Ilmor Engineering Races Into the New Millennium

Extending a Winning Legacy into the Next Millennium

Racing improves the breed, and nowhere is this more evident than in the constant improvements in performance and reliability tracked by the typical racing engine.

“The fact that the fastest engines from the CART Spring Training event were built here at the new Ilmor Tech Centre was no accident. It was a concrete example of the capabilities of our new state-of-the-art facility. But most importantly, it emphasized the excellence of the personnel we have on our team.

“Building an engine that can withstand the extreme heat, friction and vibrations developed at more than 240 miles per hour is not a glamorous job. It takes immense concentration and dedication to fit all of the more than 4,000 parts in our engine. There is no margin for error: There are no gaskets anywhere in our engine and many tolerances are measured to less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. Failure of any one of those parts can mean disaster.

“Each engine takes more than 120 man hours to build, and it is delicate, painstaking work. The pressure can be immense – and not just on race day.

“What makes this all worthwhile? Winning.” Paul Ray, Vice President, Ilmor Engineering

The initial batch of Mercedes racing engines assembled in the new Ilmor Technology Centre in Plymouth, Michigan, were not only fast, they were reliable and fuel-efficient, as well. In the first outing of the season at Homestead, Florida, Mercedes-powered cars garnered three of the top four qualifying positions and led 126 of the 150 laps in the race. The new engine’s fuel efficiency also allowed Greg Moore to make one less fuel stop than most of his competitors and win the race. It was an impressive first showing for the engines built at the new Ilmor facility: a pole position, a victory and a dominating performance overall, as three different Mercedes-powered cars led the race.


“We can never again have a ‘first race’ for our new home,” said Ray in retrospect, “and we were thrilled to win it.”

On Mario Illien and Paul Morgan

However, winning takes more than a new building and a 25-gigabyte hard drive full of high-tech designs. The staff has to have a very special mindset and a desire to work together as a team. The two founders of Ilmor, Mario Illien and Paul Morgan (the “IL” and “MOR” of Ilmor), created the kind of company they would like to work in: a company where ideas are respected and valued; where politics and bureaucracy are abhorred; where communication is encouraged; where work and play are both at full throttle; and where the way results are achieved is as important as the results themselves.

At Ilmor Engineering, the designer’s goal is to either devise new ways to make an engine more efficient within the existing parameters, or step away from accepted technology and find a new way to take the checkered flag.

Winning Partnership

While the Ilmor name has only been in racing a relatively short time (formed in 1983), it is already well entrenched in the record books as a builder of winning engines. The engine-design/build specialists can boast of winning seven Indy 500 races and powering six CART Championship winners. Since 1986, Ilmor has won 116 out of 228 CART races, a winning record of more than 50 percent!

The two founders credit much of this success to their choice of subsequent partners – including racing great Roger Penske. It was with Penske that the group’s partnership with General Motors and the first foray into Indy racing came into being.

The result was an era of dominance that could only be compared to that of the Offenhauser of old, or its inevitable successor, the Ford-Cosworth. In 1991, Chevrolet ran ads that boldly stated, “You can’t win Indy without one.” In that season of 17 races, the Ilmor-Chevrolet took 17 pole positions and 17 victories. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Then, in 1993, Chevrolet pulled the plug. Critics accused GM of deserting the field just as Ford was bringing in a new challenge. But GM IndyCar spokesman Wally Reese countered by saying: “I honestly don’t think Chevrolet’s afraid to race anybody on even terms. The bottom line is that Chevy is in business to sell cars and trucks.”

New Star on the Horizon

“Without Roger Penske I don’t think we would have survived,” reflected Mario Illien. “Roger had a major input to the fact that we have a deal with Mercedes-Benz.” By designing a new pushrod engine to maximize the existing rules, Ilmor – with new partner Mercedes-Benz – was ready to go racing with the introduction of the latest Ilmor/Mercedes-Benz powerplant.

