The 24 Hours of Le Mans begins tomorrow. This year marks the 84th running of the iconic endurance race. For racing fans and JNCers in particular, 2016 is especially significant as it is the 25th anniversary of the first and, so far, only Le Mans victory taken by an Asian marque and powered by anything other than a reciprocating piston engine. Yes, the 787B is now officially a Japanese nostalgic race car. To celebrate, we’ve got a few things in store, starting with a look at the origin and heritage of the 787B.
The Big Bang
Like all campaigned race cars, the 787B is not merely a machine but part of a living organism — the racing team — that encompasses machines and humans, design and engineering, material and spirit. At its best, a racing team embodies many of humanity’s best characteristics: inspiration, perseverance, ingenuity, humility, camaraderie. The 787B was only the very visible part of such a racing team: Mazdaspeed.
Though Mazdaspeed is now commonly associated with all manners of Mazda-sponsored competition activities, back in the day it was a full-fledged racing team. Its origin lies in Mazda’s desire to race at home and abroad in the late ’60s. Spearheading the effort was Mazda Auto Tokyo, at the time the biggest dealer in the Japan’s capital city, and hence, Mazda Sports Corner was created there. However, were it not for two principal people at Mazda Sports Corner, its ultimate legacy may have been quite different.
The first is Yojiro Terada, someone who perhaps needs little introduction here. Terada would go on to become “Mr Le Mans” and one of the most recognized Japanese racers in the world. The second is a name that you might not be immediately familiar with: Takayoshi Ohashi, the Racing Manager at Mazda Sports Corner. Not only would he play that role throughout Mazda’s Le Mans journey, his vision, influence, and efforts were absolutely essential to the whole operation.
In the ’60s, Ohashi was driving a Honda S600 for Nobuo Koga, whom you may remember as one of the early Japanese drivers at Marathon de la Route (and part of Mazda’s 1968 Cosmo Sport team at the grueling event). Koga was also one of the first high-profile Japanese racers in the international arena. Naturally, Koga Racing Team was a magnet for youths with racing aspirations — including a young Yojiro Terada.
It was at Koga Racing Team that Terada met Ohashi; the two quickly became friends. Koga subsequently helped Ohashi transition to Mazda Auto Tokyo, and when Ohashi became Racing Manager at Mazda Sports Corner, he brought on Terada as Racing Advisor. We can say the rest was history, but this was just the beginning.
Early Le Mans Showings
To many JNCers, Mazda Sports Corner and Mazda Auto Tokyo are better known for the Capella and Savana Rotaries that rivaled the hakosuka Skyline GT-R in Japan. So how did the outfit get to Le Mans?
As previously discussed, Mazda had identified endurance racing as a proving ground to develop and showcase its rotary engine. Its first showing at the 1968 Marathon de la Route was both encouraging and impressive, though victory in subsequent years remained elusive. The Marathon would end after 1971 and Le Mans, with its history and prestige, was the bigger prize.
Thus, when a Belgian team became interested in rotary power for their 1970 Le Mans entry, Mazda obliged with a 10A and an engineer. This first outing of Mazda rotary power at Le Mans, in a Chevron B16, ended after only 19 laps, but a similar arrangement came together again three years later.
1973 was a milestone of Japanese racing history at Le Mans: it was the first time an all-Japanese team and car ran at the event. The team was Sigma Automotive, a race car constructor established the previous year, and the car was its MC73 powered by a 12A from Mazda Auto Tokyo. This outing lasted 79 laps. After the race, Sigma’s chief, Shin Kato, got together with Ohashi, and the two concluded that for them, and indeed Japan, to succeed, they needed to be immersed in the international racing scene.
To achieve this, they decided to dive right into Le Mans and develop and learn as they go. Though ACO, Le Mans’s organizer, was welcoming, implicitly there was some doubt as to how much the newcomer from Japan could contribute and achieve. Ohashi’s team and Mazda, however, were in it to stay.
The joint Mazda Auto Tokyo and Sigma team returned to Le Mans in 1974 with the MC74. This marked Terada’s first driving appearance at Le Mans, though the car finished last place and was not classified. The team used this year’s experience to learn its weaknesses and would spend the next five years improving.
This resulted in a fuel-injected 13B powering the RX-7-based 252i, which Mazda Auto Tokyo took to Le Mans in 1979 with Terada, Tetsu Ikuzawa, and Claude Buchet at the wheel. Heartbreakingly, they missed qualifying by a fraction of a second!
For 1981, Ohashi decided to partner up with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, who had been campaigning RX-7s in the British Sports Car Championships and would outright win 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps later that year. The Mazda-TWR effort entered two 253is at Le Mans but neither finished. The following year, however, would be a milestone. In the fashion that would become typical of the Mazda spirit, the team refused to give up.
To be continued…
Images: Mazda, 24 Hours of Le Mans.