The 2016 100th running of the INDY 500 will feature two brands pitted against each other in a battle for ultimate bragging rights. Honda builds their Indy engines at the Honda Performance Development center in California, but both the Japanese company’s and Chevrolet’s domestic entry have design roots closer than you’d expect.
Less than 30 miles West of the Detroit River and GM’s black towers, in the town of Plymouth, Michigan, sits an engineering firm that’s been heavily involved in bridging the gap between what major manufacturers develop for the street and the purpose-built race engines like those that will be screaming around the four-cornered Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.
The founders of Ilmor were gaining a reputation in racing years before Chevrolet and Honda’s interests were piqued.
Ilmor is a firm involved specifically in performance engines that began, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the U.K. Located 70 miles north of London at inception in 1983, just four short years after Ilmor’s lead designer and co-founder Mario Illien started as an engineer at Cosworth. There, Mario would meet his co-founder as well in Paul Morgan - a fellow engineer who had also been with Cosworth since 1970.
You have to go back an additional two years, to 1968, to understand how the door was opened for the founders of Ilmor to enter Indy and Formula 1 competition in the first place.
The Ford-Cosworth DFV (Double Four Valve) 3.0L for 1968 is a primary reason that Cosworth still exists today. Keith Duckworth of Cosworth and Colin Chapman of Lotus were able to convince Harley Copp at Ford to orchestrate the financing required for the design of an engine specifically envisioned for grand prix racing - a new venture for Ford at the time.
In 1968 Formula 1 engine designs were only restricted by two outlines - 1.5L max capactiy for supercharged or turbocharged engines and 3.0L for naturally aspirated engines, and that all cars be at least 500kg - roughly 1100lbs in total. Engine designs were all over the place in 1967 as the grid featured cars powered by turbocharged inline-fours, NA L4s, V8s, V12s, and insane H-16 engines.
Cosworth founders Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth changed all of that. The DFV’s success can’t be overstated - it was a monumental racing achievement. The Ford-derived, structurally-integral, gear-driven V8 was so successful it could soon be heard singing in concert over everything else at almost every Formula 1 grand prix. By the end of the 1960's the DFV had virtually muted its competition. In 1970, an incredible 16 of the 20 teams who competed in at least one event had opted for the V8 Cosworth.
The DFV would go on to be highly successful at Indy as well. More on this engine in the following weeks to come, but right now what’s important to understand is that the DFV won in top-tier racing everywhere in the civilized world over a time period that spanned twenty years. The top-to-botoom core architecture of an engine that was designed in 1967 was STILL winning the INDY 500 in 1987, two decades later. You could imagine that with a life-cycle so long, revisions were surely required to maintain its competitive edge. Enter the founders of Ilmor.
Mario Illien was the original draftsman for Ilmor, composing the detailed drawings from which parts were to be made. He studied technical drafting before attending university at Beil in his home country of Switzerland. Part of the nuance to Mario Illien’s designs could be in-part due to the fact that his Swiss engineering degree comes from an area known as the metropolis of Swiss watch design. Illien began his post-graduate career working with Diesel engines in military vehicles for a swiss company then-known as Mowag.
Before achieving his engineering degree - Mario Illien had already indicated his interest in F1 back in 1971 when he approached his then idol for a job armed with only a vocational education in drafting alone.
He had idolized then-famous Swiss F1 driver Joakim Bonnier from his home country - where racing was banned in response to the jarring accident in 1955 at LeMans in neighboring France. Mario worked on this Swiss driver’s purchased McLaren chassis for one season before Bonnier was sadly killed in a Lola at LeMans himself in 1972.
Mario, after other small racing endeavors, left the sport to achieve his engineering degree. Not long after graduating he grew bored with Swiss defense by the age of 30 and in 1979 made his way to the UK to work for the formidable Cosworth, still dominating Formula 1 at that time.
Under Cosworth’s direction, Mario Illien shortly found himself applying his skills towards refining the combustion chamber on one of the revisions of the DFV. Mario helped to fine-tune the dimensions of the combustion chamber as well as where and how the 32 valves were positioned within the DFV in a version that would be known as the DFY.
