It is kind of like the 'David and Goliath' story, in '91 when Mazdaspeed showed up with their brightly painted RENOWN livery 787b's, people didn't know it but they were about to witness a defining moment in LeMans history. It was this very car that propelled Mazda into the history books as the first, and only Japanese team to ever win at the famous Circuit de la Sarthe. With the rotary engine being outlawed from '92 onwards this was Mazda's last chance to clinch victory with their signature powerplant.
The 787b was Mazda's latest prototype race machine making over 700bhp at an ear-splitting 9,000rpm. Four doritos spinning on an eccentric shaft for over 3,065 miles at 9,000rpm is hard enough to wrap your brain around, and many didn't believe the cars would last past midnight. The 3 cars entered (two 787b's and a single 787 from 1990) saw all of them cross the finish line after 24 hours.
The leadup to flagdrop was not as dominating as many would expect, in qualifying the #55 machine was a full 12 seconds behind the #1 qualifier - the Sauber-Mercedes C11. The true inspiration came as the drivers entered the pit garage for their pre-race briefing with the team bosses. The instructions delivered from the brass were contradictory to how many drivers would approach an endurance race. 'You are to treat this event as if it is a sprint race' were the orders delivered. The 787b was not nursed through the first chunk, and then driven hard towards the end. The drivers set out from lap one at maximum attack and this pace was enforced by the team until the cars would either break or cross the finishing line.
By 4am on Sunday, the plan was paying off and the #55 machine was into third place. As the Sauber-Mercedes machines struck issues, the 787b crept into second place, and with the leading Sauber suffering a failure of the alternator mount, this meant the water pump gave up the ghost. While Sauber was stationary in the pits for 30 minutes the Hiroshima-screamer still revving at 9,000rpm made it's move and took the lead.
As Johnny Herbert pitted for the final time in the #55 machine while holding the lead, he decided to leave nothing to chance and rather than effecting a driver change, he opted to stay strapped into the cockpit and run a double-stint. The hot summer sun, soaring cockpit temperatures while sitting idle in the pits, and the sprint pace that had been maintained for 20+ hours made this drive almost 'superhuman'.
Prior to taking the lead, the sprint pace that drivers were running the car at, meant they had reduced the deficit in lap times from 12 seconds to 4 seconds. Mazda had proved the sceptics wrong, and as Johnny Herbert crossed the line in 1st place, Mazda had done the unthinkable. While fans swarmed the track after flagdrop, Johnny Herbert was absent from the podium due to being treated by medical staff for dehydration and exhaustion.
When the engine was opened up in a post-race inspection, Mazda's engineers deemed it in good enough condition that it could have managed another 24 hour race. Surely enough in 1992 rule-makers banned the rowdy R26B, was it a case of sour grapes by the other European teams? Who knows, but one thing was for sure, the Mazda 787b had joined the ranks of 'giant killer' and 'legendary' in motorsport circles.
In 2011 the race-winning #55 machine was given a full teardown and rebuild by Mazda Japan. The car was then shipped back to the Circuit de la Sarthe for a demonstration run to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Mazda's famous victory where fans young and old had one last chance to hear the aural pleasure of the car that sounds like 'a thousand cats being stung by a thousand bees'.