Every car that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans has had a conventional piston engine except one. This is the Mazda 787B, which won the legendary French endurance race in 1991, after 17 years of testing.
As detailed in this video produced by Mazda, the 787B was powered by a rotary engine, similar to the one still in use in the Mazda RX-7 sports car at the time. But while the RX-7’s twin-rotor 13B engine never produced more than 200 hp in stock, the race car’s four-rotor R26B engine was estimated to be nearly 700 hp @ 9,000 rpm. min.
Designed for FIA Group C, the premier class of sports car racing at the time, the 787B also sounded like no other modern racing car. When Turn 10 Studios added the 787B to “Forza Motorsport 4” in 2012, it was the loudest car on record for the video game series.
1991 Mazda 787B four rotor racing car
Mazda entered three cars at Le Mans in 1991, including a 787 and two of the improved “B” versions. All three started far in the field, but the number 55 car driven by Volker Weidler, Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot took the victory. The other two cars finished sixth and eighth.
After 1991, rule changes made the rotary engine uncompetitive and the 787B became a museum piece. Aside from the occasional demonstration race, the winning car remained sequestered in the Mazda Company Museum in Hiroshima, Japan. Mazda would remain the only Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans until Toyota’s first victory in 2018.
Mazda eventually returned to sports car racing, but this time to the United States with the IMSA sanctioning body. Always trying to keep its racing cars relevant to its road cars, Mazda used diesel engines first and then small turbocharged gasoline engines. These engines all had pistons, but the rotary engine is about to make a comeback, as a range extender for the MX-30 electric crossover.