Illien would also work together with the other half of Ilmor, co-founder Paul Morgan, on the Cosworth DFX - the turbocharged, methanol injected final variant of the DFV. It was honed for use at Indianapolis in America in 1976, where it would eventually find similar astounding success to that of its predecessor. The engine would dominate the Indy 500 two years after its introduction from 1978 until 1987. The DFX won the INDY 500 ten years straight, taking the overall CART (the ruling body of the Indy 500 at the time) series championship nine consecutive years beginning in ‘79.
Mario came from an era where engines were designed without CAD, where everything was hand drawn on paper... multiple times, from multiple angles. As difficult and powerful as these drafts can be - you can’t power a racecar with an engine of the finest scribbles on some paper. Paul Morgan was the other half of Ilmor and the man responsible for bringing Ilmor’s cutting-edge designs to life.
An English engineer, Paul Morgan began employment at Cosworth in 1970. Morgan’s job was to take the Cosworth desingers’ work at the time, eventually Illien’s, and translate the images in to functioning products. Paul would ensure that what was drawn could actually be made with known materials by tooling that was realistically available.
The orignal DFV made about 420 hp at a cursing 9,000rpm. It could be bought by any member of the public for £7,500 (~$181,000 [adjusted for inflation from 1968 to 2016.]) By 1979, a DFX series engine was a lot more expensive and only select customers would receive its reported 840 hp. The boosted iteration cost, with turbocharger and required supporting setup, about £20,000 in ‘79 (~$493,000 [adjusted for inflation from 1978 to 2016.])
In 1983 Paul Morgan and Mario Illien, convinced that a conservative Cosworth was holding their design ability back, sent a letter to Roger Penske. Their aim was to convince the successful American racing team-owner that together they could challenge Cosworth’s dominance over the Indy 500.
Within three months of the duo’s letter arriving at Roger Penske’s office - Ilmor was born. Penske had agreed to back the engineers’ endeavor for a 50% stake in the new company. Penske then sold half of his half to Chevrolet - leaving Penske and Chevy each with a 25% stake at the beginnings of Ilmor.
The Chevrolet-Ilmor 265A 2.6L V8 was the first blank-sheet design for an engine from scratch for use in an Indy car in over forty years. Before partnering with Ilmor, GM was using engines based on Buick V6s. These engines were designed for use in road cars and massaged over for auto-racing.
By 1985 they had gone from purely paper designs to a working engine within two years at a small facility in Redford, Michigan in the U.S.
Two years later in 1987, Mario Andretti would win the first CART race for an Ilmor design at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
In 1988 Chevrolet-Ilmor would finally achieve what they set out to do five years prior by successfully knocking what was inarguable as the greatest racing engine of the time off its throne at Indianapolis.
They beat their former factory and Cosworth’s now aging and heavy DFX, taking over winning not only the INDY 500, but in the CART championship as well with their Chevrolet-lettered 265A. Ilmor powered the series champion’s car in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991 - only losing 14 races out of 78 over those four seasons, giving Ilmor an impressive 64 wins in its first six years of CART competition.
Riding on the success of Indy wins, Ilmor entered as an official supplier of Formula 1 V10s with the short-lived Leyton-House (Formerly March) team in 1991, before securing contracts with Tyrell and the returning March team for the 1992 season. Meanwhile, In the U.S., Imor would win the Indy 500 again with Chevrolet in 1993 and 1994 before a new European manufacturer appeared.
Originally planning to build their own Formula 1 engines for 1993 in a partnership with then new-to-F1 Sauber, the groundwork for Mercedes modern F1 dominance began here. After scrapping their original plans to build an engine for the Sauber team, Mercedes instead opted to contract Ilmor to design and develop the brand’s re-entry to F1 after a 38 year absence, taking on a supervisory role of the engine’s development.
The resulting Mercedes-badged engine was dubbed the F0110 and scored 12 points in the 1993 F1 season in the Sauber C12 - which was good enough to result in Mercedes purchasing Chevrolet’s 25% stake in the outfit. This would lead to Ilmor infusing over fifty years of combined grand prix experience in to the very foundation of what is today known as Mercedes-AMG Powertrains over twenty years ago.
