Mazda is the only Japanese brand to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when the 787B won in 1991. The legend says that when the four-rotor engine was disassembled after the endurance race it showed little sign of wear. The FIA had rated the 2622cc engine to be equivalent to a 4708cc piston engine. And after Mazda’s victory, it outlawed rotary engines altogether. That was the only time that a non-piston engine won the French race. But rotary engines are allowed again; so it might not be the last time.
The Wankel rotary was first built by German engineer Felix Wankel in 1954. It uses a rotor instead of reciprocating pistons. Over the years many manufacturers have toyed with the Wankel rotary, from NSU, Citroen and GM, to Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce, which developed a two-stage diesel version. Even Lockheed aircraft, John Deere tractors, Norton motorbikes and Artic Cat snowmobiles have used rotary engines. But only Mazda still mass-produces them, after the immense following that its original rotary-powered car, the 1967 Mazda Cosmo, has had around the world.
A rotary engine is pretty compact, and produces pretty smooth power at high rpms. But it also tends to be thirstier, so race strategy is a bit different.
Mazda continued racing rotary engines with the RX-7 in the IMSA series, winning more races in its class than any other model, accomplishing its 100th class victory in 1990, including 10 in a row at the 24 Hours of Daytona, and eight IMSA Grand Touring Under Two Liter (GTU) championships.
Watch and listen the 787B in action and hear what the driver has to say, and understand it if you speak Japanese: