Mazda-VICTOIRE-au-Mans-in-1991 © -Manfred-GIET.

Since the 1980s, the Japanese manufacturers have gathered all their forces to try to win the biggest endurance race in the world: the very prestigious 24 Hours of Le MANS.

TOYOTA and NISSAN, disembarked and thus arrived every year at the beginning of June, with a veritable armada of cars and this with the secret hope of becoming the first Japanese manufacturer to triumph and win in the Sarthe …

But, alas annually, disillusion prevailed and was each time up to their hopes displayed from the start during the weighing!

The rising sun turned every time … to the setting sun for the Japanese Teams and this until a third thief in this case the small brand … MAZDA, which had persisted for a good decade, to start work, a car in this endurance category, capable of winning in the famous Le Mans classic, which, as my friend Gilles GAIGNAULT reminds me, in far-off Japan is called ‘Le long, long jour’.

MAZDA-717C-24-Heures-du-Mans-1983 -12th-overall-and-winner-of-the-category-J- © -Manfred-GIET.

MAZDA, which from the 1973 edition had already taken part in the Le Mans double clock tour, but at the time as an engine manufacturer, for the small Japanese team, the SIGMA team, which would later become SARD.

And this introduction as an engine manufacturer for the manufacturer of Hiroshima did not go unnoticed, since MAZDA equipped the SIGMA prototype with a power unit based… on a rotary engine!

Indeed, in 1959 when the creator of the rotary engine, the German Felix WANKEL presented his experimental engine to the general public, the enthusiasm was such in Japan that no less than … 34 companies applied for a license that only the TOYO CORK KOGYO CORPORATION, which later became MAZDA, from 1960, was the only beneficiary to obtain it.

A technical innovation which has since continued to evolve under Japanese influence.



If manufacturers, such as the German NSU or the French CITROËN, were also interested in WANKEL technology, they quickly abandoned it while MAZDA quickly adopted it to the point of putting its rotary engines to the test in motorsport. .

As early as 1970, a CHEVRON B16 from the Belgian LEVIS INTERNATIONAL RACING TEAM, equipped with a 982 cc MAZDA 10 A 2R rotary engine, was entered in the 24 Hours of Le MANS, which will be a first which, however, only lasted for space. of… 19 laps only, before the engine gives up the ghost !!!

It was only partly postponed since three years later, we found this time, an exclusively Japanese team in Sarthe engaged in the legendary 24 Hours, in the form of a SIGMA MC 73, racing car equipped with the branded MAZDA 12A double rotor engine. of 2,292 cc, which after a 14th place on the starting grid, however had to give up but for a clutch problem.

And as this concept of power unit was now part of the DNA of the manufacturer Nippon, it did not hesitate to enter MAZDA RX 100s in the other essential endurance event, the famous 24 Hours of SPA. , where without the fatal accident, of which the Belgian pilot  » ELDÉ  » Léon DERNIER was unfortunately a victim, the three  » Japanese Geisha  » with the strident sonority would have succeeded in a beautiful group shot.


MAZDA-24-Heures-de-Spa-1981-la-Mazda-victorieuse-de-Dieudonné-Walkinshaw- © -Manfred-GIET-

In the meantime, MAZDA had launched in 1978, its model RX-7, a pretty sporty and light coupe, designed to house the rotary piston engine to compete with rival sports brands, such DATSUN Z, PORSCHE 924 or NISSAN SKYLINE, with a sacred high point in 1981, when to everyone’s surprise, a 2.5-liter twin-rotor MAZDA RX-7, prepared by the TWR team (Tom WALKINSHAW) and driven by father Tom and Belgian Pierre DIEUDONNÉ, won the 24 Hours of FRANCORCHAMPS and this under the nose and beard of an armada of clearly more powerful FORD CAPRI, CHEVROLET CAMARO or other BMW 530i!