Ilmor picked a good year to have its own name on the engine. Penske’s costly yet ambitious three-car team cut a swathe through the 1994 season and took Al Unser Jr. to the PPG-sponsored IndyCar championship. In the runner-up positions were Penske’s other two drivers, Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. During the season, they had an incredible five 1-2-3 finishes. Never before had a team so dominated the IndyCar season.

“The winning Ilmor engine in the 1994 Indy 500 – the Mercedes-Benz 500I – went from drawing board to victory lane in 26 weeks,” says Paul Ray. “The engine was the first since 1911 to win the pole position and the race in its debut appearance at Indy.”


CNC Those Heads

The Indy engine was to have only two valves per cylinder, a design dedicated builders of competition engines – engines normally fed by at least four valves per cylinder – had long considered dead. Illien decided not to look at anybody else’s pushrod designs. Instead, he and his team studied the problems, and engineered their own solution from scratch.

The engineers had to optimize the port shapes for maximum flow while still providing room for the valves, spark plugs, pushrods and, of course, the studs that would hold this compact head to the block.

The final layout of the valve gear and cylinder head was a tribute not only to CNCs and the value of CAD, but also to CAM: computer-aided manufacturing.

To set up equipment to machine such a head in the traditional manner would have been so time-consuming as to be out of the question. With CAM, the engine’s sophisticated design could be realized – and repeated – with absolute accuracy.

The result was an engine so successful that it was doomed to over-regulation. USAC reduced the boost limit on engines like the Ilmor by 12.7-percent, effectively handicapping the Ilmor-Mercedes engine into oblivion – at least until the new IC108 roared to life.

Enter the IC108

“The goal in designing the new IC108 [Indy Car 1 (1st Generation) 08 (Eight Cylinders)] was to make it as small and as light as physically possible by minimizing the number of parts,” explains Ray. To accomplish this downsizing, it was necessary to package components in much closer proximity to one another than ever before.

“The CART Champ car races take us to short ovals, high-speed super-speedways, natural-terrain road courses and temporary road circuits through the streets of cities like Long Beach and Toronto,” Ray continues. “No other series in the world offers such a diverse schedule, which pressures our engineers and technicians to produce a single powerplant that is suitable for all of these distinct tracks.”

To Build and Maintain

Ilmor not only builds the engines that meet these demands, it also maintainsthem on a race-by-race basis. In addition, each Ilmor/Mercedes engine comes with a walking, talking instruction manual: an Ilmor engineer.

These specialists are present each time the engines are started – tracking and enhancing their performance by electronically charting the engine parameters, adjusting the metering systems to conform to track and weather conditions and, in general, making sure the engines meet the high standards of the Mercedes-Benz reputation. This remote support is enhanced through the use of Ilmor’s portable, on-site engineering facility: a full-function technical centre that is housed in a double-slide-out trailer and towed track-to-track.

Mercedes Moves to Plymouth

Ilmor recently opened its new 26,000-square-foot technology centre in Plymouth, Michigan, some 20 miles west of Detroit. This self-contained facility, which serves as the technical headquarters for the Mercedes-Benz championship-winning “CART FedEx Championship Series” program, houses the administrative offices, an 18,000-square-foot engine assembly/rebuild facility, three dynamometer testrooms and a machine shop, all on a spacious 5.5-acre parcel of land.

The machine shop is fully equipped with the latest CNC machining centres and lathes from Haas Automation. Haas is listed as an Ilmor Star Partner company, a group of select “sponsors” that assist Ilmor in its quest for the engine-builders championship in CART.

When you consider that the present Ilmor-Mercedes CART engine consists of more than 4,000 individual parts, and that the engine is assembled without gaskets, absolute accuracy and repeatability is an undeniable necessity in order to build a consistent powerplant. CNC technology is the only way to ensure this accuracy, and Ilmor chose the Haas family of machine tools to provide this perfection.

Why Plymouth, Michigan?

While most of the CART racing teams have located in areas with large testing facilities nearby, such as Indianapolis, Ilmor chose to build, fittingly, just outside the “Motor City.”