Chevrolet would return to the Buick blocks before moving on to develop the Oldsmobile Aurora V8, basis for the Cadillac Northstar Series in ~ ‘96.
Mercedes did not change the fundamental design of their Ilmor-contracted engine for over ten years. In 2006 The FIA enacted what would require Mercedes to chop their 3.0L V10 down to a 2.4L eight-cylinder - per freshly forged FIA regulations.
In 1995 “Powered by Mercedes-Benz” would also replace the bow tie and “Chevrolet” lettering along the side of Roger Penske’s cars in the U.S. The script, along with the three pointed star made their debut at Indy in the same year that the newly minted Mercedes-Ilmor were dropping the Sauber F1 team for ‘95 and picking up a new Formula 1 client - Team McLaren.
Between Penske, Ilmor, and Mercedes - somebody, somewhere discovered a massive loop hole in the 1995 CART regulations which were drafted in ‘91. Penske planned to use that loop hole at Indy.
The rules at the time were written to allow older-style production-based pushrod engines - which had one central cam to open and close all of the valves on both cylinder banks - to get closer in performance to the new multiple overhead-cam engines. In an effort to even the grid - the ancient pushrod engines were allowed up to 3.4L of displacement vs only 2.6L for the new engines. They were also aloud to run an an additional 5lbs of boost from their turbochargers.
Originally created from the Ilmor 265, the 159 cubic inch V8 was re-created as a 209 cubic inch unit - 800cc larger than its already race winning form and re-badged as the Mercedes-Benz 500I.
Fired up at Nazereth, Pennslyvania for the first time at a track that Penske owned in less than 30 degree weather, this “one shot only” car and engine combination was shaken down for the first time. The parts were designed and manufactured by Ilmore for Penske - then shipped to Penske’s Reading, PA facility for assembly in a secret shed out back. Those involved with the design understood that this engine would be so much more powerful than its competitors - it would surely annihilate at Indy and be banned after its first use. Which it did, and it was.
The Ilmor team designed an engine that used the older pushrod theory in conjuction with rockers and rollers arranged in a more intricate array. This complex excerecise utilized a shorter pushrod with specially designed intermediate rockers that were to act as dampers. The dampening effect compensates for some deformation of standard pushrods after entering the high RPM realm of performance that race engines endure.
The use of the intermeidiate pushrods also allowed the team to run more boost than every other newer-style engine on the grid - giving the pushrod “Powered by Mercedes-Benz” Penske PC23 up to a 200 horsepower advantage over the entire field that year.
Back in Formula 1, without any magic loop holes, McLarens would struggle early on in their Mercedes-Benz F0110 V10 powered cars. After a slow start in the first two seasons, the Ilmor developed engine powered an Adrian Newey designed MP4/13 to victory in 9 of 16 races for Mclaren-Mercedes in 1998, good enough to place first in both that year’s driver’s and constructor’s championships. This Ilmor engine ushered McLaren back to winning form before Michael Schumacher suddenly revived those red cars that he had dropped in to.
While McLaren Formula 1 team was getting bigger than ever, with bigger rivals along-side them, a break-down in relationships and agreement over rules prompted what some consider to be the destruction of open-wheel racing in the United States. The Mercedes Ilmor was not used after 1996 in CART when production-based road car engines were mandated the following year.
Uncertainty surrounding the sport chased fans, sponsors, and many manufactures away from CART as the newly formed Indy Racing League(IRL) split away, opening the opportunity for NASCAR to take over as the most popular form of racing in North America. By the time the dust began to clear in 2001, CART had been nearly choked to death in the after effects of the squabble. The IRL engine manufacturers were Oldsombile and Inifiti until 2002 when Toyota and Chevrolet left CART for IRL. Honda would soon follow suit, opting to contract out engine development in the newest iteration of U.S. open wheel. What would eventually become IndyCar.
