Japan at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1991-2021 [1/2]
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Japan at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1991-2021 [1/2]

Thirty years after Mazda, the first Japanese marque to win Le Mans, Toyota secured its fourth consecutive victory in 2021. The last three decades have also seen four Japanese drivers triumph at the race, adding to the country's rising legacy at the 24 Hours. Here are 20 remarkable stories, starting with the period 1991-2010 of Mazda, Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

Sunday 23 June 1991 | Japan holds its breath! – When at 12:54, after leading the race for 16 hours, the Sauber-Mercedes driven by Jochen Mass/Alain Ferté/Jean-Louis Schlesser returned to its garage with a cooling problem before outright retiring, the Mazda of Johnny Herbert/Bertrand Gachot/Volker Weidler slipped into the top spot. In Japan, the news spread like wildfire and caused every TV station to interrupt their programs to broadcast the end of the race live…and allow the entire country to bear witness to Japan's first win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1991 | Mazda, a worldly win – That year, Mazda not only won the race thanks to Herbert/Gachot/Weidler, but also placed two other cars in the top 10, driven by David Kennedy/Stefan Johansson/Mauricio Sandro Sala (sixth) and Pierre Dieudonné/Takashi Yorini/Yojiro Terada (eighth). It was a true international triumph, with a Brit (Herbert), a German (Weidler), a Franco-Belgian born in Luxembourg (Gachot), an Irishman (Kennedy), a Swede (Johansson), a Brazilian (Sandro Sala), a Belgian (Dieudonné), two Japanese drivers (Terada and Yorino), a British engineer in charge of the 787 (Nigel Stroud), a French partner (Hugues de Chaunac/ORECA) and a Belgian advisor (six-time winner Jacky Ickx). The convergence was praised by David Kennedy: "What is extraordinary in this story is that the Japanese managed to get people from all over the world to work together. That is what I remember most about that wonderful adventure."

1992-1994 | Toyota's first podiums – After competing since 1985, Toyota began reaching the podium at the 24 Hours in 1992. That year, Masanori Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Kenny Acheson finished second, then Eddie Irvine, Jeff Krosnoff and Mauro Martini repeated the feat in 1994. During that period, Toyota scored seven other top 10s at the race: fifth, eighth and ninth in 1992; fourth, fifth and eighth in 1993; fourth in 1994.

1992 | The outstanding destiny of the Mazda MXR-01 – Before taking over for the 787 B winner the previous year, the Mazda MXR-01 was initially a Jaguar XJR 14 thanks to the special relationship between Tom Walkinshaw (TWR boss and former Jaguar partner at the 24 Hours with wins in 1988 and 1990) and the Japanese marque which peaked with a victory at the 1981 24 Hours of Spa. After finishing fourth in 1992, the roof was removed from the chassis and four years later the car became the Joest-Porsche TWR prototype that won Le Mans in 1996 and 1997!

1995-2021 | Four Japanese winners in seven races – Along with Frenchman Yannick Dalmas and the Finn JJ Lehto (McLaren F1 GTR), Masanori Sekiya became the first Japanese driver to win the 24 Hours in 1995. Seiji Ara (in 2004 with Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello) and Kamui Kobayashi (in 2021 with José María López and Mike Conway) each won once and Kazuki Nakajima triumphed in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

 

1998 | Nissan dominates – In 1998 and 1999, the Toyota GT-One made its mark at the 24 Hours, but let us not forget the Nissan R390 GT1 that in 1998 pulled off a stunning group effort, securing third, fifth, sixth and 10th places at the race. One of these models was exhibited in Paris at the 2020 Rétromobile by Xavier Micheron and Ascott Collection dedicated to collection racing cars. Xavier Micheron: "According to Tom Walkinshaw Racing who developed the car, the one owned by Ascott Collection bears the chassis number R8 and finished fifth in 1998 (driven by Michael Krumm, John Nielsen and Franck Lagorce, Ed.). After the race, it went back to Japan and joined the Nissan collection before coming to Ascott. It's a unique situation because it is the only one of its kind on the European continent where it is currently being restored."

 

1998-1999 | Two podiums for two Japanese driver line-ups – Four Japanese drivers have won a total of six victories at the 24 Hours, but no 100% Japanese driver line-up has ever done so. However, two have made it to the podium: Aguri Suzuki/Kazuyoshi Hoshino/Masahiro Kageyama third in 1998 with Nissan and Toshio Suzuki/Keiichi Tsuchiya/Ukyo Katayama second in a Toyota GT-One in 1999 (still the best result for a Japanese crew at Le Mans).

1998-1999 | Toyota GT-One, pioneer – Designed by André de Cortanze (father of the Peugeot 905 winner at the 1992 and 1993 24 Hours), the Toyota TS020 called GT-One proved one of the big stars of the 1998 and 1999 editions, and remains special in the hearts of Le Mans fans. In 1999, the car earned the first pole position at the race for a Japanese marque thanks to Martin Brundle. It almost won the top spot in 1998 and achieved its best result the following year with second place. Martin Brundle: "As soon as I sat in the chassis mock-up at the Cologne factory, I knew it was going to be a very special car. I'll never understand how it didn't win Le Mans in 1998 and 1999. But in all, it was a wonderful experience with the entire Toyota team, and the car stands out even more so today."

2000 | Japanese version Panoz – Another car popular with fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially due to its shape and front engine, was the American Panoz prototype entered in 2000 under the Japanese colors of TV Asahi Team Dragon, finishing sixth and eighth thanks to Toshio Suzuki/Masami Kageyama/Masahiko Kageyama and Keiichi Tsuchiya/Akira Iida/Mashiko Kondo.

2010 | Honda, a first top 5 for an LMP2 – In 2010, the win clinched by Jonny Kane, Nick Leventis and Danny Watts (Strakka Racing) marked an important milestone in LMP2 history. Their HPD (Honda Performance Development) ARX-01c became the first LMP2 to reach the top 5 overall (fifth) and surpass 5,000 km during the race. In 2012, Honda won the class for a second time with the ARX-03b of Ryan Dalziel/Tom Kimber-Smith/Enzo Potolicchio fielded by American team Starworks Motorsport. At the same time, Honda HPD participated in the now-defunct top LMP1 class, finishing sixth overall thanks to David Brabham/Peter Dumbreck/Karun Chandhok (JRM) in 2012 and Kane/Leventis/Watts (Strakka Racing) in 2013.

 

PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives and Christian Vignon): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: the Mazda 787 B of Herbert/Gachot/Weidler winner in 1991 (#55); the Toyota TS010 (#33) and 94C-V (#1) second at the 1992 and 1994 24 Hours respectively; the McLaren F1 GTR (#59) at the wheel of which Masanori Sekiya became the first Japanese driver to win Le Mans; the Nissan R390 GT1 of Aguri Suzuki/Kazuyoshi Hoshino/Masahiro Kageyama (#32), the first Japanese driver line-up to reach the overall podium at the race, in 1998; the Toyota GT-Ones of Suzuki/Tsuchiya/Katayama (#3) and Martin Brundle/Emmanuel Collard/Vincenzo Sospiri (#1) in 1999; the Japanese Panoz (#23) sixth in 2000; the LMP2 win in 2010 for the Honda HPD of Strakka Racing (#42).