“One of the most important reasons for our locating here in Michigan is that it allows us to share a few hours of the working day with the main offices in England,” says Jade Gurss, manager, marketing and communications. “So one of the things we did was build in the Eastern time zone and put in a fairly high-tech conferencing system.

“Through the ISDN line, we can connect directly to our headquarters in Brixworth, England. We have a lot of intercontinental engineering meetings, and the system is configured so a person here can send engineering data or drawings back and forth on the same line,” he continues. “Because of this, we can share all data and information with the England office in real time.”

Engineered for Engines

The entire building is designed and focused to provide absolute efficiency. However, creativity is encouraged through surroundings that literally bend the strict angular architectural components so typical of the engineering world.

Official hanging artwork in the building consists of historical photos by Jesse Alexander, the famous Formula One photographer. “Our feeling was, A: We love his work, and B: The tone of his work gives a sense of the historical background of what we do,” explains Gurss. “We think it’s very important for all of the employees to understand the lineage of where we are now and what Ilmor and Mercedes have been through. We decided to have a little more of a sense of history.”

Behind the glass doors that lead down the hall to the manufacturing/test cells, you find the typical look of a highly technical engine building facility, where perfection is the goal, and absolute repeatability is demanded by the customer.

This repeatability was assured with the order of three Haas CNC machines: a VF-4 vertical machining centre, an HS-1R horizontal machining centre and an HL-4 lathe. This facility was designed to build winners.

Chris Economaki, international television sportscaster and editor emeritus of National Speed Sport News, called the Ilmor facility, “no doubt this country’s finest motorsports facility.”

Immaculate working conditions are the norm at Ilmor. The facility is designed to allow for growth, while adhering to a specific work flow.

Building Design

When the present-day headquarters were built in Brixworth, England, Ilmor bought a big plot of land and put a nice building in the centre. They then made the mistake of selling off all of the surrounding land. As the company grew, they were unable to buy back the land around it. When it came time to build the Plymouth facility they decided not to make that same mistake!

“We’ve built a modular building here in Plymouth that fits our current, and future, specifications,” says Gurss. “The architecture, facilities and all of the master plans were designed for about triple our current capacity. That is why the building is surrounded by acres of grass. It’s a little overkill for now, but this time we have plenty of room to grow.”

Clean and Build

“On this particular engine (the current IC108E CART powerplant), we have about 4,000 individual parts,” says Gurss. “So, rather than have each engine builder become an expert on all 4,000 parts, we’ve broken it up into what we consider are strategic modules, or what we call sub-assemblies.”

Each of these sub-assemblies goes on a rolling cart which ends up holding all of the parts for a particular engine. Magnetic numbers are assigned to each part that corresponds to a specific engine block, or engine number, so each part can be tracked both internally and for later evaluation.

“Some parts are used only one time, and then others, like the engine block and crank, are reused. Following teardown, they end up in the Inspection/Cleaning area,” says Gurss. “We inspect every piece that is going back into an engine to make sure that we don’t have any cracks or points of fatigue.

“In the Inspection Room, we have cleaning machines for every different part and piece. Obviously, different metals require different solvents, and the residue must be properly handled. We have a special machine for this process – it’s basically like a huge industrial dishwasher. We can almost put an entire engine in there. It cleans all the residue and fluids off using a high-pressure wash, and then it superheats all the remaining waste and turns it into a powdery ash that we can just dump into a bin. It’s an environmentally friendly way to clean and treat all solvents and oils.”


Today’s technology is so competitive that you have to build everything right on the absolute edge. Engine builders joke that your engine should first cross the finish line . . . then explode! Not only would this be a perfect example of power verses reliability, but it also doesn’t leave much evidence of any bending of the rules.

“If it didn’t have to be there,” says Gurss of the thousands of parts found in the present day IC108 engine, “it wouldn’t be there. So that’s one of the things that we emphasize with the Haas machines, if we finish pieces with those machines, they are all critical, no matter how small they are. If any of those fail, it’s not a good result for us or for any of our teams.”

