How overlooked Mazda produced one of Le Mans' greatest shocks
The screaming rotary-engined Mazda 787 is regarded as one of the most popular Le Mans 24 Hours-winning cars, but until its surprise success on this day 30 years ago it was never regarded as a likely victor. But that reckoned without a new technical partner, some canny political manoeuvring and a rival's bizarre self-inflicted weakness.
There were a pair manufacturers at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours trying to make it two wins from two starts at the French classic. Jaguar was aiming to repeat its 1990 triumph, while Mercedes was looking to follow up on its 1989 victory after a year away. Then there was Porsche with the factory-backed Joest team and its flotilla of privateers, 15 Group C cars in total.
Peugeot had arrived with a big budget and ambitions to match as it flew the Tricolore in the pursuit of a first home win at La Sarthe since 1980. But there was another manufacturer going for outright honours at the 24 Hours. Mazda flew right under the radar and on to a famous victory with Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler.
Toyota scored its fourth Le Mans 24 Hours victory and a 1-2, with the #7 car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez beating the #8. But although it looked straightforward from the outside, Toyota faced serious problem that had to be solved with some quick-thinking and ingenuity.
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The JW Automotive Engineering team won twice at the Le Mans 24 Hours with ageing Fords and was considered the heavy favourite to add more victories to its tally after partnering with Porsche. But despite being armed with the all-conquering 917, this formidable combination was never as successful in real life as on the big screen.
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