Between the Races: Mario Ilien & Eskil Suter
Interview with Mario Ilien & Eskil Suter
Despite MotoGP’s popularity in recent years, the series has suffered from a lack of participation, as fewer and fewer teams are able to put together the sponsorship necessary for a decent campaign. That being the case, the expected entry of Ilmor—headed up by a pair of Swiss—into the series next year is a welcome turn of events. The following excerpts are taken from a talk that Ilmore principals Mario Ilien (who is in charge of the engine) and Eskil Suter (in charge of the chassis) had with a small group of journalists at the recent Brno MotoGP round.
What made you want to get into MotoGP?
MI: We’ve been looking at it for many years, because we had once an interest from Harley-Davidson. That changed because of management changes. Then we had discussions with Kawasaki, and that was looking promising, but then they changed their mind. When I started fresh again last year, we felt, with Formula One not going where it’s going with regulations, and with MotoGP changing to 800cc, the timing was right to engage ourselves in a program.
You’re known as a car man. What is it about motorcycle racing that attracts you?
MI: I quite like motorcycle racing. It’s quite exciting. What’s attractive to me is the freedom in the regulations. You can still explore things and have different technologies. In F1, you’re very much restricted these days.
When did you start with designs for an 800?
MI: July of last year. We’ve made a lot of schemes and thought about it [before], but here, we started fresh again.
How far along is the chassis?
ES: The bike is built. We tested on the track already three times. Everything behaves like planned or better. There’s absolutely nothing wrong, and we’re actually very excited with how everything works.
Who rode the bike?
ES: I rode the bike the very first time. Then [Max] Neukirchner, a superbike rider.
Tell us about the chassis.
ES: We didn’t build the engine and then finally build the chassis for it. This is a project where we stuck together from the beginning. We built together a package—not just someone building an engine and then another company tries to build a chassis around it, like with several projects that have happened before. This makes the main difference, because it’s a motorcycle package. A motorcycle is so compact that you can’t have any compromises.
Will you race it this year?
ES: We plan to participate in the last two races to gain some experience and track time, and to find out where we have to work on it. The rider is still open; we’re talking to [Alex] Barros, [Max] Biaggi, and some other riders. We still are in negotiations. Nothing is decided yet.
Is your plan for next year to build your own team, or to have someone else use your bike?
ES: Next year we will build our own team. This maybe can change, but the plan is to run a kind of factory team next year, and to fully concentrate on development. The plan is to run two riders.
That will be quite expensive.
ES: I think with a project like this, you need to have two riders, to push each other forward. I don’t think there’s a possibility to run a team with only one rider; you won’t be successful with development. The riders need to push each other, like you see now in many teams. Even with [Randy] de Puniet and [Shinya] Nakano at Kawasaki—maybe Nakano takes it a little bit easy, but immediately, de Puniet’s there. I think all the teams run around a 20 million euro budget; this is clear—to have a project like this, I don’t think there’s a possibility to go around that.
Do you have a sponsor?
ES: No. If we want to be successful, we need to find the money to run this on a very high level. You cannot do it with $5 million. You need plus-or-minus 20 million. We’re talking to some potential sponsors, and because it’s a European project with some proven people behind it, it looks like some sponsors are quite interested.
What’s your goal?
ES: We started this project quite a long time ago. We tried to have Kawasaki build their technology center up in Europe, with Ilmor as responsible for the engine. Finally, this didn’t happen, and Ilmore found a very big interest to get into motorcycle racing. It’s a racing company. I think there’s a possibility to prove technology from Europe. If we can do a good job, I think we will find the sponsorship.
How many people are employed on this project?
MI: We do a lot of manufacturing in-house, but overall, we have about 12 people dedicated to this project. We have 60 [employees] in the U.K., and 52 in the United States.
Are there any advantages to your model of a MotoGP project, as opposed to a major factory?
MI: We’re an independent, small group. Sure, we work different to a large organization, and that is probably the biggest difference—quicker-reacting, making decisions much faster, and having a clear vision of where we want to go.
Where will the bike be built?
MI: The engine will be completely built in England. There are currently seven engines, and all are runners….We’re doing a lot of running on the dyno, but not yet much track use. We haven’t had a catastrophic failure yet. I’m sure it will come, but we currently have an engine on the dyno that has passed 13 hours, total running, just to give you an indication.
What are the characteristics of your chassis?
ES: It’s actually nothing magic or special. It’s an aluminum twin-spar construction with a few new features we put in—interesting details that I don’t like to give out. Also on the engine, there are a few interesting details that aren’t shown to anybody because we don’t like to give this out. What we’ve found out is that the package is very compact and light.
