LE MANS 24 HOURS 1991

22nd - 23rd June

38 starters 12 classified finishers

By winning the fifty - ninth Le Mans 24 Hour race, Mazda added two new pages to the events history. It was the first victory in the Sarthe by a Japanese manufacturer and the,first by a rotary engine, a technique which Mazda had persevered with over tbe years, and one that had been banned in tbe World Sports Car Championship from 1992 onwards! The first appearance of a Mazda engine (and a Japanese one ) at Le Mans was in 1970 (Chevron). In addition, the team had entered a car for the world championship knowing that it would be out classed, specifically to enable tbem to compete in the 24 Hour race. Over the years, the small Japanese manufacturer's cars had increased in both speed and reliability and their win owed nothing to chance as tbey were there to profit from a certain degree of over - confidence in the Mercedes camp. The Germans dominated from the very start but their supremacy gradually crumbled as tbe race wore on. Behind the winning Mazda came 3 Jaguars, the Coventry cars being handicapped by having to carry 1000 kgs as opposed to 900 tbe previous year leading to heavier than expected fuel consumption. These extra 100 kgs proved fatal to the 962 C Porsches which really began to show their age : it should be remembered however, that their basic design was 9 years old. The race marked the official return of Peugeot to Le Mans. There was also a full ladies team consisting of Lyn St James from the USA, Desire Wilson of South Africa and Cathy Muller from France. The American crashed the pink Spice on Wednesday in Tertre Rouge, and finally the indulgence of tbe Stewards was necessary to allow the trio to start as neither Catby Muller nor Desire Wilson had achieved the qualifying minima. The start was given by Mrs Helene Blanc, the Sarthe superintendant, in the presence of Mr. Michel d'A1lieres, president of the Sarthe General Council and of the Mixed Syndicate of the Le Mans.

CIRCUIT :

13.600 kms, layout unchanged. Demolition of the pits built in 1956 which were replaced by a huge and impressive modern building housing 46 spacious pits over which was a stand capable of containing 2900 spectators as well as 3 press rooms. The pitlane was widened, tbe paddock layout completely changed and a 5 storey sporting module, the veritable nerve centre of the circuit, containing time - keepers, race control, hospital and commentary box, was built just beside tbe pit grandstand complex.

REGULATIONS :

The 24 Hour race was back in tbe Sports Car World Championship once again and open to cars entered for the first round of the championship (Suzuka) ; in other words, Category 1 cars witb 3. 5 litre engines, 12 cylinders maximum for a mimimun weight of 750 kgs and free fuel consumption. However, to compensate for the scarcity of entries, tbe A C. O was given a derogation by FISA to allow Category 2 cars (free cubic capacity, 1000 kgs and fuel consumption limited to 2550 litres) to run, provided that they were powered by a make of engine already entered for tbe world championship. This allowed in Porsche and lord.- engined cars but excluded Toyota and Nissan. Furthermore, the first 5 rows of tbe starting grid were reserved for Category 1 cars. This gave rise to the incongruous situation of the pole position man , Schlesser in his Mercedes, starting from the sixth row! Cars were now classified in terms of distance (90% of the distance covered by the winner, and not in terms of time).

STARTERS :

38 cars 5 nations 10 makes

France : 1 ALD, 3 Cougars, 2 Peugeots, 1 ROC.

Germany : 13 Porsches, 3 Sauber Mercedes. Great Britain : 4 Jaguars, 7 Spices.

Italy : 1 Lancia.

Japan : 3 Mazdas.

SUMMARY:

With only 38 starters, this was the smallest field of the post - war period. Indeed, one had to go back to 1933 to find fewer competitors (29). The focal point of interest was the return of tbe works Peugeots for tbe first time since 1926! The Sochaux manufacturer entered abrace of 905s in virtual1y sprint trim apart from the modifications required by a 24 hour race. They had the honour of starting from the front row of the grid after the 3.5 litre XJR 14 Jaguar, the fastest Category 1 car in practice, was withdrawn. The two 905s managed to lead for the first few laps before being over - hauled by tbe Mercedes. The German cars quickly took up a one, two, three formation, none of the other competitors being able to match their pace. Behind, tbe Jaguars were finding that their fuel consumption was higher than expected and were under threat from the Gachot - Herbert- Weidler Mazda. The tirst of tbe Peugeots went out, after 3 hours and tbe second, delayed by mechanical problems, after 7 (gearbox). The all ladies Spice crashed out during the fifth hour after the original engine had been installed in a borrowed chassis. By half - distance, Mercedes were still one, two and looking strong. The Mazda was now up to tbird. Around 3H00 on Sunday morning things began to go seriously wrong in tbe German camp when the Palmer - Thirn - Dickens C 11 went out with underbody damage and a little later at 5H00, the second - placed Mercedes - Benz of Schumacher - Wendlinger - Kreuzpointer stopped with gearbox problems allowing the Mazda up to second only 3 laps behind the leading silver arrow of Schlesser - Ferte Mass. Fate however, had not dealt her final card and around 13H00, tbe leading car came into its pit, a victim of overheating caused by a broken alternator bracket leading to the rupture of the belt driving the fuel pump. It managed only one more slow lap at 13H27. Now Mazda was in the lead and in the Japanese camp, the tension mounted as 16H00 approached. The Jaguars were not a threat : it was just a question of reliability. At 16H00, pandemonium broke out in the Mazda pits as the no. 55 car became the first - ever Japanese make to win the most famous Endurance race in the world. Johnny Herbert, who drove the final stints, collapsed on the bonnet of the Mazda and was unable to make it to the rostrum

RECORDS :

The fastest lap was set by Michel Schumacher in 3'35"564, a speed of 227, 125 km/h and a new record while Weidler - Gachot and Herbert in the Mazda set new distance and average speed records in 4922.810 kms and 205.233 km/h respectively. Quickest in practice was two - time World Sportscar Champion, Jean - Louis Schlesser, in 3'31"250.

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Author: ArchitectPage