No Japanese car or team had ever won at Le Mans before, and certainly no Wankel-engined oddity had ever got even a whiff of success at endurance racing's biggest gala of the year.
In 1991, Mazda didn't expect to rewrite motorsport history, even if it did have a decent enough car on its hands in the form of the 787. But that was a 690bhp triple-disc rotary engine, which more often than not spontaneously combusted before the finishing line was in sight. Meanwhile, Sauber's C9 powered by Mercedes-Benz was reaching speeds just shy of 400kph, while the F1-engined 800bhp-plus Peugeot 905 blasted through the Mulsanne speed traps at 405kph, and the purple Silk Cut Jaguar XJR wasn't far behind either. If you were Mazda, would you have harboured confidence in the run up to the big event? Didn't think so.
But then Mazda selected a higher gear and got moving. The Japanese engineers back home developed a carbon-fibre chassis to replace the old aluminium one, and the triple-disc motor gave way to a new 740bhp four-rotor unit.
The project started moving so well in fact, that even Le Mans master, Jacky Ickx, was attracted to come on board and provide his expert advice to the team.
Yet when March came around and the droves of fans lined the Le Mans circuit, everyone expected either a Mercedes or a Jaguar to cross the line first. And if they failed to finish, there were plenty of Porsches and Peugeots to take their place. Every car had 2,550 litres of fuel allocated for the full 24 hours and nobody expected a greedily thirsty rotary engine to last the 5,000km distance.
But those same doubters also had no idea that Mazda had found an economy solution. The new 787B racing car romped contentedly around the track hour after hour, the drivers shifting at 8,000rpm instead of 9,000rpm — their only strategy for saving fuel. The incredibly stiff carbon chassis, though, meant that when the corners came around, Johnny Herbert and company could shove the car into the turns faster than the rest of the field. Lose some ground at Mulsanne, make it up again through the Porsche curves…
Once the sun lit up the road surface on Sunday morning, the Mazda drivers suddenly realised their car would in fact last the distance, and all calls to save fuel went out of the window as Herbert put in lap after lap as if it was a sprint race.
Two hours before the flag, the Mazda 787B flew past the tired and steaming Mercedes, and coasted home to — you guessed it — rewrite history.
Le Mans 1991
Circuit length 13.6km
Finish line 38 starters, 12 reached the flag
Winner Mazda 787B. Volker Weidler (D) Johnny Herbert (GB) Bertrand Gachot (B)
Total distance 362 laps, 4,923.2km, average speed 205.333kph
Car Mazda 787B, Group C Prototype, 830kg, four-rotor rotary engine, 740bhp