The first attempt by a rotary-engined vehicle at Le Mans was made in 1970. Mazda s 10A rotary engine was run in a British-built Chevron B16 by the Belgian team, Levi s International Racing. Unfortunately, the engine overheated in the early stages of the race and the car was forced to retire.
In 1973, Sigma Automotive, a Japanese team, entered the Mazda MC73 powered by the 12A rotary engine, which battled for 11 hours until its clutch failed. The following year, in 1974, Mazda Auto Tokyo, which later became Mazdaspeed, joined the team. The 12A rotary engine-powered MC74 car competed for the full 24 hours only to be classified as DNF ( Did Not Finish ) for not completing the required number of laps. In 1975, a private French team entered with a Mazda S124A ( Savanna RX-3 ), but retired before completing the race. 1979 -1982
Savanna RX-7-based Silhouette Formula becomes the first rotary car to successfully complete Le Mans
In 1979, Mazda Auto Tokyo produced a silhouette formula version of the recently launched Savanna RX-7. Dubbed the 252i, it was powered by the dual-rotor 13B rotary engine. Due to bad weather and various mechanical troubles, it missed the qualification time by a mere 0.7 seconds. Two years later, two 253s with enhanced aerodynamics were entered in the International Motor Sports Association ( IMSA ) class. They managed to qualify, but dropped out with differential and transmission problems.
In 1982, two Mazda 254s with further improvements were entered for Le Mans. One car retired with a faulty fuel line and the other was just moments from the finish line when it pulled up with engine trouble. However, the car quickly returned to the track and passed the checkered flag to take fourteenth place overall and sixth in the IMSA GTX class.1983Mazda s first genuine two-seat racing car, the Mazda 717C, wins Group C Junior
The 717C was the first Mazda car specifically designed for racing. It sported the 13B rotary engine with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injectors and easily qualified for the 1983 Le Mans 24 hour race. Soon after the start, one car burst its right rear tire midway along the 300 km/h Mulsanne straight. The burst tire damaged the rear cowling and led to a one-hour pitstop. After suffering two tire punctures, the second car gradually began to work its way up through the field. The two Mazdas found themselves racing together soon after midday, and crossed the finish line together. The lead car took twelfth position overall, winning the Group C Junior class in its inaugural year. The other Mazda finished second in its class. 717C car number 60 also recorded the best fuel economy throughout the race ( 3.2km/L ) and the hardworking team earned the trophy for Best Mechanic.
In June of that year, Mazda Auto Tokyo reorganized its motor sports department into what is now called Mazdaspeed, and began full-scale design and build work on a sports prototype car for Le Mans, as well as carrying on development of Mazda Racing Team activities.1984The Mazda 727C and C2 class-winning Lola T616 Mazda
At the 1984 Le Mans, four rotary engined cars entered the renamed C2 class ( formerly Group C Junior ). Two were 727Cs with improved 310 bhp 13B engines that were run by the Mazdaspeed team and two were Lola T616s Mazdas from the American B.F. Goodrich team. The Mazdaspeed cars were beset by troubles. Car 86 lost three and a half hours due to a collision with another car and transmission problems, while car 87 lost two hours with suspension trouble. In contrast, as morning broke on the second day the Lola T616 Mazdas were racing amongst the C1 class contenders in fifteenth and sixteenth. By midday they had crept up to eleventh and thirteenth. At three o clock, the lead car passed the checkered flag for tenth place overall and a win in the C2 class. The other Lola T616 Mazda also had a good race and secured a twelfth place finish. Although the 727Cs finished a disappointing fifteenth and twentieth, all four cars successfully completed the full 24 hours.1985From the Mazda 727C to the 737C, yet victory is still out of reach
Several improvements were made to the 737C car that was prepared for the 1985 Le Mans. The wheelbase was extended by 80 mm for greater stability, the body rigidity was enhanced and the suspension reworked. The 13B rotary engine also featured new carburetors and other updates. The 737Cs qualified in 40th and 44th place, but incurred a string of problems in the actual race. These included engine trouble, a flat battery due to faulty wiring of the dynamo, and damaged bearings in the gearbox. Against the odds both cars completed the race, but only managed third in class ( 19th overall ) and sixth in class ( 24th overall ).1986New Mazda 757 debuts in the IMSA-GTP class
At Le Mans 1986, Mazda moved up from the C2 class to the IMSA-GTP class. The GTP category allowed a lighter car, but enjoyed the same fuel allocation as the C1 class. The new 757 race car was penned by the British engineer, Nigel Stroud, and boasted an innovative 13G triple-rotor engine that produced 450 PS at 8,500 rpm.
