Mercury and Sterling: Another Power Struggle

Will Mercury Racing's 1,350 turbocharged engine start another horsepower war in the high-performance boating world? Don't bet against it.

31st August 2010.
By Matt Trulio

Late last month, production began on Mercury Racing’s new twin-turbocharged 1’350-hp engine dubbed, not so surprisingly, the 1350. I know this because Fred Kiekhaefer, the president of the Fond Du Lac, Wisc., company, told me.

The twin-turbo, quad overhead cam 1350 is the most powerful and sophisticated engine in the Mercury Racing line.

Early this month, Sterling Performance in Milford, Mich., began dynamometer testing of its 1,700-hp twin turbocharged engine, not so surprisingly dubbed the Sterling 1700. (Generally speaking, engine builders don’t get fancy with names.) I know this because Mike D’Anniballe, the principal of Sterling, told me.

And so begins yet another skirmish between Mercury Racing and Sterling, though I suspect that Kiekhaefer and D’Anniballe, both of whom I’ve gotten to know fairly well during the 15-plus years I’ve covered the go-fast boat world, would be insulted that I’m putting them on the same plane, so to speak.

For the record (Mssrs. Kiekhaefer and D’Anniballe take note), I’m not. In a boom year—something 2010 definitely is not—Mercury Racing can produce hundreds of high-performance engines, whereas Sterling’s production likely wouldn’t reach 100 units.

Also for the record, both make great products. With a few exceptions (most notably Chief Engines on the East Coast, Ilmor Marine in the Midwest and Teague Custom Marine on the West Coast) Mercury Racing and Sterling Performance are the perennial leaders in the big-power game. And when I say big power, I’m referring to engines pumping out at least 700 hp.

Yeah, believe it or not, these days 700 hp is on the low-end of big-power scale in the go-fast boat world. And in performance boats 30 feet and longer, twin engines are the norm. I know this boggles the mind of the average powerboat owner, so I can’t even imagine what it does to the wind-chapped brain of the average sailor. (But it makes me smile to think about it.)

But back to the skirmish between Mercury Racing and Sterling Performance. The battle between these two outfits goes back a long way, but it really started coming to a head in the late 1990’s. Decades in the making, Mercury Racing was the brainchild, though it went by several names before it arrived at its current handle, of marine innovator Carl Kiekhaefer, Fred’s father. For years, the company used offshore racing as its proving grounds. Fred Kiekhaefer, who holds a bachelors degree in engineering and a masters degree in business, calls it “improving the breed.”

But in the 1980’s, a relatively unknown engine builder named Mike D’Anniballe caught the attention of an up-and-coming catamaran builder named Peter Hledin, the founder and owner of Douglas Marine, which builds Skater catamarans. When Hledin landed the prime gig of building Skater cats for the Dubai-based Victory Team that still competes in Union Internationale Motonautique Class 1 offshore racing, he referred D’Anniballe to the team. D’Anniballe, in turn, got the job of building Victory’s engines.

When the Victory team started building its own cats in house (not a subject to bring up with Hledin, who feels his designs were copied) and turned to Lamborghini for engines, Hledin and D’Anniballe got axed. But both had established huge reputations for quality in the performance-boat world.

Now, flash forward to the mid- to late-1990s in offshore racing, most specifically focusing on the Open class of offshore high-performance catamarans. Sterling power is dominant on the racecourse, and even though Mercury Racing offers a 1,000-hp engine it can’t touch the 1,200- to 1,400-hp mills coming out of Sterling.

Mercury Racing president Fred Kiekhaefer introduced the 1350 (in background) engine at the February 2010 Miami International Boat Show.

Advantage, Sterling—at least until the Open class dies, a victim of the spending wars created by the last two competitors in the class who could afford it. Offshore racing’s catamaran classes largely become “spec” classes with power ranging from 500 hp to 850 hp, and in this realm Mercury Racing has the goods, with its rock-solid 525EFI.

Off the racecourse, there’s something of a global shift in the high-performance pleasure boating world that mirrors what’s going on in offshore. Exotic go-fast boat owners have become fed up with big power that is expensive to operate and maintain. Quite simply, they’d rather give up a little power—or even a lot of it—and lose a few miles per hour than chase expensive race fuel and even more costly engine rebuilds.

Mercury Racing recognizes this trend, but ups the ante considerably when it releases its 1075SCi engine. Here is an engine that pumps out more than 1,000 hp, but maintains outstanding idle quality and manageability around the docks, where engines of like output traditionally been a nightmare.

Advantage Mercury Racing, as even D’Anniballe concedes.

“I have to admit, the 1075 kind of caught us with our pants down,” he says. “It’s a really nice piece.”

Which leads us to the present. Mercury Racing’s 1350 engines are in production, and they reportedly are sold out until March 2011—not bad for a product that, with the company’s new M8 drive, will list for $202,000. (That is not a typo. I did not add a zero or put the comma in the wrong place.)

A pair of Sterling’s 1700 engines should be, by the time you read this, finished with dyno testing and on their way to Marine Technology, Inc., for installation in a 48-foot-long racing catamaran. The price for the engine has not been set, but according to D’Anniballe it will be “way cheaper” than Mercury Racing’s 1350.

I don’t know who will “win” this battle. Odds heavily favor Mercury Racing, as the company is pretty far ahead of Sterling this time around. But Sterling is a top-quality engine shop and capable of great things. That said, a reliable 1,700-hp piston engine is a tall order, even for D’Anniballe and his talented crew.

Regardless, it’s another epic power struggle worth watching.

trulioheadshot1Bi-weekly columnist Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Trulio’s daily blog can be found on speedonthewater.com, a site he created and maintains, which is the high-performance arm of the BoaterMouth group.


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About the author:

Matt Trulio

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Matt Trulio is the co-publisher and editor in chief of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site with a weekly newsletter and a new bi-monthly digital magazine that covers the high-performance powerboating world. The former editor-in-chief of Sportboat magazine and editor at large of Powerboat magazine, Trulio has covered the go-fast powerboat world since 1995. Since joining boats.com in 2000, he has written more than 200 features and blogs.
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