Last August, Mazda Motorsports asked me to race the storied Mazda 787 prototype at the Monterey Motorsport Rolex Reunion. This annual event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is part of Monterey Car Week. Those around the California peninsula that week are treated to top-tier concours, auctions, and, of course, vintage race cars competing on track.
The white-and-blue 787 that I drove that weekend competed in the 1990 and 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans. Its sister car was the race winner in 1991—becoming the first Japanese auto manufacturer to win the French endurance race. This fire-spitting monster is powered by a 700 horsepower, four-rotor engine that draws attention even when you can’t see it. The unique rotary engine screams through its rev range. YouTube is packed with videos of the shrill howler.
My history with Mazda Motorsports is a long one. In more recent years, I served as a factory driver for the marque, driving for their Rolex GT and IMSA WeatherTech Prototype programs. Obviously, there is a big difference between driving the legendary Mazda 787 and a modern-day prototype, but there are a couple similarities.
For instance, those GTP cars from 30 years ago—cars like the Mazda 787, as well as the Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR and Toyota Mk III Eagle—made an incredible amount of power. Modern prototypes have less power. The power-to-weight ratio is quite similar thanks to modern, lighter-weight materials. In both eras of Mazda prototype, you get the same kind of throw-you-back-in-the-seat acceleration. According to the data from the modern dash that was installed in the 787, we almost hit one G of straight-line acceleration while racing at Laguna Seca. (For reference, a stock Tesla Model S can pull about .65 G of straight-line acceleration.)
The massive tires on the 787 help to put all that power to the ground. From the back the car looks like its riding on giant drag racing tires. Given its age, the braking capability of the 787 is very impressive, too. Modern-day prototypes, however, have even better braking capability, thanks to their lightweight carbon ceramic brakes.
In addition to grip from the tires, the GTP cars produce a lot of aerodynamic grip. The 787’s giant rear wing—which could double as a kitchen table—provides downforce. The channeled design on the underside of the car creates a suction effect against the track. These ground effects keep the 787 planted at high speed. Newer prototypes have a smaller surface area for the wing and a less dramatic underside design. Nevertheless, they are quite a bit more efficient in the overall bodywork design, so they actually generate more downforce than a 787.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two eras of prototypes is the view from inside the cockpit. A lot has happened in cockpit design over the past three decades. The 787 interior is filled with analog dash switches and a very simple traditional steering wheel. In today’s prototypes, everything is digital, and all the functionality is controlled through toggle buttons predominately located on the steering wheel, which resembles more of a yoke than a steering wheel. The digital setup doesn’t look more complex than the analog dash in the 787, but the control capabilities and adjustments are far more complex.
Another significant difference between a GTP and a modern prototype is the H-pattern gearbox. The box requires heel-toe downshifting as well as clutching on every upshift. In today’s cars, we use paddles that shift in milliseconds and don’t use a clutch at all.
Driving the 787 made me appreciate how important footwork and precise shifting were in these older cars. You had to get everything just right on the upshifts and the downshifts. I had to make sure my heel-toe skills were still sharp. Downshifting a 700 horsepower prototype is a very different experience than downshifting in a modern car.
Driving the 787, as special as it was to careen down the corkscrew and flash across the front stretch, is like driving any other car on track. It’s important to make sure your footwork and steering inputs are smooth, and you have to get your eyes through the corner far in advance. Regardless of prototype generation, all of the basic principles still apply and it’s incredibly rewarding when you get it all right.