It was then a big boost for the Japanese manufacturer who, far from resting on its laurels, continued to develop its concept of rotary engine with the final objective … the 24 Hours of Le MANS.

A first attempt in 1983 with MAZDA 717C prototypes powered by double rotor blocks entered in the Group C «  Junior  » category proved to be conclusive since, in addition to finishing the Sarthoise event in an honorable 12th overall, the car driven by the Japanese trio, KATAYAMA-TERADA-YORINO, won its category.

Between 1984 and 1989, there were engagements at Le Mans with 727C or 757s fitted with double or even triple rotor engines and various fortunes at stake.

After encouraging beginnings of the 787 model equipped with quadruple rotors which would succeed the 757 in 1990, the manufacturer of Hiroshima under the impetus of the boss of MAZDASPEED, Takayoshi OHASCHI, then accelerated the preparation by betting first on the essential… reliability!


For the Mancelle edition of 1991, MAZDA entered under the name MAZDASPEED, played an important card under the magic wand of the British engineer, Nigel STROUD, who brought profound changes to the three prototypes group C Japanese, facing the favorite quartet that formed… MERCEDES, JAGUAR, PEUGEOT and PORSCHE.

And as the unfolding of the double clock has shown, those we expected have all been incredibly at their expense at the end of the 24 Hours, either for lack of reliability or because of consumption. excessive as was the case with JAGUAR!

During this time, the MAZDA 787 BN ° 55 at the forefront and shared by the crew formed by the British Johnny HERBERT, the Franco-Belgian Bertrand GACHOT-and the German Wolker WEIDLER, whose propellant and its characteristic shrill sound turned like a clock, had never stopped pushing its faster rivals to their limits …

Bertrand-.GACHOT-Mazda-787-B-victorieuse-aux-24-Heures-du-Mans-in-1991- © -Manfred-GIET.

So much so that the SAUBER-MERCEDES C11 of the trio made up of the French, Jean Louis SCHLESSER and Alain FERTÉ supported by the German Jochen MASS, who had led the dance for 16 long hours, had to withdraw following an engine overheating, propelling suddenly, the beautiful orange and green MAZDA, leading the race and 3 hours from the finish !!!

The feeling was perfect, it was still necessary to manage this unexpected leadership in the Japanese clan until the checkered flag was lowered at 4pm.

The quad-rotor under the hood, under constant strain, showed no sign of weakness, however, so that the engineers and mechanics at the MAZDASPEED stand had everything under control.

MAZDA-24-HEURES-DU-MANS-1991-The trio of victorious F1 drivers-WEIDLER-GACHOT-HERBERT- © -Manfred-GIET.

For the rest the trio of drivers from F1, WEIDLER-HERBERT-GACHOT, all novices in endurance, did their job meticulously while scrupulously respecting the instructions of the Team who to waste as little time as possible asked the Briton Johnny HERBERT, to ensure a final double stint to finish the event which he did not without going to draw on his reserves until being the victim of exhaustion as soon as the checkered flag was lowered, leaving the care to his two teammates, Bertrand GACHOT and Volker WEIDLER, to stand alone on the podium!

Undoubtedly, this day of Sunday 23 June 1991 will remain forever engraved in the annals of the 24 Hours of Le MANS, since it is linked to the feat of the MAZDA team, to have imposed on the one hand, the rotary piston engine in the toughest endurance test in the world, and on the other hand to register as the first Japanese manufacturer to win in the Sarthe.

A hell of a challenge!

This victory will remain unique, since in 1992, the ACO (Autompbile Club de l’Ouest), the organizer of the 24 Hours, prohibited the use of the rotary engine …

Thus putting an end to the story and therefore an end to an experience and a great victorious adventure for the rotary engine in Sarthe!

Manfred GIET

Pictures: PUBLIRACING – Michel PICARD – Gilles VITRY

24-HEURES-DU-MANS-1991- Victory for WEIDLER-GACHOT-HERBERT, with the MAZDA with rotary engine

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