OK. The really Mazda savvy of you out there will know that Mazda were the first (and so far the only) Japanese car manufacturer to win Le Mans. They did so back in 1991 with the crazy liveried 787B, which had the wheels driven off it by Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot. It will be no surprise to you to learn that there will be a special feature on that car during the SpeedHunters Mazda Month.
1991 was not the only success that Mazda had at the French 24 Hour race, way back in 1983 they took top honours in the C2 class with the Mazda 717C. To show that this was not a fluke they repeated the class victory 12 months later, this time the Rotary was in the back of a Lola T616 and I was there to see it.
There were two teams powered by the Mazda twin Rotary engines in 1984, the BF Goodrich Lolas and two Mazdaspeed Mazda 727C which were the official factory cars. No one who witnessed the cars in person will ever forget the noise that four Rotaries made especially if they were in convoy. And they were for the first eight hours…….. PARDON, WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?
The two BF Goodrich Lolas were powered by the twin Rotary Mazda 13B engine which put out around 320 bhp. They were driven by a bunch of experienced pros from the US scene (John Morton, Jim Busby, John O'Steen, Rick Knoop and Boy Hayje) plus factory driver and all round Rotary expert, Yoshimi Katayama. The Lola chassis was a development of the T610 and the team had already enjoyed success with a class win at the Monza 1000 Kilometres, so they were one of the favourites for a win.
The two Mazdaspeed cars were run by Alan Docking Racing, a well known competitor in British Formula Three and had as their drivers, David Kennedy, the Martin brothers, Jean Michel & Philippe, Pierre Dieudonne, Takashi Yorino and Yojiro Terada. The 727C was also propelled by the 13B powerplant and had a distinctive appearance. Although victorious the year before there had been considerable development, in particular reducing downforce to increase top speed. The one thing that both cars had was an engine that could not be broken, not something that could be said with much confidence by others up and down the pitlane.
On a personal note 1984 was my first Le Mans with a pass, so being the new boy I was looking for familiar faces in the crowded pit lane, and up to that time my beat was British F3 so I naturally gravitated to the ADR team. They were kind enough to tolerate me, I cannot see that I would have been able to stick my head and camera into the Lancias up the road at least not for long.
Here Pierre Dieudonne makes a point to Alan Docking while Yojiro Terada looks on. Pierre a three time winner of the Spa 24 Hours went on to join ORECA as Sporting Director and has been one the key figures in the multiple successes of the French outfit.
Terada is a Le Mans legend having raced 28 times at La Sarthe and that includes 27 consecutive drives since 1981. He has never won the event outright but has four class victories to his name. When not racing he runs AutoExe, a Mazda tuning and performance specialist in Tokyo. It will be an odd 24 Hour race when he is not competing.
And speaking of legends, the modest looking man in the cap is one of the legends of both Mazda and the Rotary engine, Kenichi Yamamoto. Yamamoto was head of R&D for Mazda during the period when the engine was developed for mass production and the old problems of excessive oil consumption and rotor housing durability were tackled and solved. As a result of his success he was promoted to be President and later, Chairman of Mazda. It is safe to say that without the engineering skills that Yamamoto and his team possesed there would be no rotary engines in common use today. Here he congratulates the class winner, Yoshimi Katayama. How did I get in after the race, well maybe they were feeling generous.
Fast forward 24 years and I bump into a familiar figure at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Yes it's Jim Busby and the Lola Mazda.
Still really distinctive, it formed part of the celebration of 50 years of Lola.
And of course it was given a run or three up the hill, still singing the unique rotary song…………..
The factory Mazdas were marching to a different tune back in 1984, the route they took would lead to the top step of the podium in 1991 but that is a story for another day.
John Brooks, wishing you all a Happy New Year.