Features - Interview
SEPTEMBER 1, 1992
Super Mario: Mario Illien
BY JOE SAWARD
When Illien and Morgan left Cosworth, it was all a dream and yet, nine years on, they have taken on the best in America and won.
"We started with nothing," remembers Illien. "Cosworth had just taken the decision to build the Ford F1 turbo engine and I felt at the time that it was really too late to get into the programme. I think they were rather lucky that the regulations were extended for an extra year."
Illien and Morgan decided to concentrate on building Indycar engines. It was a field in which Cosworth had long enjoyed domination. The new boys reckoned they could do a better job and quickly found an ally in Roger Penske.
"Roger basically agreed that he would support us financially and try to sell the project to a major manufacturer after one meeting. He did the deal with Chevrolet," says Illien. "Obviously there was some luck involved as we managed to get to Roger and get him interested. It was a really big step to go out on our own. Building a team of people and a factory with all the right machinery took about 17 months. We started in January 1984. The factory was up and running at the end of that year and the first engine ran on the dyno on the May 16 1985 - one day behind schedule." The Ilmor began racing in 1986 and a year later, at Long Beach with Mario Andretti driving, scored its first Indycar win. Thereafter victory followed victory and Ilmor expanded, supplying customer engines to an eager market.
"At first it was fairly tight financially," remembers Illien. "We were on a fixed budget, but it began gradually to earn us money. At the same time we wanted to expand, get more machinery and more of the complicated work done in-house."
By mid 1988 the Indy programme was going well and Illien and Morgan took the decision to look at F1.
"We felt it would be good to have a second product," he says, "and F1 really looked like being a good challenge. At that time it moved over to normally-aspirated engines, so it was really a good time to do it.
"Designing the engine was a reasonably lengthy process. We started in a speculative manner and obviously there was no-one coming along to use it, so things slowed down. We didn"t want to spend too much money and take that risk. We had several people interested but then in August 1989 Adrian Newey, who we knew from Indycars introduced us to Akira Akagi of Leyton House. He showed some interest and that reactivated the programme again. Then he lost interest again so we slowed down. Finally in March 1990 Akagi came back and said yes. I suppose it took about one and half years to get the project running because of all of that."
Akagi bought the rights to the engine and Ilmor geared up for F1 in 1991.
"We had to expand for the F1 programme," explains Illien, "because we were not used to servicing race teams. All the Indy car engines were rebuilt at our headquarters in the United States so we had to expand in England in the machine shop and so on."
It was a learning year and, to begin with, results were hard to achieve. At the French GP Mauricio Gugelmin came home seventh and in Hungary Ivan Capelli scored the first point for the Leyton House-Ilmor V10.
"We had to find out what the engine was really like in a car. It was a new programme and a new car and we had certain problems. The thing that didn"t help in the beginning was that we didn"t really do a lot of miles because we had quite a few problems with the gearbox. It took a while and it was probably only in May that we really managed to start to find the problems with the engine. After that things really started to come together."
At the end of the European season, however, things went drastically wrong. Akagi was in financial difficulties in Japan and was arrested. The money supply to Ilmor dried up almost overnight. The team managed to finish the year but over the winter the future was uncertain. Ilmor bought back the rights to the engine and made the decision to go it alone.
"For a while we were not sure if we would be back in F1 in 1992," says Illien. "That was a really a bit of an unknown but gradually we got together with Tyrrell and then March (formerly Leyton House) pulled through and got going as well.
"We did some development over the winter and made good progress, but it was very limited because of the budget. We didn"t have the funds to do everything we wanted to and we had to put our own money into it. Therefore things were restricted. There"s no Chevrolet involvement in the engine at all."
Despite the troubles, Ilmor was back in F1 at the South African GP and the inter development had clearly been successful. On the Kyalami grid Karl Wendlinger was seventh, with Andrea de Cesaris 10th and Olivier Grouillard 12th.
The expansion to two teams, however, added more strain to the programme.
"We have geared up and we should be able to cope," says Illien. "It will be a bit of a strain on the engine building side but we now have 124 people at Brixworth - an increase of eight since the South African race! That is because of the additional team in F1, the development we are going to do and the new Indy programme."
Looking further ahead Ilmor has a deal to supply engines to the new Sauber team in 1993. Illien is diplomatic about the agreement, but concedes that the engine will not be called an Ilmor any longer. Rumour suggests that the new name will actually be "Sauber".
Whatever happens in the years ahead Illien does not want Ilmor to grow into an empire. He is happier with a small, efficient and profitable organisation.
"I want to stay in racing," he says. "That is what I like to do. I would be quite keen, one of these days, to design a complete road car engine, not just bolt a new cylinder head on an existing engine. I would like to do an efficient road car engine because I think one could make some good improvements on road cars by using some of the racing technology and using some of the thinking behind racing engines. I wouldn"t want to go into production just do the design and make some prototypes."
The impression one gets is that Mario does not want to be associated with industry. He is a sportsman.
"Yes. Either a person is a racer - has a competitive mind - or they do not. I think if you want to be competitive you do sports or whatever. Designing racing engines is the same thing. It is a challenge to compete, and that the fact you get instant feedback keeps you on your toes. You find out immediately if you have done a good job or a bad job. That helps to motivate everybody."
At the same time, when it comes to a design, Illien is very much a loner.
"Up to now I have always done the designs. Over the years, however, I have built a team of people and now I can delegate things. It is more of a team effort, although I still do the concept.
"When I design an engine what I need is to be 100% concentrated on the job and do nothing else. I do not want to be disturbed by phone calls or people walking in and out. So I lock myself away and do 16-18 hours a day, seven days a week. That is the only way I can be really efficient."
Efficiency is one of Mario"s catch phrases. His designs are constantly pushing for more efficiency. Thus far, in both Indycar racing and F1, his engines have proved to be that.
There are some who argue that today it is not possible to beat the big manufacturers in F1. They, after all, have money and engineers on tap. A small operation will always be lagging behind.