Rooted in the high-performance marine world, both Formula Boats and Ilmor Marine responded to the steady decline of their market by expanding their product offerings into other segments. For Formula, that meant moving beyond its SR1 and later FAS3Tech sportboats and developing its Sun Sport, Super Sport, and Performance Cruiser lines. For Ilmor, it meant moving away from its big-horsepower V-10 engine series and stepping into the inboard towboat market as a major engine supplier for MasterCraft towboats.
You could make a compelling case that, with those moves, both companies saved themselves. It’s not that Formula won’t produce the occasional 38-foot V-bottom go-fast boat, or that Ilmor won’t build another 730-hp engine, but high-performance is no longer the core business for either company.
Still, Formula’s Scott Porter and Ilmor’s Paul Ray will always be performance-minded guys, and that was obvious to everyone at this year's Miami International Boat Show who witnessed the debut of the Formula 350 CBR FX model powered by pair of Ilmor Marine 430-hp 6.2L engines with the company’s new twin-propeller One Drive stern drives.
True, the full-cabin 35-footer probably won’t blow back the hair of any diehard go-fast boat enthusiast with its 58-mph top end. But from a pure performance, “How well does it work?” standpoint, particularly in how easily, silently, and smoothly the hydraulically operated One Drive units move from neutral to forward and reverse, the boat is simply outstanding.
Going with hydraulic shifting enable Ilmor to eliminate the cone clutch, the internal part in most stern-drives that is responsible for much of the clunk-and-thud operators feel and hear when they shift their boats’ engines in and out of forward and reverse. (Cable shift mechanisms also contribute to those undesirable shifting characteristics.) Ilmor also is offering the One Drive package with its 375-hp 6.0L engine package, but given the 13,000-plus-pound dry weight of the 350 CBR FX the two companies made a wise choice in going with the more-powerful 6.2L mills.
According to a press release from Ilmor, the “central differentiator” of the One Drive propulsion system is the electro-magnetically actuated hydraulic clutch transmission. The hydraulic clutch system, which reportedly makes for ultra-smooth shifting, quietly engages and disengages gears at two shifts per second. The twin propeller drive unit is built with precision forged gears for increased durability and is hard-anodized for superior corrosion protection. All drive systems are complete with power-assisted steering and hydraulic trim.
The One Drive transom has a significantly larger exhaust output than comparable systems, minimizing back-pressure for improved engine performance.
The Ilmor One Drive utilizes stern-drive components provided by engineering partner Yanmar Marine, and is already in operation in their diesel. The One Drive system is Environmental Protection Agency- and California Air Resources Board-certified in the United States, as well European Union RCD emissions and sound compliant.
Thanks in part to the sporty FX package that includes carbon fiber dash panels, special graphics and other amenities, the 350 CBR has become one of Formula’s hottest sellers. While the FX package doesn’t make the 35-footer a “performance boat”—not even close—it does give it enough visual attitude to appeal to performance-minded buyers.
Likewise, Ilmor dressed its 6.2L engines to look the part with plenum covers specifically designed to resemble superchargers. That, plus the throaty growl from engines’ air-induction systems at full throttle, enhances the performance look and feel of overall package.
On The Water
Courtesy of our friends at Ilmor Marine, boats.com and speedonthewater.com were treated to the first demo ride in the 350 CBR FX with the One Drive propulsion packages. We were joined by Ilmor's Paul Ray and professional powerboat test driver Bob Teague of Teague Custom Marine.
Teague, Ray, and I ran the Formula 350 CBR FX for about 20 minutes following the long idle out of no-wake water in Biscayne Bay from the boat show docks.
“The noise you hear at full throttle from the engines is from the air-induction systems, not the exhaust,” said Paul Ray. “We could make it quieter, but what we’ve found is that performance-minded buyers like that sound when they’re running wide open.”
Not that the Ilmor 6.2L engine-powered boat was anything close to loud at anything other than wide-open throttle. On the contrary, throughout all but its maximum operating range the word was to "check the techs to see if the engines are running quiet,” which simply meant glancing at Ilmor’s MERLIN engine-monitoring system.
But the story of this boat isn’t speed, efficiency (1.5 miles per gallon at 40 mph), nice handling manners, or steady acceleration —or even the boat’s large comfortable cabin or abundant open space on deck. The story is about the shifting of the One Drive system, which can be summed up in one word: smooth.
Newcomers to the powerboat world might not notice the difference between how smoothly the One Drive shifts and how smoothly their automobile transmissions shift— which from the Ilmor and Formula perspectives is precisely the point.
Experienced powerboat owners/operators will be blown away, just as Teague was. “It’s awesome,” he said. “Just awesome.”
When it came time to bring the boat back into its tight spot between a small cruiser and a dock, Ilmor’s two-speed joystick system provided the second highlight of the demo. Teague is as experienced as powerboat drivers get, but he’s also smart enough to use the tools in front of him. The joystick control made backing the 35-footer into its spot a non-event.
After the boat was safely tied up, Ray and I sat on the rear bench in the 350 CBR’s cockpit and discussed Ilmor’s present and future directions. He believes the 6.0L/6.2L engine and One Drive package will find a great home in twin- and single-engine applications. As that business develops, the company will continue to build engines—with more than 10,000 so far—for MasterCraft. I asked him if he missed the high-performance power segment, given that his company’s V-10 engine line eventually topped out with a 730-hp naturally aspirated beast.
“Of course,” he said. “Our roots are in high performance. We have an Indy Car in our booth. We still build the [570-hp] MV8-570 but we’re not pushing it. We can do a lot more by focusing on this segment with the One Drive. It’s going to be gradual. It’s a competitive segment. But we think there’s something special about the ‘Ilmor experience.’”