Identity Crisis - 1992 Mazda MXR-01
In 1991 Mazda won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the rotary-powered 787B. The amazing feat made the company the first Japanese manufacturer to win the fabled event. It was also the first win for a non-piston engine powered car. Seeking to prove that their success was not a mere stroke of luck, Mazda wanted to continue competing and win again. Mazda was keen to further showcase its Wankel rotary technology, but was forced to abandon it
Back in 1990 the FIA announced unified 3.5L naturally aspirated engine formula for Group C sportscars, which would take effect in 1991. The only engine specification eligible for competition was therefore reduced to 3.5L piston engines. Coincidentally, this configuration was eerily similar to the one used in Formula One since 1989. The older machines were given special dispensation to run at Le Mans, but were banned from entering the 1992 season.
The big engine change was instigated by Formula One head honcho Bernie Ecclestone, working in tandem with his old friend Max Mosley, a top man in the FIA. Bernie’s snide plan was to force major manufacturers like Mercedes, Peugeot, Jaguar and Porsche competing in the World Sportscar Championship to build Formula 1 engines for their cars. Ecclestone hoped the highly expensive engines would drive up the cost of running a Group C car, leading to the wildly popular series’ demise.
The manufacturers would then be left with a pile of F1 spec engines and nowhere to race. With the threat of the World Sportscar Championship eliminated, Bernie would then be able to lure the big companies into Formula 1, securing its position as the pinnacle of motorsport. Under the pretenses of reliability issues, the lesser Group C2 was also cancelled. Instead the division was made between big budget factory V10’s in the C1 category, and the privateer “FIA Trophy” for the cheaper customer V8’s.
The massive changes meant Mazda’s beloved rotary was now totally obsolete. As the company had no prior experience with developing racing piston engines, things looked rather bleak for their Le Mans effort. Budgetary concerns and fears of not being able to build a competitive engine caused them to decide to outsource their work. First order of business was finding a new chassis, since the 787B was built with the compact rotary in mind. Building a new one from scratch was deemed too expensive, so Mazda started shopping around.
Eventually they ended up on the doorstep of Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the company responsible for the design and production of all winning Jaguar Group C cars. After some talks, Mazda and TWR settled on the 1991 World Sportscar Champion, the Jaguar XJR-14. Instead of buying just the carbon monocoque chassis, like Porsche would do three years later, Mazda bought the entire car. Shamelessly, they did nothing more to the foreign machine than changing the logo, the livery and putting in some headlights.
TWR could do many things, but it could not provide Mazda with a suitable engine. The XJR-14 had been powered by an F1-spec Ford-Cosworth HB V8, which Jaguar’s parent company had provided. Mazda then shopped around again and ended up at Judd Engine Developments, the provider of engines to most of the back markers in the F1-field at the time.
Mazda struck a deal with Judd to use their GV10 V10 engine, which complied to the 3.5L formula. Similar to the chassis, the engine would be rebadged into the Mazda MV10. The customer unit produced 620 horsepower, 30 less than the Cosworth V8. The gearbox had remained the same as it was on the donor. A TWR-developed 6-speed manual transmission made sure the power reached the rear wheels. With very minimal bodywork modifications, the car weighed in at a sprightly 750 kg (1654 lbs).
Even though the car had won the championship in 1991 as a Jaguar, Mazda had their work cut out for them. The chassis they just bought had seen no further development since then. Further complicating matters was the fact that the company had no real knowledge of the workings of the car or the customer piston engine.
This meant Mazda was ill-equipped to do the development work for themselves as well. The lack of power from the Judd engine did little to offset these problems. The team was running on a very tight budget in the wake of the economic recession, and faced competition from much better funded efforts from Toyota, Peugeot and Mercedes.
To further save costs, Mazda would run only one car in the 1992 World Sportscar Championship, adding a second for the 24 hour event at Le Mans. 1991 Le Mans winners Volker Weidler (GER), Bertrand Gachot (BEL) and Johnny Herbert (GB) were retained to drive the leading #5 machine, occasionally joined by Maurizio Sala (BRA). The drivers would alternate between races, qualifying and testing.
