Mazda 717C

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All of you have heard of the 787B, Mazda's rotary-powered Le Mans winner and the only Japanese car to win at that famous French event.

That was in 1991, nearly a decade after the company's first serious attempt at taking home a Le Mans trophy.

Eight years earlier, after many years spent providing rotary engines to teams up and down the grid, Mazda's racing arm, Mazdaspeed, decided they should get serious and enter Le Mans as a constructor.

Here's how that went.

Group C—as a quick refresher—was a racing series intended to replace a whole whack of overlapping rules and vehicle classes worldwide. 

Based on fuel consumption limits, it quickly attracted manufacturers like Porsche, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ford, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Lancia.

Why? The cars looked fantastic, they were fast, and fans loved them. But, as is usually the case (especially in the era of cigarette advertising), lots of manufacturer competition drives up costs and Group C was increasingly unattainable for privateers.

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What to do? Create rules for smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles that looked like Group C cars…at least from 100 feet away. 

Christened in 1983, Group C Junior cars would be limited to 700 kg (1543 lbs.) and a maximum fuel capacity of 55 litres (14.5 US gallons.) 

Teams used a number of different solutions, from the 3.3-litre Cosworth DFL V8 engine to a 3.5-litre V6 from the BMW M1. Or, in Mazda's case, a production-based 2-rotor 13B engine closely related to the one that sat in the front of the Mazda RX-7 sports car.

Problem is that Mazda wasn't exactly used to building prototype race cars.

But a company called Mooncraft was.

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Founded in 1975, Mooncraft has touched a fair number of the most memorable Japanese race cars and drivers, including sports racing cars, formula cars, and a few production cars. 

Mooncraft designed the chassis and bodywork, with top speed as the most important attribute. Why? 1983 was the first year for the Junior cars, and many worried they'd simply be too slow in comparison to the other cars on track.

The eventual design was nicknamed "Fava Bean" and, as promised, took to the track with a very low drag coefficient.

Problem? The car was undriveable in every part of the track except the Mulsanne Straight. 

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Two cars, #60 and #61, were entered. The #60 car was driven by Japanese factory Mazda drivers—Yoshimi Katayama, Youjirou Terada, and Takashi Yorino—who likely were so happy to be at Le Mans and so embedded in the Mazda team that they kept their mouths shut and did their best.

They won Group C Junior, finishing 12th overall. The trio would race for the factory Mazda team until 1990 in the 767B.

The sister car, however, was piloted by three drivers from Great Britain—James Weaver, Jeff Allam, and Steve Soper. They were, according to reports, quite unhappy with the reluctance (or inability) of the team mechanics to make the car handle better, so they deliberately tried to drive the wheels off it in order to record a DNF.

via kartingnord on Flickr

via kartingnord on Flickr

But the car finished, 18th. Ironically, one of the downfalls of the Junior class is that the vast majority of cars couldn't go the distance in endurance races—the two Mazda 717C entries were the only two in the Group C Junior category to finish!

The team won a number of other accolades, including the lowest fuel consumption during the race. (When's the last time a rotary was known as being fuel efficient, right?)

Retired after just one Le Mans, the 717C would live on, kind of, in a slightly different—but legendary—form. But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading