Founded in 1984 by its current chief executive Mario Illien, the late Paul Morgan – one of Britain’s great modern-day engineers – and Roger Penske, Ilmor Engineering is a high-performance autosport engineering company with a rich history of innovation and success. The business, which takes its name from a combination of two of its founders’ names, has risen to prominence in its 25 years through the supply of engines and consultancy services that it has provided to the IndyCar Series, Formula One, and MotoGP.
Its initial success came in 1987 when it took its first IndyCar win at Long Beach with Mario Andretti, after which it progressed to competing in the highly lucrative Formula One arena in the early 1990s. Total wins in IndyCar stands at 202 out of 376 races, including 14 Indy 500 wins, 44 Formula 1 wins and 27 NASCAR wins. In partnership with McLaren, Ilmor won back-to-back driver’s world championship crowns in 1998 and 1999, as well as the much-coveted constructor’s championship – a fantastic achievement by any standards and testament to the groundbreaking work of Illien and Morgan. Relative success was also experienced in the hugely popular NASCAR scene, which the company entered as part of a project to produce components for Roger Penske’s team. This was followed by two further high-profile assignments for automotive giants Triumph Motorcycles and Harley Davidson.
In late 2002, Mercedes-Benz took the decision to purchase Ilmor in its entirety. This saw the stifling of the special projects division that had previously flourished, so Mario and Roger elected to buy the segment of the business. This deal was completed in June 2005 and marked the beginning of a new Ilmor, with Steve Millers, an engineer with a successful record in US racing scanning a period of over two decades, joining the company. Today it is an independent organisation staffed by a small but supremely talented group of 55 people, which boasts impressive design, development, testing and manufacturing facilities at its Northamptonshire headquarters.
Its main area of business at present is the development and production of high-performance racing engines from conception through to trackside, as Mario explains: “The main occupation of Ilmor Engineering at the moment is racing in the IndyCar series; we design, manufacture and provide engines to Honda for this. Another area of real focus for the business is constant development and power improvement work that we carry out on NASCAR engines for the Penske racing team, so the US is certainly our biggest market.”
While Ilmor Engineering could be considered to be something of a minnow in a highly aggressive industry, Mario believes that, in fact, its current structure gives the business an edge over some of its larger competitors. “We are a small company with a small team but we are very responsive,” he says. “We are able to design engines from scratch and we’ve not just survived, but flourished for the entire time we’ve been in business. If you look at our history, we’ve enjoyed no short amount of success and that’s the best way to advertise a company’s capabilities.
“It’s been made possible as we have collectively acquired a great deal of experience, which in turn leads to more success. Our proven ability to take a project from a piece of paper to realisation in a very short amount of time has also been crucial for us. Being able to concentrate on a particular job and turning it around at a speed that most larger organisations are unable to match is a huge attribute.”
As regulation has seen components for racing become steadily standardised in some areas over the last few years, Ilmor Engineering has expanded its capabilities and areas of business. It is a savvy decision that could well make up for any shortfall suffered by the business – a more acute possibility in today’s uncertain economic climate. “The racing industry has become more difficult due to cost cutting and regulation changes to make aspects of the cars standardised,” Mario admits. “However, we recognised the signs some time ago and, as such, acknowledged the importance of diversification.”
An example of such forethought is the Ilmor Marine Engines subsidiary, which was established in 2004 to manufacture supplies and supports for a line of high performance marine engines for offshore performance boats. In its short history, it has enjoyed consistent growth, becoming a well renowned supplier to the US and European high performance boat markets. “We’re pleased with the performance of the marine engines business, as well as our drone engine operations. They are working well as there are similar requirements to racing engines, namely the need for lightweight and fuel-efficient performance. We are using our expertise and collective knowledge in a way that is advantageous to such applications,” he observes.
The conditions of the day mean that predictions are mere speculation; however, with a name that is synonymous with performance, reliability, build-quality, and a commitment to expanding capabilities, Ilmor Engineering is better positioned than most. “It is difficult to know what the future months will hold but one of the key objectives is to continue to increase our activities in non-motor sport areas. It is unrealistic to expect dramatic increases in the short-term but we will consolidate the company while improving our products,” Mario concludes.
Services: Engine design and manufacture
Employees: Approximately 55 in the UK and 84 in the USA