- The Mazda 787B was the first Japanese car to win Le Mans, taking a hard-fought victory in 1991.
- After an immediate retirement from racing due to rotary engines being banned at Le Mans starting in 1992, the number 55 car usually enjoys its retirement parked at Mazda Headquarters in Hiroshima, Japan.
- To help Le Mans celebrate its 100th anniversary, Mazda is bringing the winning iconic 787B back to the Circuit de la Sarthe for some ear-splitting demonstration laps. It will be on display at the Le Mans museum for the month of June.
For the 100to birthday, the 24 Hours of Le Mans invites the loudest guests. Thirty-two years ago, Mazda’s orange and green 787B screamed its way to an unlikely victory that has become a defining moment for the brand. It was the first Japanese manufacturer to win the world’s most famous endurance race, and it was also a high point for rotary engines.
Normally, the winning number 55 787B sleeps in the Mazda museum in its hometown of Hiroshima. However, earlier this month any cobwebs were cleared, and the prototype was sent to France to lead a demonstration round before the main event. Driving is driver Yojiro Terada, a 29-time Le Mans veteran and driver of the older #56 787 at Le Mans in 1991.
The 787B victory was not supposed to happen. Compared to giant entrants from Peugeot and Mercedes-Sauber, Mazda’s brave Le Mans team essentially took the Miata to a gunfight. It is also possibly the loudest racing car ever built. No other team ran a rotary engine, and both 787Bs deserved an incredible 12.to and 17to. But the 787B punches above its weight. Mounted amidships is the RB26M, a 2.6L four-rotor engine with a variable length intake runner. Built specifically to win Le Mans (or at least try), the engine is capable of producing 900 horsepower at 10,000 rpm, but runs at a maximum of 700 hp at 9000 rpm for racing. This compares to Jaguar’s 7.4L V-8 or the turbocharged 5.0L V-8 from Mercedes’ predecessor.
The chassis is lighter than the competition at just 1830 pounds, giving the 787B a fighting chance with its power-to-weight ratio. The engine also has some fuel efficiency advantages, and Mazda engineers have built the four-rotor to be as reliable as they can make it.
In that race, the three-man team of Johnny Herbert, Volker Wiedler, and Bertrand Gachot clawed their way into the top ten. By 4am, when only the hardiest spectators were still standing, the 787B was screeching around the course and disrupting the dream of third place. The sun came up, number 55 was in second place, and the leading Mercedes broke down. A historic victory is just a few laps away.
It was all the sweeter because this was Mazda’s last grip on the trophy, as rotary engines were banned for the 1992 season. Even better, at least as far as Mazda’s marketing department was concerned, the ferocious twin-turbo third-generation RX-7 had just debuted; winning Le Mans was the perfect time to introduce rotary-engined sports cars.
Fast Forward to 2023
On June 9 and 10, the 787B ran a full circuit demonstration alongside the Japanese Le Mans winning machine from Gazoo Racing Toyota. The car will now be on display at the Le Mans Museum for the full month of June and will take part in the Le Mans Classic weekend at the end of the month.
Due to its understated history, its iconic green-and-orange livery, and not least the mind-numbing scream it produced at speed, the 787B is one of Le Mans’ most beloved racing machines. That it returns as one of those great stories written over twenty-four hours with speed and endurance is fitting. No other guest sang Happy Birthday Le Mans louder.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and photographer based in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. He grew up cracking his knuckles on British cars, came of age in the golden era of Japan’s compact sports performance, and began writing about cars and people in 2008. His particular interest is the intersection of man and machine, whether racing. Walter Cronkite’s career or the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s half-century obsession with the Citroën 2CV. He has taught both of his daughters how to shift manual transmissions and is grateful for the reason they give him to always buy Hot Wheels.