NEWS: Rotary engine may race again at Le Mans

Rotaries are returning to Le Mans, at least in the rule books. According to the most recent technical regulations for the Le Mans Hypercar category approved and released by the FIA World Motor Sport Council, rotary engines may power the machines in the new top class of endurance racing for the 2020-21 season. The last time a rotary-powered car raced at 24 Hours of Le Mans was 1991, when the Mazda 787B took overall win. After which rotaries were banned. Now nearly 30 years hence, the thrilling sound of the rotary engine may grace the famed race, as well as the rest of World Endurance Championship, yet again.

Let’s jump to the obvious conclusion here: Mazda is probably planning for a return to Le Mans with rotary power. Perhaps there is a possibility that Audi is behind this; the company with NSU roots did reveal back in 2011 an electric concept car with a rotary engine range extender. However, Mazda is the only company capable of and experienced at developing racing rotaries at this level.

Our insider sources have indicated in the past that the Hiroshima-based company sees returning to Le Mans as a goal. In fact, Mazda has been making its way back towards Le Mans since 2013 with prototype racing, culminating in the current RT24-P, “the Road To 24 – Prototype.” On top of that, Mazda’s past CEO and now Chairman of the Board also said that they want to make the RX-Vision, while the upcoming MX-30 will have a version possessing a rotary engine range extender.

Thus, our reading of the tea leaves suggests that there exists a plan in which Mazda returns to Le Mans with a rotary-powered car, perhaps coupled with the introduction of a rotary sports car, both to be unveiled for the company’s 100th anniversary next year.

Let’s now reel back for some reality checks. If such a plan is real, it still does not mean that it will come to fruition. These are trying times for the automotive industry, with the most important markets showing worrying signs, while the industry itself is in a period of mass transition to electric vehicles and autonomous driving. But perhaps there is no better time to make a heroic leap. And hence, we are keeping our fingers crossed for some wickedly awesome things to come from Mazda.

Images courtesy of Mazda.

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9 Responses to NEWS: Rotary engine may race again at Le Mans

  1. DH said:

    Can you clarify the issue surrounding the original ban on rotary engines? The internet commentariat seem to make 3 arguments:
    1. The rotary was specifically banned.
    2. The rotary was NOT specifically banned but was essentially banned by new rules requiring an engine that was shared with the F1 at the time.
    3. The rotary was never banned. It’s a myth, and in fact, the rotary was fielded in a few races in subsequent years, a couple of which were by Mazda themselves.

    In any case, I would love to see it return to Le Mans!

    • Troy said:

      #2. Is correct

    • j_tso said:

      As a major rotary fan, I’ve looked into this a bit.

      #1 and #2 are correct.

      Here are the 1992 rules, scroll down to the Group C bit:
      https://historicdb.fia.com/sites/default/files/regulations/1440578063/appendix_j_1992.pdf

      The rules were changed to only allow a 3.5L normally aspirated engine. Jaguar’s 7 liter V12 and Porsche’s turbo engines were also banned, but rotaries were also specifically mentioned. The engine rule was also announced in 1990, so Mazda winning Le Mans had nothing to do with it.

      Only well heeled teams could afford to run an F1 engine so race entries dropped and the World Sportscar Championship (and the Group C rules) folded in 1993. With those rules gone rotaries came back sporadically from 1994 until 2002. Look up Kudzu and Welter Racing cars, they had 3 and 4 rotor engines at Le Mans. At the time they used air restrictors and weight to equalize performance which hurt rotaries a lot. 4 rotors were choked down to under 500hp.

      They were “banned again” in 2014 with the rules saying only reciprocating piston engines were allowed.

      The information is out there, people are dumb. Lately I’ve seen people claiming the 787B was able to make 900hp when all Mazda literature says 700. I can’t think of a non-turbo 4-rotor today that’s making 700.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      What j_tso said is correct. And that’s why Mazda’s win at Le Mans was such a perfect fairy tale. It was the last year they would have been able to win with a rotary engine (because of the rule changes) and after years of trying they finally did it.

  2. Mazluce said:

    I hope they do go back to Le Mans

  3. j_tso said:

    Best case scenario:

    Mazda hires Multimatic (same company that made the new Ford GT) to make the 20 homologated cars with rotary engines.

    Here’s hoping SkyActiveX car sales make it happen!

  4. Nigel said:

    If Mazda did come back with a Rotary, it would be most excellent !!

  5. Speedie said:

    I have been repeatedly telling people over the last year that Mazda will introduce a limited edition rotary powered car for their 100th anniversary. This rule change only makes it more apparent. What better celebration could you have than to run the engine that won LeMans and represents the spirit of Mazda’s dedication, persistence and engineering excellence.

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