1991 24 Hours of Le Mans: Facing the Giants
June 14, 2012 by Jeremy McMullenJohnny Herbert: Rational Nonsensical Expectations
It had been more than thirty years but the Silver Arrows would compete, and win, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Jaguar would also earn its first victory in more than thirty years when it took the overall honors in 1988. And then there was Porsche, the most dominant mark in Le Mans history. But each of these three manufacturers shared something in common. Even with the victories by Ford during the 1960s there was something very interesting about the list of victors in the 24 French enduro—none of them were Japanese manufacturers.
Heading into the 59th edition of the 24 hour race it seemed highly unlikely a Japanese manufacturer would finally break the stranglehold held by European and North American manufacturers. Mazdaspeed would be the only Japanese entry in the field of 39 cars. And amongst all of the Japanese manufacturers to ever enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Mazda seemed the most unlikely to achieve the feat given the underpowered rotary engine that powered its 787B chassis.
In response to the incredible speeds cars were capable of reaching down the long Mulsanne straight, the 1990 edition of the race would see the introduction of two chicanes along the entirety of the Mulsanne meant to break up the straight and reduce top speeds. In previous years drivers would come around Tetre Rouge and would prepare for more than a minute flat out reaching speeds of 250 mph down the long straight. Now the driver would have less of a break but would still hit speeds in excess of 200 mph.
The chicanes would again be in place for the 1991 edition of the race. So too would the new pit complex that had been planned for more than a year. The state-of-the-art pit complex would provide teams and officials new comforts and would also increase safety around the pitlane.
In the lead up to the race, most of the attention would be concerning the new World Sportscar Championship and the move to 3.5-liter engines similar to those used in Formula One at the time. Unfortunately, not many of the teams would be willing to make the move to the new engine and the officials of the race would actually allow the turbocharged cars of the previous years to still take part in the race. This would make for an interesting blend of older champions and newer machines prepared to take their place in Le Mans history.
1990 would see Nissan and Toyota enter the 24 hour race but it would be the 7.0-liter V12 Jaguar XJR-12s that would prove the class of the field. Silk Cut Jaguar would earn an impressive one-two overall finish in the race with the winning trio of John Nielsen, Price Cobb and Martin Brundle covering 359 laps and beating their Jaguar sister-car by a mere 4 laps.
Up against the mighty 7.0-liter Jaguars and the R89 and R90 Nissans, Mazda would enter a couple of 787s and a 767. Powered by a small 2.6-liter 4-rotor engine, both of the 787s would fall out of the race within one lap of each other and a long way away from the finish. In the end, Mazdaspeed would not look anything like a contender as the Jaguars rolled on to victory and a very solid 2nd place.
The field for the 1991 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans would be split into two categories. The older grandfathered Group C cars would be considered Category 2 cars while the 3.5-liter cars, like the Peugeot Talbot Sport 905 would be listed as a Category 1 car.
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With the wick turned up, the reigning World Champion in sportscars, Jean-Louis Schlesser, along with Jochen Mass and Alain Ferte would be fastest in the number 1 Sauber Mercedes C11. However, because the car was listed in Category 2 the car would be penalized and would end up starting from 11th place on the starting grid. The 2nd fastest qualifier would be the XJR-14 of Andy Wallace, Derek Warwick and Kenny Acheson driving for the Silk Cut Jaguar team. Though the car conformed to the Category 1 regulations the team would decide to withdraw a car that would have started from the pole. Instead, Warwick and Wallace would partner with John Nielsen in an older XJR-12 and would start from 24th on the grid. All of those that would be amongst the quickest, not surprisingly, would be Category 2 cars. As a result, the number 6 Peugeot Talbot Sport 905 of Keke Rosberg, Yannick Dalmas and Pierre-Henri Raphanel would line up alongside the 905 sister car after having been 8th fastest in qualifying, but 2nd fastest amongst the Category 1 cars.
The 12th fastest qualifier would be the number 55 787B driven by Volker Weidler, Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert. Being that they were also driving a Category 2 car they would be pushed down the starting grid to 19th overall. Obviously not one of the fastest within Category 2, the penalty that would have the team starting further down in the order would be yet another hurdle the team would have to deal with over the course of the 24 hour race.