The MXR-01 debuted at the dramatic 500 Kilometers of Monza, where just eleven cars lined up on the grid, an only seven of which were C1-competitors. Driven by Weidler and Sala, the Mazda qualified behind the Peugeot’s, Toyota’s and Lola’s in 7th position. Only the #7 Toyota TS010 would actually finish within the racing distance. Classified as second was the #1 Peugeot 905 Evo 1, which had actually crashed out. Two FIA Trophy cars also crossed the finish line, but did not complete 90% of the racing distance and were not classified. Among the many transmission and engine failure casualties was the lone MXR-01.
At Silverstone the team swapped Weidler for Herbert, but failed to get results. Again the car had to start from the back of the C1 grid. During the race the 3.5L formula’s reliability problem would continue, with cars dropping out left and right. The Mazda fared very well this time, scoring an admirable second place behind the #1 Peugeot 905 Evo 1. Along with two FIA Trophy cars they were the only four machines to cross the finish line in another dismal showing.
Next up on the calendar was the main event, the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans, Because the race’s governing body ACO was partially independent from the FIA, it had the power to allow older Group C prototypes to run under special dispensation in “Category 2”. As a result the prototype field was markedly bigger and more competitive.
In addition to the stupidly fast Toyota TS010 and Peugeot 905 Evo 1 the race would see numerous examples of the ageing Porsche 962 and a couple of Toyota 92C-V’s entered, featuring powerful turbocharged engines. These much more powerful cars were kept in check with weight penalties, and divided into ACO Category 2. The field was rounded out with FIA Trophy and ACO Category 3 (formerly C2) cars.
In preparation for the race, Mazda carefully tried its hand at developing the car. The team tested an experimental single plane wing meant to reduce drag on the long straights of Circuit de La Sarthe. The tests went well overall, but didn’t yield the expected improvements. At the last minute the new wing was ditched in favor of the standard Jaguar piece.
In an obvious nod to the 787B the #5 car was painted in the famous green and orange Renown-colors, while #6 employed an all-white livery. The Renown-car was given to the 1991 Le Mans winners as a sign of respect. The white sister car was piloted by Maurizio Sala, Takashi Yorini (JAP) and Youjirou Terada (JAP) Both cars qualified respectably within the top 10. Number 5 managed 7th, with #6 down in 10th.
During the race, the #5 MXR-01 managed to surprise friend and foe. Despite its mottled genetics and total lack of development, it surprisingly managed to briefly take the lead a couple of times in the early stages. Eventually though, the much faster Toyota’s and Peugeot’s surged past to demote it.
The #6 car would suffer an accident and drop out, but overall reliability was inexplicably strong. In the end impressive an 4th place finish behind the winning #1 Peugeot, #33 Toyota and the #2 Peugeot made the bargain-basement MXR-01 a major success for the cash-strapped team.
After Le Mans Mazda set their sights on trying to finish the season. First on the schedule was Donington. Maurizio Sala was joined by Footwork F1 driver Alex Caffi (ITA) for the event. The pair managed to beat a Lola to 6th on the grid, marking the car’s highest qualifying position ever. Eventually the MXR-01 finished 5th behind two Peugeot’s, two Toyota’s and a Lola.
Next up was the Suzuka 1000KM. Sala and Caffi were joined by Yorino for the long distance event, and qualified 6th. Sadly a transmission failure ended their race prematurely on lap 104. The team finished the World Sportscar Championship with a 6th place for Mauricio Sandra Sala and Alex Caffi at Magny Cours, ending their effort on a relatively high note.
Mazda’s high spirits after season’s end were soon brought down, as the full scale of Bernie Ecclestone’s scheme was starting to take effect. Entries for the World Sportscar dwindled at an alarming rate, making future grids smaller and smaller. The negative spiral started by Ecclestone reached its conclusion with the cancellation of the 1993 WSC season and the dissolution of the championship as a whole. His dastardly plan had worked perfectly.
The situation was no different in the Japanese equivalent of the championship. In the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship the numbers fell in an equal measure. Near the end of the season, Mazda remained as the sole C1 survivor. As they were the only entry in the C1 class, the win was automatically handed to them. This meant they were not awarded any championship points. Like the WSC, the JSPC soon crumbled into dust.
The Mazda MXR-01 was a unique survivor. In the face of shocking regulation changes, and economic downturn and budget deficits it held its head high. Mazda’s notoriety had skyrocketed since their surprise win in 1991, which meant all eyes where on their next move.
Using a borrowed chassis and engine, the Japanese Brit defended Mazda’s honor as best as it could. Sadly this desperate desperado will forever live in the shadow of its pure blooded brother.