The announcement the MotoGP world has been expecting since Ilmor withdrew from racing after the Qatar season opener has finally been made. Today, Mario Illien, Ilmor GP Team Principal, and Steve Miller, Managing Director, announced that the current GP team will be scaled down to a "skeleton crew", and switch the focus of the team to engine development. The pair cited problems raising sufficient sponsorship to make racing a "viable option", and announced that most of the Ilmor GP Team staff will be released from their contracts at the end of May. The two riders, Andrew Pitt and Jeremy McWilliams, remain officially under contract until the end of the season, though Pitt has been "loaned" to the Hannspree Ten Kate World Supersport team, where he has performed superbly so far, scoring two second places behind championship leader Kenan Sofuoglu.
Ilmor's decision to concentrate all their efforts on engine development comes as no surprise. Mario Illien's intention in entering MotoGP was always to become an engine supplier to teams whose budgets would not allow them to do both engine and chassis development, reducing costs for the teams while becoming a source of revenue for Ilmor. Sadly, though their engines made plenty of power from the outset, the way that power was delivered made the bike difficult to ride, making the Ilmor X3 highly uncompetitive. The question is how Ilmor plans to convince potential customers that their 75 degree V4 engine is a competitive package without demonstrating its ability on the track. Few people doubted the Eskil Suter designed chassis would work well, Suter having already proved his pedigree in designing the MuZ 500 cc GP racer, which took pole positions in the 98 season, and having a hand in Kawasaki's MotoGP project. So the failure of the X3 was always laid at the door of the power delivery of the X3's power plant. It will be very difficult to build a reputation as an engine supplier if no one has any faith in the power characteristics of the engine you are trying to sell.
Mario Illien remains optimistic that the team will return to racing later in the season. Ilmor continues to look for funding for its project, and Illien attended the sponsorship workshop organized by Dorna in Barcelona in mid March. That meeting made clear that the problem for MotoGP has been explaining the benefits and opportunities of MotoGP to potential sponsors, and that part of this problem was down to the laziness which had come as a result of the easy tobacco money which funded the sport for a long time, once all other forms of tobacco advertising had been banned throughout much of the world.
Here is the text of the official press release:
Brixworth 30.04.07: It has been over a month since Ilmor GP Team Principal Mario Illien announced the temporary suspension of the team's race programme and now it's time for an updateâ€¦
Today at the Ilmor Engineering factory in Northampton Illien and Managing Director Steve Miller announced that the Ilmor GP race team will be slimmed down to a 'skeleton' crew focusing on the continued development of the engine - as a consequence many of the original Ilmor GP team personnel will be released from their contracts from the end of May 2007 onwards and will be free to pursue other opportunities.
Speaking about the announcement Illien said: "Whilst our commitment to finding a title sponsor and suitable Ilmor GP partners to make racing a viable financial option continues in full force, it is senseless to employ an entire race team when our track activity has ceased albeit on a temporary basis.
"I know that it's hard for people to understand why we have stopped racing and some people have been quick to judge our withdrawal from the MotoGP World Championship but I remain upbeat and I still strongly believe that we will find a financial partner for the team. In the mean time we have to restructure and put in place a smaller team dedicated to engine development."
"I attended the Dorna sponsorship workshop in Barcelona a couple of weeks ago and it is clear that further work needs to be done to make the sport more appealing to commercial partners" Illien added. "Key people outside of the sport don't really understand what MotoGP is and the fantastic opportunity it represents by association. I also think that people perhaps underestimated the impact that the decline in tobacco sponsorship would have on the sport. Added to this potential corporate sponsors are much more environmentally aware these days - I'm a strong believer that environmental issues and professional motorsport shouldn't be mutually exclusive. There are plenty of opportunities to be explored on this front."
Whilst both Ilmor GP riders Jeremy McWilliams and Andrew Pitt remain under contract Illien has been happy to loan Pitt to World Superbike team Hannspree Ten Kate Honda for the race in Valencia whilst Frenchman Sebastien Charpentier recovered from his fractured coccyx and again this weekend in Assen as the team run a third bike at their home race.
Commenting on the riders Illien said: "I'm pleased that Andrew performed so well in Valencia for Hanspree Ten Kate Honda, he demonstrates the flair and ability that we still believe he has. Both Andrew and Jeremy have done a fantastic job for Ilmor GP under difficult circumstances and I want to thank them for their on- going patience and understanding. If all goes to plan and we manage to secure the funding to get back out for the remainer of the 2007 season then of course I would love to have both riders back on board."