If the team and the car seemed to have circumstances stacked against them, then the three drivers that would share time in the seat of the number 55 Mazdaspeed 787B would be poster children for the star-crossed racers of the world.
Weidler would be successful in the lower formulas of racing and would make his way to a Formula One ride in 1989. However, out of ten grand prix in which he would enter driving for the Rial Team, Weidler would be unable to qualify for even one of them. Seemingly without hope for a lucrative ride in the future, Weidler would make his way to Japan where he would become a star in Formula 3000 but would be rather stuck in that position.
Bertrand Gachot would be born in Luxembourg to a French European Commission official. Showing talent behind the wheel of karts and Formula Fords, Gachot would end up finishing runner-up to Johnny Herbert in the British Formula 3 Championship. Opportunity seemed to be right around the corner but trouble with statements to the press and other poor decisions would have him really wandering around the racing scene looking for a ride that would change the fortunes of his career. The best break he would receive would be talking his way onto the Jordan Grand Prix team at the start of the 1991 season. But while he would show tremendous talent, he would still be with a brand new team, and the successes were rather limited.
Prior to 1988, the brightest of the three stars would have to be Johnny Herbert. He would beat Gachot to the British Formula 3 Championship and would have a number of Formula One test drives until driving for Benetton during the 1989 season. Still, a terrible accident at Brands Hatch during the late-1980s would nearly end his racing career and would almost destroy any chance for the man to walk again. To Herbert, this would be the reason for the change of fortunes in his racing career following the accident.
Therefore, to a man, the drivers behind the number 55 787B would certainly have something to prove. Weighed down with chips on their shoulders and a bit of anger and rebelliousness, these three men were faced with the daunting prospect of taking on a field filled with Formula One stars, former Le Mans champions and more powerful machinery. Keeping them calm and focused on the task at hand would not be an easy thing with all of the pressure they were preparing to face.
The day of the race would be quite warm and sunny. However, there would be a threat of some rain, as is normally the case at Le Mans in late June. The drivers would strap into their cars and would head around on the parade lap getting ready for the start. The unusually arranged grid would snake its way through the Ford chicanes and over the line to start the 59th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Aided by a number of slower Spice chassis in between themselves and the first of the Category 2 cars, the number 5 and 6 Peugeots would streak into the lead of the race and would quickly begin to open up an advantage. A little further back, the C11 Mercedes would begin to slice and dice their way through the slower Category 1 cars in pursuit of the two Peugeots. One of those that would be flying from the start would be the number 55 Mazda 787B.
After a fire while refueling and issues with the other Peugeot 905, the leader of the race would be the number 31 Mercedes C11 of Karl Wendlinger, Fritz Kreutzpointner and a young Michael Schumacher. Behind them, a gaggle of Porsche 962s would fill up positions toward the front of the field. Meanwhile, the number 55 Mazda continued to run strongly inside the top ten throughout the early hours of the race. The big and powerful Jaguars of the Silk Cut Jaguar Tom Walkinshaw Racing team would be slowly moving forward from the middle of the field. They would focus on their strategy and would look for events to bring them to the front.
Events would take place that would begin to help everybody running in the more heavily restricted Category 2 class. The Peugeots, as was expected, even by their won crews, would fall out of the running. The number 31 C11 Mercedes would spin and would drop down the running order and a number of the Porsche 962s would not make it through the night. Therefore, not only would the Silk Cut Jaguars make their way up the running order, but the Mazda 787B of Gachot, Herbert and Weidler would also find themselves well inside the top five.
The going would not be smooth sailing for the number 55 Mazda, however.
The three troubled drivers were putting together an incredibly mature performance at the wheel of their Mazda. Of the three, the most impressive would be Johnny Herbert. Running stint after stint, Herbert would be like a machine behind the wheel and would enable the team to move forward in the race as the tiny 2.6-liter rotary engine continued to scream around the Circuit de la Sarthe without any real problems of any kind.