Two 757s began the race behind the lead group of Porsches and Jaguars. Both cars started well, but four hours into the race, one car came to a halt on the inside of the Arnage corner. It had suffered a damaged drive shaft. The second Mazda experienced an identical problem at 1:46 in the morning of the second day and also dropped out. Despite this, a clear improvement in power gave the team renewed hope for the future.1987An improved Mazda 757 finishes seventh overall; the best ever result for a Japanese car
The two 757 race cars that entered Le Mans 1987 were lighter and featured several technical improvements over the previous year s model. The vehicles setup was also adjusted to better match the altered track, which featured an extra chicane just before the Dunlop Bridge for enhanced safety. The race started in a great spray of rainwater, and both Mazda cars flew down the track. However, shortly after six p.m., just two hours from the start, one car dropped out with engine trouble. The second car had troubles of its own. A problem with the wiper linkage and a broken left rear suspension forced pit stops, but it quickly returned to the track. As the race wore on, the top teams began to collapse in a flurry of crashes. The Mazda 757 powered through to the best ever finish for a Japanese car: seventh overall and first in the IMSA GTP/GTX class.1988Mazda 767 with the four-rotor racing engine
After the F d ration Internationale du Sport Automobile ( FISA ) imposed new regulations in 1987, Mazda decided to develop the four-rotor 13J-M ( M stands for modified ) engine. Through collaboration with Mazdaspeed, the development process focused on minimizing the engine length and enhancing its rigidity. With only three months to complete development and numerous obstacles to overcome, Mazda s resources were stretched. High engine rigidity was ensured by reinforcing the top of the engine with an aluminum honeycomb/carbon fiber composite, and the base with aluminum honeycomb. External engine parts were mounted on to the top and sides of the engine to reduce the overall length. The finished 13J-M produced an impressive 600 PS.
The 767 was developed with Mazda s new four-rotor engine and a chassis based on the 757. The 767 was more compact than the 757 to reduce air resistance drag; its length was cut A long nose, short tail design was chosen in order to generate powerful downforce. A great deal of hope was pinned on this new machine.
Mazda entered two 767s and one 757 for the 1988 Le Mans. From the beginning of the race, several works Porsches and Jaguars formed a closely fought lead group. The remaining cars formed a second group someway behind. The two 767s were gradually climbing up the second group when, at 6:50 a.m. on the second day, one of the cars made a scheduled pit stop. The mechanics discovered a crack in the exhaust manifold and broken teeth on the water pump gear. Just three minutes later, the other 767 came into the pit with the same trouble. By the time all the damaged parts were replaced, both cars had dropped a long way down the order. At the finish, the 757 stood in 15th position, with the 767s in 17th and 19th ( first, second and third in the IMSA GTP class ). Although the result was not what the team was aiming for, all three cars successfully completed the race.1989
Seventh overall best result as Japanese brand - and a third straight IMSA GTP class win at Le Mans
The problems that had struck the 767s in 1988 were investigated and remedied, and three improved 767Bs were entered for the 1989 Le Mans. Development of the 767B had focused on three main areas: increasing power output from the 13J-M engine at low to mid engine speeds, reducing weight and enhancing the aerodynamics.
