A Mazda became the first Japanese car to win the Le Mans 24 hours race Sunday, overtaking a Mercedes in the last three hours.
Bertrand Gachot of Belgium, Johnny Herbert of Britain and Volker Weidler of Germany were the winning drivers of the rotary-powered Mazda. Jaguars were second, third and fourth, with Mazdas sixth and eighth.
Mazda had captured smaller class divisions six times. Mazda’s best previous overall finish was seventh in 1987 and 1989.
Jacky Ickx, a Belgian who won Le Mans six times, served as Mazda’s consultant team-manager for the past two years and credited his drivers for the victory.
“The key of all success today was the three drivers we chose for that car,” Ickx said. “Bertrand, Johnny and Volker did a really beautiful job. They understood immediately what was the goal in endurance racing and fuel consumption.”
A Mercedes driven by Jean-Louis Schesser and Alain Ferte of France and Germany’s Jochen Mass was first from the sixth until the 21st hour. But a water pump belt broke and affected the alternator, keeping the car in the pits for more than a half-hour. It then tried a lap but went out for good.
The Mazda erased the four-lap, 15-minute margin that Mercedes had for most of eight hours.
Mercedes had its three cars near the top for the first half of the race before problems struck.
The first Mercedes went out shortly after running over some debris. Another, driven by Germany’s Michael Schumacher and Fritz Kreutzpointer and Austria’s Karl Wendlinger, did well until about dawn when a rebuilt gearbox dropped it from second to eighth. It climbed back to fifth.
There were 17 finishers from a starting field of 38. The winning Mazda completed 362 laps, 3,058.9 miles, at an average of 127 m.p.h.
That was better than the winning Jaguar’s distance of 3,034 miles in 1990, the first year on the new 8.45-mile circuit with two chicanes, or small curves.
Schumacher, 21, ran the fastest lap of the race shortly after dark. He went around the circuit at 3:35.564, better than 141 m.p.h. Last year’s best lap was more than 3:40 by a Nissan.