours win, the 787B never finished better than fifth – and it only did that once, at the Nürburgring.

After years of blood, sweat, breakdowns, development, then some more breakdowns, the 787B still represented for Mazda a shot at glory – the straights were just about still long enough, and its new carbon brakes (a first at Le Mans) also gave it a fighting chance. Not that Stroud and co really entertained the idea of winning.

Le Mans Mercedes

The three leading Mercedes – including the no31 driven by one Michael Schumacher – all eventually fell by the wayside

DPPI

“We did everything we could to the car,” he says. “We’d done two 24-hour tests at Paul Ricard. We knew the car was reliable and we had all the spare parts we needed, so we could change all the suspension after the first practice. Everything was prepared properly. We were looking good, but I don’t suppose any of us really thought we could win it.”

Another area that had been changed in the build-up was the tactics. Le Mans legend (and of course grand prix-winner) Jacky Ickx was brought in as sporting director. Stroud feels this gave the team an edge it hadn’t had before.

“Jacky was great,” Stroud says. “On tactics, he was quite adamant that we just had to go flat out. Which was great, because ever since I’ve been at Mazda, I’d always said that it was good if at least one car goes fast, because if something breaks then you know why!

“And of course the drivers either had nothing but respect for him, so they’d listen to every word.”

Come the race start Volker Weidler did as he was told, and put the hammer down after starting in a rather modest 12th position.

From the archive

Mazda had entered another 787B, driven by Stefan Johansson, David Kennedy and Maurizio Sala, and a 767 with Pierre Dieudonné, Takashi Yorino and Yojiro Terada, but it was the no55 of Herbert, Gachot and Weidler that made the progress, gradually working its way up the field.

Both cars of the much-vaunted Peugeot effort dropped out before it was dark, leaving the three Mercedes-Benz C11s to lead through the night – one driven by none other than Michael Schumacher.

Both the Jaguars and Porsches were suffering from the 200kg weight ballast for running older Group C cars, and were never able to challenge for the lead, as the no55 Mazda of Weidler, Gachot and Herbert continued to glide up the order.

Better fuel mileage from the rotary engine aided further, the car able to make less pitstops. It also dawned on the team that its planned second stop to change the carbon brakes wasn’t necessary either, so that by dawn the 787B lay fourth. Then the race really did begin to come to them.

As the last few hours of Le Mans ticked down, the no31 Silver Arrows of Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger, Fritz Kreutzpointner had to make several trips to the garage due to gearbox issues, before the no32 of Jonathan Palmer, Kurt Thiim and Stanley Dickens then ran over debris. Last Merc standing, the no1, then came under pressure from Herbert and co.

The leading 787B had realised it might actually be able to win, and whilst being pushed by the plucky challenger, the no1 Silver Arrow of Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass and Alain Ferté came into the pits with high water temperature.

Volker Weidler of Germany and Bertrand Gachot of Belgium (orange suits centre), drivers of the #55 Mazdaspeed Mazda 787B celebrate on the podium after winning the FIA World Sportscar Championship 24 Hours of Le Mans race on 24th June 1991 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

Gachot and Weidler celebrate sans Herbert, who’s being treated for dehydration – Ickx is in the centre below, with Ohashi third from left

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

The 787B, which at this point had never finished higher than sixth, was now in the lead. For all the stress and strain in the build-up to the ’91 Le Mans edition, the race itself for Mazda had been relatively undramatic up to this point.

So as not to upset the momentum, Herbert was asked by his team to do a marathon double stint to the end – as if one at La Sarthe wasn’t enough.

“I felt like I’d left my body in the car, saw my father and collapsed into his lap” Johnny Herbert

The Brit, who of course had suffered serious ankle and leg injuries in an F3000 race a few years previous and was still feeling the effects, had to push through intense pain as well as being seriously dehydrated. His stomach wasn’t feeling particularly brilliant either…

“Le Mans is so draining mentally, it was a really hot day, and I’d drunk all the water in the car, so for the last hour my stomach had that horrible empty feeling – and I had [Jaguar’s] John Nielsen right behind me putting the pressure on,” he said in an interview with Spirit of Le Mans magazine.

“My concentration, and the gear changes, they were OK, and it wasn’t until the finish that it hit me. The closer I got to the line, I really didn’t feel well. In parc fermé I got out, stood up, felt like I’d left my body in the car, my head was so light. I wandered around the car, saw my father, sat down and collapsed into his lap. So I missed the podium, but it didn’t matter. We’d won Le Mans.”

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 09: Actor Patrick Dempsey drives the 1991 Mazda 787B prototype to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the car's victory at Le Mans prior to practice for the 79th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 9, 2011 in Le Mans, France (Photo by Rick Dole/Getty Images)

The charismatic 787B still captures the imagination today – seen here being given a demonstration run by Hollywood actor Patrick Dempsey in 2011

Rick Dole/Getty Images

As Herbert was carried off by his Mazda mechanics to the medical centre, the rest of the Mazdaspeed squad went wild in celebration.

The Hiroshima-based car firm with its tiny race team from Tokyo, going up against the might of Peugeot, Jaguar and Porsche, had somehow won at Le Mans.

Furthermore, it had dashed the hopes of the behemoth Toyota and Nissan groups of becoming the first Japanese car manufacturer to win at La Sarthe. Nothing would ever take that away from Mazda.

Stroud is typically self-effacing in his view of the victory, but still relishes it as his finest moment: “We only won it by default, really – but it was amazing!”

It was an underdog victory which touched the hearts of motor sport fans round the world, and even that of the most fiercest of paddock characters.

“I didn’t have much luck before that – it’s always nice to win!”

“What was quite nice was that Tom Walkinshaw came up and congratulated Ohashi straight away,” he says. “They [TWR Jaguar] were trying for a hat-trick, so he must’ve been a bit gutted.

“But you know, we did beat them, and OK, Mercedes was the quickest car, but they’d broken down.

“I didn’t have much luck before that – it’s always nice to win!”

Of course in the minds of racing fans, the screaming 787B was the star of the show, the poster boy for Mazda’s minnow win. It’s still Stroud’s favourite.

“I liked the paint job and I quite liked the sound which endeared itself to the public,” he says. “The whole thing just had character.”