All three cars started well, and sped through the first 12 hours without encountering any major problems. As they passed through the morning of the second day, the 767Bs actually increased their pace and went on to cross the finish line in formation. The lead Mazda took seventh overall, equaling the best result ever achieved by a Japanese make, and won the IMSA GTP class for the third year in a row. The other 767Bs finished in ninth and twelfth overall and earned Mazda an impressive 1-2-3 in the GTP class.1990The last rotary race? Disappointment at the 1990 Le Mans
At the end of Le Mans 1989, Mazda set a new target of 800PS and overall victory in one year , and developed the four-rotor engine 787B based on the concept of over 350 km/h car . It was thought that 1990 would be the last time rotary engines would be allowed to race at Le Mans, so Mazda was leaving no stone unturned in its bid for overall victory. Six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx was appointed head consultant, and experienced drivers were drafted in from Formula One. Mazda adopted a three-car setup for the race with two 787s and one 767B. At four p.m., the race got underway. Soon after passing the 12-hour mark, problems began to arise for the two 787s. Brake discs and pads and one rear wheel hub had to be changed, and the cars began to overheat and suffer from fuel percolation (vapor lock). One car dropped out with a damaged side housing and the other retired due to a wiring harness problem. The remaining 767B also experienced its fair share of trouble. A headlamp was damaged and the mechanics had to repair the rear axle bearing and replace both the driveshaft and the gearbox. It came over the line first in the IMSA GTP class, but could not manage better than 20th overall.1991 : Mazda s victory at Le MansLast chance for Le Mans with Mazda 787B
In 1991, the World Sportscar Championship, which includes Le Mans, was renamed the FIA Sportscar World Championship. The change included revised regulations that bunched the various existing classes, such as C, C2 and GTP, into just two classes: Category 1 and Category 2. Category 1 stipulated naturally aspirated 3.5 liter engines with no fuel limit. Mazda entered Category 2, which allowed greater freedom in terms of displacement, number of cylinders and turbos, yet restricted cars to just 2,550 liters of fuel. The governing body had decided, however, that Category 2 was to be discontinued from 1992. After 17 years and 12 attempts since 1974, the 1991 Le Mans was to be the final chance for Mazda, Mazdaspeed Team and the rotary engine.
Mazda entered two 787B racecars and one 787 for the 1991 Le Mans. Both models were powered by the R26B four-rotor naturally aspirated engine, though the 787B boasted several improvements over the previous year's 787.1991 Le Mans Qualification
Forty three cars made it to the first day of qualification on June 18, having passed the previous day's inspections. Despite persistent light showers, all three Mazda cars managed to set impressive times at a relatively early stage.
Day two of qualifying opened to yet more rain and a wet track. As it gradually dried out, each team set about improving on their earlier times. Instead of chasing lap times, however, the Mazdaspeed Team decided to use this second day to concentrate on optimizing the vehicle settings for the actual race. Once the settings were finalized, all the drivers felt confident of a good result.
( Qualification results: Mazda 787B car No. 55: 12th, Mazda 787B car No. 18: 17th, Mazda 787 car
No. 56: 24th )
And they're off...
Following qualification, all the teams enjoyed a day off. Then, at 4 p.m. on June 22, the Le Mans race began with a rolling start, and all hopes were pinned on the goal 24 hours away. Thirty eight cars had made it through qualifying. The rules placed the top 10 cars from Category 1 at the front of the grid, with all the rest lined up behind according to qualifying times.