One area where the Haas machines have been instrumental is in machining the IC108’s pistons to reduce the reciprocating mass.

“When I first heard about trying to save an ounce or two ounces per piston head, it didn’t seem like much,” explains Gurss. “But when you multiply one ounce times eight cylinders, and factor in as many as two million crankshaft revolutions from start-to-finish of a typical 500-mile race, that one ounce per piston certainly adds up (approximately 500 tons of rapidly moving mass).

“This adds up to a massive amount of inertia that must be overcome by the energy developed in the powerplant. Weight is directly related to an object’s ability to alter its trajectory or speed. So successful racecars, by nature, must weigh as little as possible. That’s why there are some components that are designed with maximum attention to weight. It’s the reality of staying competitive.”

Of course, most sanctioning bodies dictate a minimum weight allowed for cars competing in any specific class. But if you can minimize the weight of the required parts and get below the minimum, you can then add back weight into areas that will improve the handling of the car.

Shop Talk

Machine Shop manager Robert Mills says that this ability to precisely machine the many parts that make up a modern racing engine falls on the accuracy of the milling machines and the expertise of his crew.

“We service more than 300 engines per racing season,” says Mills. “They are usually brought in for service based on the mileage on the components, and with CART’s formula of everything being leased (because of the immense amount of engineering and expense in a modern racing engine), the team engines are maintained out of service centres like us. So we do more than 300 rebuilds during the average year. That adds up to a lot of machining.”

However, whenever you remove mass from a high-performance component, you also stand the chance of removing a significant amount of reliability and resistance to fatigue. Enter the Haas CNC machining centres and the talented machinists who turn the designers’ blueprints into the parts that attain that tenuous balance between weight and reliability.

“We machine everything from tiny little 2-3 mm pieces all of the way up to engine blocks and cylinder heads,” explains Mills. “The Haas CNC machines are incredibly versatile. I look forward to getting to work every day to use them.

“The repeatability, once it’s warm and settled in for the day, is unbelievable! We run an M-99 loop in the morning on a certain cycle to warm it up while we’re getting ready, but the machine just comes in so quick, and once it’s there, it’s there all day.”

While machinist Neil Tebbutt is usually at the Haas HL-4 lathe machining engine components, he frequently finds himself running either the Haas VF-4 vertical or the HS-1R horizontal. “I’m primarily on the lathe, but I also work on the other two machines.”

He is able to do this versatile dancing act not only because he is a competent machinist, but because of design of the Haas controls. They are virtually identical on the vertical and horizontal machining centres, and only slightly different on the turning centre to address the different axes controlled.

Program Loads?

“We load most of our files with our RS-232 cable, and we also do off-line programming,” says Mills. “We can also load via wire or floppy, that’s very versatile.”

Another versatile feature is Quick Code. “That’s a very valuable tool,” says Mills. “Even when you have a CAM system, you tend to use Quick Code to do your editing on the console, and then you load that back to your computer. We also run the program in graphics, but there’s always some little editing you’ll want to do afterwards, and Quick Code is such a useful tool for all of that. It’s a very valuable thing to have. I couldn’t recommend it higher to anybody.”

Dyno Detectives

“All of the engines built here make the long trip down the hallway to one of our two identical dyno rooms,” explains Gurss. “Before they leave the building, each unit has to meet certain performance parameters to within one percent of the other engines of that specification. So, again, we keep coming back to the precision and the tolerances that have to be met along with the reliability.” And the dyno doesn’t lie. If something is a bit askew, the dyno techs will see it.

“Our dyno complex consists of three main rooms,” he continues, “the two active units in use now, and a room which will eventually house our transient dyno. It will be a little bigger than the other two and will run the engine through a full gearbox, delivering an almost complete replication of any specific racing condition on any of the tracks we run.”

The dyno cells are also used for durability testing. “It might sound strange,” states Gurss, “but we might want to really push or even damage a series of parts. That can all be done here. Although some of our drivers have been known to find even more new and inventive ways to accomplish the same thing!”