Car 55 made history at 24-hour Le Mans 25 years ago

After the 2016 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, many racing enthusiasts remember an outcome that made history 25 years ago. On 23 June 1991 at around 4pm, the chequered flag waved through the winner of that year’s event.

001-off-my-wheelsBrian Joss – It was car number 55, with its flashy orange and green exterior and the unmistakable scream of its four-rotor engine. Some 21 hours into the race, after a long battle with the favoured Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars, the Mazda 787B took the lead for the first time. It was a position the outsider would not surrender: Three hours later, against all expectations, Johnny Herbert guided the Mazda triumphantly across the finish line in front of 250 000 spectators.

Johnny Herbert guided car 55 to victory: it is now in the museum at Hiroshima, Japan. Picture: Quickpic
Johnny Herbert guided car 55 to victory: it is now in the museum at Hiroshima, Japan. Picture: Quickpic

The Mazda victory at Le Mans was the first and still is the only triumph to date by an Asian carmaker at the annual competition, which is the world’s oldest active endurance race (first held in 1923) and widely considered to be the toughest. It was also the only win by a car without a piston engine. More impressive than the specifications of the 787B’s R26B rotary – it featured peripheral port injection and three spark plugs per rotor, producing 522kW at  9000rpm – was how reliable it proved to be and how fast it cornered in the hands of a driver trio consisting of Herbert, a British national, Volker Weidler, a German, and Luxembourg-born Bertrand Gachot. Running faultlessly, the winning 787B completed 362 laps (4,933km) at an average speed of 205.38km/h.

All three Mazdas that took part – two of the new 787Bs and a 787 from the previous year – completed the race, placing first, sixth and eighth overall. Of the 38 cars that qualified, only nine others officially finished. In fact, after taking the winning engine apart for the post-race inspection, Mazda’s engineers reportedly claimed that the R26B was in such good condition it could have run another 24-hour marathon.

As for car number 55, it was retired the following year to the Mazda Museum in Hiroshima after rule changes that went into force in 1992 limiting engine displacement effectively barred rotary power from Le Mans. Since then, it has made appearances at, for example, Le Mans in 2011 for the 20th anniversary of the fabled victory and the Goodwood Festival of Speed (most recently in 2015). Such occasions have been magnets for those longing to hear that distinct sound live, one more time or for the first time. It’s a sound that still resonates today with an almost cult-like following among racing and especially rotary fans around the world.

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