What is the power target?
ES: The power-output target at the moment is around 210 horsepower, but more important on a motorcycle is torque and ridability. For sure, the people from Ilmor take a lot of care to fulfill the motorcycle needs. This is definitely something which in the past, with similar projects, was missing, like the Sauber Petronas, the KTM, and the Aprilia, where car people try to build an engine and stick it in a motorcycle. [Ilien] has built a lot of car engines, but he also has a lot of experience in other kinds of engines. From the very beginning, we looked at what’s especially needed in a motorcycle, and if you see the bike, you would see there’s not a huge difference to, for instance, a Honda or whatever.
How will you avoid the problems experienced by other people from the F1 side who started GP projects?
MI: First of all, we have talked to a lot of motorcycle people. We haven’t got that experience, and the input of the motorcycle world was important. The other thing is, we have realized that you cannot basically design a small Formula One engine and apply it to motorcycles. We have a fresh approach of what’s important for a motorcycle, rather than taking three or four cylinders of a Formula One engine and saying, “How can we design a motorcycle around this?” It’s been a different approach, and if you don’t do that, we would likely fail, as everybody else has failed. It’s still going to be tough for us. We still have to learn once we get the right rubber, get on the track, and get closer to the edge.
What will you do with what you learn?
ES: There is a possibility to have a manufacturer involved later down the road. We’re open to have a manufacturer on board. Let’s say, for instance, MV Agusta or someone else wants to have a GP involvement—maybe the Chinese. The most important thing is that Mario and myself are racers, and we want to prove that it’s possible to build a bike in Europe which is very, very competitive. This is the first thing. The second is, if you have a manufacturer behind you in a further stage, this would be very helpful, especially from a financial point of view—and for them, it would be good for marketing, to have the possibility of running in the front of GP racing.
Will you be able to compete against the major factories?
MI: Financially, we are not there yet, but I’m confident that we have a competitive package, and we will get the resources we need to keep up. We have demonstrated in IRL and Formula One that we can do the job as well as large organizations with much less financial resources and fewer people. The experience from five years ago doesn’t mean anything today—especially as we go to 800s. It’s a new beginning, again. When you look at a lot of these teams, the people that were there five years ago aren’t even involved today often. I don’t think there’s that much of a discrepancy; you’ve got to be determined and focus on it, and I think you can do it.
Was there something about the 800cc platform that was especially appealing?
ES: The rule change to 800cc was important for us because everybody has to start new. That means everyone has to start more or less by zero—you cannot just reduce a 1000cc engine and go racing. GP racing is too tough to do compromises, so every factory will have to start new. It’s a very good time to step in now.
Why did you choose a V4 layout?
ES: Motorcycles are always a big compromise. A v4 is maybe more complex, but the weight distribution is maybe a little bit better. I think an inline 4 can win races, or a V4. It’s the package that needs to be designed from the very beginning.
Do you know which tires you’ll use?
ES: We’re aiming for Michelin. Negotiations are ongoing, and it looks quite good.
What’s the geometry like?
ES: On the wheelbase, you can’t change much. With this kind of power, there’s no way to make a much shorter wheelbase or whatever. Everybody has to stay in the same range. You can go through the paddock and see that all the bikes are plus or minus on the same geometry and wheelbase. The bike is very compact—more like a 250. I think this is the future of MotoGP. When you see guys like [Dani] Pedrosa, [Casey] Stoner, and [Shinya] Nakano, they’re small guys who squeeze the maximum out of their bikes.
How long do you think it will take you to catch up, technically, with the leaders?
ES: On the chassis side, I think we proved that we are already there. I don’t think we need to catch up. We need to go through testing and build up the correct setup. On the engine side, it may take a bit longer to have the proper setting, but we’re aiming, with a three-year plan, to be finally at the very top of the list. Step by step, we have to improve the package, and I think that is our big advantage, because we can react more or less overnight.
What is your valve system?
ES: We have four valves per cylinder, which is common these days. In the future, with 800cc bikes, you can’t get around pneumatic valve springs, or—as with Ducati—desmodromic valves. These are the two ways, with an 800cc bike, which you need to rev up to between 18- and 20,000 rpm. I don’t think there’s a way to do it without pneumatic valve springs. We’re between 17- and 18,000 [max revs].
You really think you can compete for the world championship in three years?
MI: Yes, I think we have to. Otherwise, we will not have been successful. That doesn’t mean we will become world champion, but we have to compete for it.
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