Mazda’s rich pedigree in motorsport over the decades is more than simply a story of multiple successes in a number of different disciplines, it’s a reflection of the technical innovation and desire to defy convention that are ingrained in its DNA

Story by Dan Trent, Photos: LAT Images / Mazda

Champagne and glory are all very well but, for Mazda, motorsport is an expression of the driving spirit every customer enjoys. Victory at Le Mans in 1991 remains the works team’s crowning glory, not least for being the first win in the race for a Japanese manufacturer and for a rotary-powered car. But it also represents the enduring link between technology and drivers – both racers and regular motorists. It started back in the 1960s as Mazda’s engineers met the challenge of making the rotary a viable alternative to regular piston engines. Having done so, they then needed to prove the technology on the world stage. And Mazda chose the toughest test of all – the 1968 Marathon de la Route, an epic 84-hour endurance race around the famously challenging Nürburgring circuit in Germany.

To this day the track is seen as the ultimate test of a car but, thousands of kilometres away in Japan, engineers studied computer simulations of the circuit and were confident that their engine could go the distance. The Cosmo Sport’s beauty was eye-catching in itself but, more importantly, its fourth place in the race put Mazda on the map and demonstrated the rotary engine’s performance and reliability to the world in the heat of competition. Around the same time, the thriving touring car scene back in Japan provided opportunity for Mazda to prove itself in its home market. Racing versions of the rotary-powered Familia Coupe and Capella fought hard against dominant rivals, lessons learned in competition helping engineers develop the engine technology for improved performance to the benefit of racers and customers alike. Victory against the odds for the Savanna in the 1971 Fuji 800-kilometre Tourist Trophy inspired a fierce battle for local honour that thrilled crowds for years to follow.

Fourth place in the 1968 Marathon de la Route demonstrated the capabilities of the Cosmo Sport (top). Victories at Le Mans with drivers Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler in 1991 (above, left) and at Spa with the RX-7 in 1981 (above, right) enhanced the reputation of Mazda even further

There was success in Europe, too, with a 1969 attempt at the 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps resulting in an impressive fifth place for the humble-looking Familia Rotary Coupe. With a history dating back nearly as long as Le Mans, this was a prestigious event in the European calendar and the ultimate test of racing cars representative of products customers could buy in showrooms. And in 1981 Mazda returned with a near-standard RX-7, its giant-killing win launching a successful touring car career and again demonstrating the rotary engine’s reliability in long-distance racing. Around the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, the RX-7 was proving itself in American motorsport, too. A class win at its debut race at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1979 was followed by more than a decade of total domination and 100 class victories in the IMSA sportscar championship. The culmination of this success came in 1991 with driver and manufacturer titles with the RX-7 GTO, powered by the same rotary engine as the Le Mans-winning 787B.

Mazda became the first Japanese carmaker to win at Le Mans when the rotary-engined 787B (top) scored a sensational victory. The RX-7 showed its durability with a commendable podium finish in Greece in 1985 (above)

“Victories in the ice and snow of Sweden and the heat and dust of the Australian Rally Championship proved the 323 AWD TURBO’s credentials as a winner in the toughest of environments”

The RX-7 also proved its robustness in rallying. Against turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Group B rivals Mazda’s entry looked seriously outgunned, but scored a hugely impressive podium in Greece on the notoriously tough Acropolis Rally. Rule changes then brought rally cars closer in spirit to their road-going equivalents, Mazda seizing this opportunity to promote new technology like turbocharging and four-wheel drive.

Victory in the ice and snow of Sweden and a title-winning performance in the heat and dust of the Australian Rally Championship in 1988 for the 323 AWD Turbo proved its credentials as a winner in the toughest of environments. In fact, the Southern Hemisphere was responsible for a number of famous Mazda triumphs, not least that of Rod Millen in the 323 at the 1989 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship. And Australia also saw track success, with the RX-7 scoring three consecutive Australian Endurance Championships and podiums at the iconic Bathurst 1000. This was followed by four consecutive victories at the Bathurst and Eastern Creek 12 Hour in the early 90s, Mazda’s signature agility and rotary power again beating previously dominant rivals.

Today Mazda prototype racers are winning at the very highest level in the American IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, while competitors the world over enjoy the spirited performance, agile handling and reliability found in all Mazdas, with the MX-5 a mainstay of grassroots motorsport in countless championships. The challenger spirit lives on.