The 1991 24 Hours of LeMans
As the season was underway, 787Bs were competing in both the World Sportscar Championship, and the JSPC. Results were modest as the team dealt with teething pains for their new car. In Europe, Mazdaspeed collected a handful of points from two top 10 finishes before dropping out of the 3rd round at Silverstone to prepare for Le Mans. The team prepared three cars, two in the blue on white Mazda livery, and a third in the famous green and orange Renown livery; the No.55 car piloted by Volker Weidler, Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert. Le Mans was the first and only race for the No.55 car.
Qualifying went smoothly for the team who found their three cars scattered in the middle of the starting grid. Of course, the likes of Jaguar and Sauber Mercedes occupied the front of the grid due to the preferential treatment of the 3.5L formula cars. Interestingly enough, said manufacturers were allowed to enter their previous year spec Group C cars without penalty, and opted to do so. Peugeot was the only team to field 3.5L formula cars in their 905 which started front row despite slower qualifying times.
In a decisive last minute move, team boss Ohashi instructed his drivers of the No.55 car to abandon the conservative fuel usage strategy, and instead drive the crap out of the car as if it were a sprint race. And so in the early stages of the event, the No.55 car found itself as high up as third position. The sister car No.18 was two laps down by this point as it was geared with a shorter ratio for fuel saving purposes. The No.55 moved into second place when the Sauber Mercedes C11 of Schumacher, Kreutspointner and Wendlinger spun off course and pitting shortly after with gearbox issues. The lead vehicle began to slow down in the name of fuel savings which put the Mazda within a legitimate shot of victory with only six hours remaining in the event. The team could hardly believe it, but there was no time to let up yet. Total vehicle reliability (TVR – Jeremy Clarkson) was the driving factor that pushed the lead 787B further towards the front of the pack while the other Sauber Mercedes C11 too found reliability issues and was forced into the pits to end its effort.
On the final scheduled pit stop for the team, Johnny Herbert insisted that he remain in the car to finish off the 40 minutes to take the race to a full 24 hours. He entered the pits in the lead, and was intent on keeping the car there and carry it across the line personally. What was 40 more minutes on top of many hours over the course of the event already? It turns out, quite a lot.
The clock strikes 4pm, and the green and orange No.55 Mazdaspeed 787B crosses the line to take victory of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.It was the first and only time to this day so far, a Japanese team has claimed victory here.Ohashi is beside himself with joy, and the entire team shares his sentiment.Mazda came into the week as a plucky underdog up against the massively powerful European outfits, and outlasted them all.Back in Tokyo, executives from Nissan and Toyota can only shake their heads as they watch their hopes for a chance to be the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans essentially fly out of their exhausts.Johnny Herbert fails to complete his victory lap amid the ecstatic race fans, and instead pulls into the pits early without taking the checkered flag.He promptly collapses upon climbing out of the 787B, suffering from severe dehydration.He later blamed it on a bad plate of spaghetti.Herbert is attended to in the medical center, and his teammates celebrate on the podium with two sets of less than thrilled Jaguar team drivers.