Throughout the majority of the first half of the race the Mazdaspeed team would hardly be mentioned. Even fewer people probably even realized the cars were out there as they would be transfixed by the early run of the Peugeots, and then, the Mercedes and Jaguar battle that mounted before the shadows lengthened and the day turned to night. As a result of all of these early signs many believed there wasn't even a chance the car would carry on to the end of the race, let alone be in a position to challenge for the overall victory. Of course, these rather skeptical points of view weren't without any foundation given the results at Le Mans the previous year.
During the night hours, however, the number 55 Mazda would show 1991 would be a different year moving up to 4th place while the number 18 car would have its nose cowl fly up in the face of the driver. Fortunately, the car would make it around to have the whole nose replaced. While one of the Mazdas would experience a scary situation, it would only get better for the number 55 car as one of the powerful Mercedes dropped back. Then, the Mazda would move up to 3rd after getting ahead of one of the Jaguars. And then, toward the early morning hours, the seemingly hunted would become the hunter as Herbert, Weidler and Gachot picked up the pace and applied the pressure to the two leading Mercedes
Heading into the race hardly anyone gave Mazda a thought about the overall victory. And yet, heading into the final couple of hours of the race, those same skeptics and race fans that hadn't even given Mazda a second look in the beginning were waiting with great expectation to see if the impossible could come to fruition.
In the face of former winners like Jaguar, Mercedes and Porsche, the Mazda team appeared incredibly small and insignificant. And yet, the team, the car and its drivers would all stand before their 'giants' and would sling their proverbial 'stones' and would find themselves within a matter of minutes of achieving the greatest result of their careers. All of a sudden, with one stroke of a solid 24 hour run which seemed impossible, or, unlikely to even happen, all that appeared to be the given, or, inevitable would come crashing down in the wake of the flames exiting from the small turbocharged Wankel rotary engine. And just like that, some of the most unlikely of players would find themselves on the verge of having performed one of the best and most memorable of performances in Le Mans history.
After hour upon hour of being disregarded, overlooked and never given even the slightest of chances, the troubled threesome of Gachot, Weidler and Herbert had managed to take hold of the best opportunity of either of their careers and would be heading around on what would be the final lap of the action-packed race. The team, the car and the men had risen under the burdensome pressure from Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot and had out-lasted them all.
Heading into the final half hour the plaudits were beginning to come in from all around. Having never finished better than 7th place at Le Mans just about everyone would be taken back by the sight they were witnessing. Against all the odds, and conventional wisdom, Herbert would be out front in a car that would be co-driven throughout the 24 hours by a couple of his biggest rivals from the lower formulas. As Gachot would relate, 'I don't know how many times we ran into each other in races', but now these three men stood poised to take the greatest result of their careers.
The flags around the circuit were waving as Herbert circulated for just one more time. As he rounded the Porsche curves for the final time the scene would be hectic with the crowd already having spilled onto the circuit in celebration of Mazda's incredible feat. Instead of crossing the line for the final time Herbert would be directed straight into the pits where he would be met with an incredible throng of spectators that would bring the mighty and fast Category 2 car to an exhaustive crawl just to make it to parc ferme. The scene would be incredible. The sounds of the engine could be heard but the car itself would be swallowed up by the immense crowd. All of a sudden the victorious, brightly-livered Mazda would appear and would dash into parc ferme where Johnny Herbert would emerge from the car and would immediately collapse from the incredible and gut-wrenching performance he personally had put together behind the wheel of the car.
Facing its giants, a toll had been taken on Mazda. Herbert would not even manage to make it up to the award ceremony and the car would be covered in exhaust and grime, but all of these would be like badges of honor for the team on a whole. This mighty underdog would not only overcome its challenges but it would do so setting a distance record at the same time. To win, the car would have to go to greater lengths than all the others. And in the end, the underdog, the unlikeliest of competitors would, in the end, rise above the inevitable giants and would snatch an important piece of racing history.
It was clear the organizers wanted all of the teams to run according to the Category 1 rules with a 3.5-liter normally-aspirated engine. And when many of the other teams would not comply, the organizers would relent, but would be quite stern in their dealings with those teams. This would come to the forefront in qualifying.
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