Honda’s Indy V8 for the 2003-2004 season was contracted to Ilmor in 2002. Tragically before that engine could turn a wheel - the team and the world at-large would suffer the loss of Paul Morgan. Although he was rarely seen at race tracks in latter years, Paul had been around cars and machinery his entire life. You might understand how a grand prix could seem tame to a man whose true passion was WWII-era aircraft like his Hawker Sea Fury fighter-bomber. Sadly, Paul’s Sea-Fury suddenly flipped over after he had landed the tail-dragger near his home at Northamptonshire where he was killed instantly.
DaimlerBenz bought ten percent of Mrs. Morgan’s stake, increasing its share to a majority-holding 55% in 2002. Eventually Dailmer would take over controlling share of F1 operations forming Mercedes AMG Powertrains.
In 2004, with some off-shore boat racing experience already under their belt beginning in 2002, Ilmor entered commercial marine development by partnering what was at the time DaimlerChrysler to gain access to Dodge’s V10 Viper engine.
Ilmor and Penske split from Mercedes, granting Illien and Penske full ownership of Honda’s Indy program. Not satisfied with the major Honda contract alone, Ilmor began looking at other, less conventional applications for its race engines.
Ilmor would design a new engine for the 2004 IRL capacity reduction from 3.5 to 3.0L for Honda to race against Chevrolet and Toyota. The Ilmor engine scored 33 poles and 41 wins in three season between 2004 and 2006. From 2007 onward, Honda would take back and maintain responsibility for their own IRL engine development.
Ilmor would continue to venture in to new areas with varying success. Their 800cc V4 motorcycle, called the X3, followed in the footsteps of Honda’s successful racing bike formula found in Honda V-4 cylinder motorcycles. The Ilmor X3 did score championship points and impress on occasion, but they ultimately found more success in motorcycles as a contractor for Harley Davidson and Triumph.
Today, Ilmor operates in two locations on two continents out of their home in Plymouth, MI with Ilmor Engineering operating in Northhampton UK. With the split from Mercedes, Ilmor continue to provide high performance boating engines having won the powerboat world champship. They have sold over 10,000 marine engines and currently utilize GM’s LS engine as a supplier to Mastercraft. They have also recently developed electromagnetic clutches for drive and propulsion systems as well as an unconventional and efficient five-stroke automotive engine.
In 2008, open wheel racing in America united again when CHAMP car (the skeletal remains of CART) merged with the Indy Racing League - creating the re-united and brand new IndyCar series that year.
In 2010, determined to get back to Indy racing, Ilmor developed a 2.2 twin-turbo V6 for the new IndyCar rules after convincing GM that direct injection, e85, and turbocharging - all part of the new IndyCar formula - would provide useful experience and knowledge for the manufacturing giant. This turned out to be motivation enough for Chevrolet to move ahead with plans to return with Ilmor to Indy in 2011.
Ilmor and Chevrolet returned to milk-chugging glory in 2013, breaking Honda’s nine year run of consecutive wins at Indy. Althought Ilmor convincingly swept the top four spots, Honda would hit back with a win in 2014. Ilmor and Chevy hit back harder last year in 2015 - locking out 8 of the top 10 finishing positions, including the important one.
In 2015 after winning at Indy for the 19th time - Ilmor applied to supply what’s now referred to as the power unit - in a bid to return to Forumla 1. The newest iteration of their old rival Cosworth (now under new ownership) quoted a £20 million cost per unit in their own bid to provide power, plus the cost of on-track support, in order to develop an engine from scratch.
Neither Ilmor, nor Cosworth were awarded a deal to supply engines in 2017, but Ilmor did get the contract to assist Renault with their struggling power unit for team Red Bull this season - putting Mario Illien and Adrian Newey together again for the fourth time since Newman Haas(CART) Leyton-House(March F1), McLaren, and now Red Bull. What future Ilmor has in Formula 1 is currently uncertain, but their past track record speaks for itself.
Their future at the Indy 500 is still pending. Ilmor is currently seeking their 20th Indy 500 win. While nineteen is a staggeringly impressive number in regard to any track, let-alone the brickyard, “Twenty-time Indy 500 Winner” kind of has a ring to it that seems worth going after.