The first outright victory in a 24 Hours race: Spa 1981

Today's story takes us back to 1981, to Mazda's return to the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps, where the Cosmo Sport and R100 had already shone and came close to victory in 1970, but where the Japanese brand had an unfinished business.

The story takes us to TWR, and its founder, Tom Walkinshaw. Walkinshaw started preparing RX-7s for the British Touring Car Championship in 1979, the same year of the official car's Daytona victory. Bernard de Dryver, a Belgian racer with contacts at Mazda's national importer in the country, convinced Mazda officials to visit TWR to see what they were doing with the British RX-7s.

Mazda Belgium quickly saw the opportunity to have a competitive car with which to compete in the national touring car series, and in particular the most important non-scoring event of the year, the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps. They lacked economic support, and this came from the French company Motul, willing to improve their image and projection. Thus a team of four "official" cars of Mazda Belgium was assembled, prepared by TWR, with the white, blue and red colors of Motul.

The problem for Mazda was that the rules of displacement equivalence had changed. If the R100 with its one and a half litre displacement was competing in the one and a half litre class, the new regulation forced the 1.2 litre RX-7 to compete with cars up to 2.5 litres. To fight for the victory, the RX-7s would also have to beat such serious machines as the BMW 530i or the Ford Capri, an arduous task.

Thus came the first 24 Hours of Spa for Mazda, which had not raced there since 1970. The RX-7 received an evolution of its 12A engine, with 12B specifications derived from the RX-7 used in the American IMSA championship. According to various sources, the engine produced between 225 and 240 horsepower at 9,000 revolutions per minute, depending on which Mazda documentation you read.

The race was not brilliant. Only two of the four official cars finished, and they did so in 21st and 22nd positions. The other two cars dropped out, one due to engine problems from the start of the race, after choking it on start-up, and the other after a wheel bearing failed and the car lost a wheel.

But Spa 1980 was purely a matter of learning. Walkinshaw wrote down everything he saw from the wall, and for 1981 he convinced the Hiroshima people to try and fight for the win. Again, from the outside it seemed unlikely that the underpowered but lightweight RX-7s could be in the mix, but the car shared by Walkinshaw and Pierre Dieudonne (TWR preferred teams of just two drivers, when all the other marques were already using three for 24 hour races), surprised everyone, and fitted with unique Dunlop tyres, it would get to the front of the grid in qualifying.

The engine was a new, more powerful and reliable evolution of the 12B, already close to 250 horsepower, and the car integrated hydraulic stands to facilitate and speed up pit stops for wheel changes.

The race started with a completely wet track, but Walkinshaw started with intermediate tyres, hoping that little by little the track would dry and the conditions would improve, something that would not happen. This forced him to stop and put on dry tyres, which delayed the car, which lost a lot of time already in the first hours of the race.

When Dieudonne received the baton, he put on dry tyres, but it rained again and that made the car lose even more time, together with a problem with an oil seal on the dipstick of the gearbox. All this concentration of initial problems would result in a sprint race, changing gears at 9,000 laps throughout the night, until the RX-7 number forty was placed at dawn in second position, chasing the BMW 530i leading the race.

Little by little the RX-7 continued to cut time, with no other strategy than to go flat out, until it managed to overtake the 530i and open up a gap. It rained lightly again, and the BMW drivers tried to do their best, but two and a half hours from the end the German car broke one of the valve actuator fingers, and was forced to abandon the race, leaving the RX-7 to win the race after a spectacular comeback.

It would be the first victory in the history of motor racing in a 24-hour race by a Wankel engine, as well as the first major international endurance victory by a Mazda in the absolute category. It was a landmark achievement that would set the stage for many of the Mazda Speed team to go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans a decade later.

A tribute to Mazda and its sporting and technological heritage

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