The arrival of the Ilmor 800 cc X3 bike was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the last days of the 2006 season, and many people had high hopes for the outfit, with an engine designed by Formula 1 genius Mario Illien, and a chassis created by Eskil Suter, the man behind the original Kawasaki ZXRR MotoGP bike, as well as the MuZ 500 cc two stroke racer. And so the disappointment was great when Ilmor made the shock announcement that they would be withdrawing from the MotoGP series after only the first race of the 2007 season. Staff were laid off, and Mario Illien announced that although bike development would cease, for the most part, engine development would continue.
Now, it looks like that choice is could pay off. The Italian site GPOne.com is reporting that Team KR are in talks with Ilmor to supply engines for the 2008 season. The news comes at a moment when the future of Team KR was looking more and more uncertain, after Honda refused to supply the team with enough engines to run two bikes for 2008, with speculation running rife about which of the other manufacturers would be willing to supply Kenny Roberts with engines. The deal is said to be dependent upon Team KR getting enough money out of their current main sponsor, MGM Grand Hotel Treasure Island, to run two bikes for next year. And according to GPOne.com, the team has already tested a new chassis and Ilmor engine, with Ilmor's former rider Andrew Pitt at the controls.
A switch to Ilmor would several advantages for Team KR, but it also carries a number of risks. On the plus side, Ilmor's base is just a few miles up the road from Team KR's home in Banbury in the UK, in the middle of Oxfordshire's Formula 1 valley, making collaboration and communication fast and easy. And the Ilmor engine was said to have plenty of power, as some of the top speeds it recorded showed.
But the problem with the Ilmor is reminiscent of Team KR's former forays into engine building, when they constructed a 990cc V5 with the help of Formula 1 guru John Barnard. The complaints heard about the Ilmor bike were that the engineers had designed it to generate horsepower, with no regard to the way that horsepower affects the handling of a motorcycle, with Ilmor's data technicians telling riders to hold the engine at high revs through corners, a process which is both very difficult and totally unnatural for a motorcycle racer.
The success of such an operation will come down to how much control Team KR will have over the electronics, and engine management system. If the team can use an electronics package which will allow a KR / Ilmor hybrid to be ridden like a conventional MotoGP bike, then the project could have a chance of success. If not, it could lead to yet another demise of a project emanating from Formula 1 engineers. Time will tell.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Since posting this, this site has learned that Ilmor were testing the X3 in Jerez last week, and the team has recently rehired staff it had previously laid off. So bike development is continuing, and may even be picking up pace.