Tilke was born on 31 December 1954 in Olpe, Germany.
During the 1980s, Tilke competed in touring car racing, mainly on the old Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit. He also competed in VLN endurance racing and 24 Hours Nürburgring. He and Dirk Adorf won some VLN races with a V8Star Series in 2003 and 2004.
After completing his Civil Engineering Degree Program with specialization in Transport and Traffic Management at FH Aachen, Tilke established Tilke Engineering in 1984, combining skills in architecture, civil engineering and electronic engineering to provide complete solutions for motor racing and waste disposal projects.
Tilke is one of four designers recognised by the FIA but has predominantly been the only one to be commissioned to design Formula One tracks. One of his first minor tasks was to design and build a short access road at the Nürburgring, earned due to contacts made by his racing efforts there. His first major job was the transformation of the fast Österreichring to the much shorter A1-Ring in Austria, in the 1990s.
Tilke was involved in the radical overhauls of European circuits, such as Hockenheimring, Circuit de Catalunya, Nürburgring, plus Fuji Speedway in Japan.
Tilke secured the contracts to design many high-profile new world circuits from scratch, mainly in Asia but also in eastern Europe. He designed Sepang International Circuit, Bahrain International Circuit, Shanghai International Circuit, Istanbul Park Racing Circuit, Valencia Street Circuit, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Yas Marina Circuit, Korea International Circuit and the Buddh International Circuit in India. Tilke has also designed the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, where F1 made its return to the United States in 2012. Tilke's latest design includes Sochi Autodrom which hosted its first race in 2014 with the debut of Russia in F1.
Tilke designs every track with several other engineers from Tilke Engineering, as well as F1's commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone. After viewing the track site and "once factors such as topography, wind direction, infrastructure and soil quality are known" the design work can begin. Tilke focuses on "conceiving dramatic architecture that reflects the host country, like Sepang's lotus-leaf grandstands in Malaysia," while also aiming for spectator comfort and clear viewing. He "build[s] corners that promise a fast and interesting race but avoid pulling the field apart."
Tilke's track designs have been the subject of criticism. A 2009 profile in The Guardian noted that Tilke "has been accused of penning boring tracks and, even worse, of butchering legendary ones like Hockenheim." Russian Formula One commentator Alexey Popov even coined in a term "Tilkedrome" to emphasize the characteristic ennui of tracks designed by Tilke.
Former driver and team owner Sir Jackie Stewart was critical of Tilke in a 2011 piece in The Daily Telegraph, blaming his designs for the lack of overtaking and excitement at many Formula One races, saying they "are largely carbon copies of each other". Stewart, while praising the vast improvement the designs have brought to the sport's safety as well as "bringing fantastic amenities and luxuries to the sport", argued that the tracks have "gone too far the other way" in terms of safety. His primary complaint was that the large tarmac run-off areas fail to "penalise mistakes"; he cited the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Mark Webber was unable to pass Fernando Alonso, despite the latter running wide on four occasions, because the track's run-off areas did not impede him. Stewart suggested that the run-offs be made of a substance that slowed the cars down and thus punished drivers' mistakes. Webber echoed Stewart's views, stating that he was "spot on". 1980 world champion Alan Jones described Tilke's designs as "just one constant-radius corner after another" and "boring".
Others have defended him. Driver and commentator Anthony Davidson said that Tilke "understands the demands of the modern cars...he gives us run-off areas and it's all well thought out. They are enjoyable to race on because they suit modern F1 cars. At a track like Silverstone you do not get as much overtaking because it was designed for cars that were slower and did not depend on downforce for speed. But the circuits designed in recent years have a long straight and bigger braking zone." He particularly praised Turn Eight of Istanbul Park. Similar praise has come from Clive Bowen, the managing director of Apex Circuit Design (Tilke's business partner in several large projects including Sepang International Circuit and Bahrain International Circuit), who called Istanbul "a technical and aesthetic tour de force". He also defended Tilke's safety-enforced changes to existing tracks, noting: "By cutting off that long blast down through the woods at Hockenheim he was just joining the dots – he did not have much room for manoeuvre."
Tilke has secured contracts to design many high-profile new world circuits from scratch. These include:1995: A1 Ring
1999: Sepang International Circuit
2004: Bahrain International Circuit
2004: Shanghai International Circuit
2005: Istanbul Park
2006: Cancún (undeveloped)
2006: Beijing International Streetcircuit
2007: Bucharest Ring
2008: Marina Bay Street Circuit
2008: Kandavas Kartodroms
2008: Valencia Street Circuit
2008: Lippo Village International Formula Circuit
2009: Yas Marina Circuit
2009: Ciudad del Motor de Aragón
2010: Dublin Street Circuit (undeveloped)
2010: Korea International Circuit
2010: Moscow Raceway
2010: Kazakhstan Motorcity
2010: Atlanta Motorsports Park
2011: Buddh International Circuit
2012: Circuit of the Americas
2013: Port Imperial Street Circuit (undeveloped)
2013: Autodromo y Centro Cultural Motorpark
2014: Sochi Autodrom
2014: Osijek - Tvrđa
2014: Bistra - Zagreb (under construction)
2014: Chang International Circuit
2016: Baku City Circuit