Although the Mazdas had set good lap times, this rule meant the three cars - cars 55, 18 and 56 - were pushed back to 19th, 23rd and 30th positions along with powerful teams such as Mercedes, Jaguar and Porsche. However, with some aggressive driving, car 55 managed to get as high as third place by lap 12 when it came in for its first pitstop. The other two cars were also lapping well.The first battle as dusk falls
The evening sky was growing dark when the race reached the quarter-way point at 10 p.m. Mercedes was leading comfortably with cars in the top three positions. On lap 89, the No. 55 Mazda managed to pass a Jaguar and moved up into fourth place. It then began to chase down the leaders, which were lapping at around 3 minutes 44 seconds, close to the Mazda's qualifying time. The other Mazda 787B, car No. 18, was screaming down the Hunaudieres Straight just behind the car in front when its nose cowl suddenly flew up. Fortunately, the car made it to the pits where the nose was replaced. It did not cause any more trouble for the remainder of the race. Meanwhile, the No. 56 Mazda 787 had begun to pick up its pace in the cooler evening air and, lapping at close to 3 minutes 50 seconds, it moved up to 13th place.The rotary engines' roar echoed in the darkness
Soon after 11 p.m., with the race entering the middle stages, the sky grew pitch black. The three Mercedes were still leading and their 5-liter turbo power, stability and durability were looking unbeatable. However, in the middle of the night the No. 32 Sauber Mercedes dropped back, leaving the team with just two cars in front. Behind them, the battle for fourth place between the No. 55 Mazda and the previous year's champion Jaguar continued neck and neck for over eight hours. Shortly after 3 a.m., on lap 175, the Mazda pushed into third place ahead of the No. 35 Jaguar. It then proceeded to gradually pull away by around two seconds a lap.
The other two Mazdas, cars 18 and 56, were also lapping well and creeping up the standings.
The race heats up As dawn broke on day two, twenty cars were still running, with nineteen having retired. In third position, the No. 55 Mazda was upping the pace and continuing to put pressure on the two leading Mercedes. The German cars were responding to the challenge by going quicker still, and it was fast becoming a question of endurance.
At 4 a.m., the second placed Sauber Mercedes, No. 31, was struck with a drivetrain problem and dropped out of contention, allowing the 55 Mazda to move up into second. Meanwhile, fifth placed Mazda No. 18 was also running strongly and had narrowed the gap to the Jaquar ahead down to 30 seconds. However, a problem with its right drive shaft was discovered during a pitstop at 9 a.m., and after repairs it returned to the track down in seventh. By early morning, the third Mazda had worked its way up to ninth position when a tire suddenly burst. The pit crew waited anxiously for the car to come in, but after a quick tire change it was back in the race without dropping a single position.The rotary car makes history as Mazda becomes the first Japanese champion
As the race entered the final stage, more and more cars were retiring, crashing or slowing down to conserve fuel. Car 55 had been holding second place since the early morning. It was now just four laps behind the leader and continuing to post faster times than the No. 1 Mercedes. Shortly before one o'clock, the leading Sauber Mercedes pulled into the pit with an overheating engine. An extended pitstop allowed the 55 Mazda to make up the lap difference.
At the moment it swept into the top spot, a thunderous roar was let out by the spectators.
At 3:45 p.m., the two Mazda 787B cars, 55 and 18, joined up so they could cross the finish line in formation. Fifteen minutes later, at 4 p.m., Mazda and Mazdaspeed gloriously recorded a historical first win for a Japanese car at Le Mans. The Fruits of Mazda's Enduring Spirit of Challenge
With their continued attempts at victory at Le Mans over so many years, Mazda and Mazdaspeed had become a very familiar presence for the top racing teams and passionate racing fans gathering from all over the world at Circuit de la Sarthe. The victory of the Mazda 787B, painted in the Charge colors of vivid orange and green, was celebrated by many spectators and even won the praise of its rivals.
The 24 Heures du Mans is said to be the toughest endurance race in the world. Some viewed Mazda's victory in this race as the result of a 'lucky loophole in the regulations'. However, the total of 362 laps or 4,923.2km run by the Mazda 787B in the race exceeded the lap number of the winning car in the previous year. This record was not broken the following year, 1992, when Le Mans was held under the new regulations.
This can be marked as a milestone achieved by the Wankel rotary engine, developed and manufactured by Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1961. It is the result of the blood, sweat and tears poured into technical progress by the Mazda engineers, and the 'enduring spirit of challenge' of the Mazdaspeed team. The victory also marked the moment when Mazda's unique technology became known throughout the world.Source - Mazda