When Mazda’s Rotary-Powered Monster Beat The World At Le Mans

Le Mans 1991 shouldn’t have belonged to Mazda. The competition was fierce. How could a Japanese also-ran brand even compete with Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, and the rest? With a little grit and a screaming four-rotor motor is how.

Now, the story of Mazda’s 787B has been covered here before and with good reason. But usually, all we focus on is the noise it makes. We’ll get back to that in a minute. Today, because we’re not watching this year’s race like we’re supposed to, I want to give you a chance to watch some of the race that the car won. The noise the Mazda makes might be enough to convince you of its dominance, but when you get to see what race day was like nearly thirty years ago on the banks of the Sarthe, you’ll realise just how big a feat it was.

Thanks to Moments of Yesterday on Youtube, we’ve got more than an hour and a half of home video footage from the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans to watch right here.

The quality is about what you’d expect from three-decade-old footage, but there’s something about seeing the race from a fan’s perspective that gives you something that 4K and crisp sound can’t. The excitement of being there, of seeing the cars zoom by, of feeling the electricity in the crowd.

And luckily for us, even though the footage isn’t ideal, you still hear that screaming rotary engine loud and clear. If you need some help hearing it right, or just can’t get enough, here’s a 787B revving at a standstill. It gives you goosebumps, and it helps explain why the ACO (the organisers of Le Mans) decided to ban rotaries after Mazda’s surprise win in 1991. A screaming banshee of a car is good as a sideshow, but if the competition figures out that the configuration is a winner, large swaths of Northern France could have lost their hearing. They really did it to harmonise some regulations with Formula One, but I’d like to think my theory has weight too.

This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is scheduled to run in September if it runs at all. Though there won’t be any rotary engines running this year, we may see some in the future. Apparently new hypercar regulations allow for rotaries again. Combined with high-torque hybrid tech, rotary engines may be a recipe for success at Le Mans. All Mazda needs to do is step up to the plate.