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Amid many rumors, Leach's move to Fiat is far from certain

Martin Leach's departure from Ford Of Europe has prompted a huge amount of speculation about his next move. But it is not yet certain if Leach will soon replace Fiat's Auto boss Giancarlo Boschetti.

Cologne/Munich. "In the end, Martin Leach had more work than fun here," a Ford manager said. And it's true that Leach, the 46-year-old Briton who quit his job as head of Ford Of Europe last Tuesday, did not have much to laugh about during the past few months.

During his time at Ford, the passionate car driver -- who was known within the group as a confirmed "petrol head" -- had hardly any time to drive his Aston Martin Vanquish.

The Vanquish, which boasts 460hp, had been loaned to Leach by Aston Martin, the English super-luxury sports car maker that is part of Ford's Premier Automotive Group of luxury brands.

At Ford of Europe, Leach was not only responsible for model planning but was also in charge of the company’s entire operations throughout the region. But during the first half of 2003, Ford of Europe made losses of $774 million or 737 million euros.

Leach -- who joined Ford in September 1997 as a suspension engineer -- had a reputation of being a product expert and a promoter of new technology. Leach initiated Ford's current European product offensive called "45 in 5" or, in other words, 45 new models to be launched within five years.

Leach also helped the struggling Mazda back to profitability during his time at the Japanese carmaker.

Italian newspapers reported that Leach has been negotiating for some time to become the next head of Fiat Auto. But the reports also claimed that negotiations have been difficult.

"No wonder, Leach will need extensive powers [if he is to turn Fiat around]," said an insider at the Italian carmaker.

The insider said Fiat's problems are a matter of national interest.

Enforcing necessary cuts such as closing down plants or making redundancies is very difficult since Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been interfering in Fiat's affairs personally, the insider added.

"If Leach should decide to join Fiat, he would have to bring a whole team with him just to clear away all the barriers," the insider said.

But spokesmen in Turin said a foreigner and a product specialist such as Leach might be the perfect man for Fiat in the current situation. When the Italian newspapers reported on the negotiations with Leach, Fiat's share price rose sharply.

But Ford insiders don't believe that Leach would be able to make the sudden transition to Fiat. A Ford manager said that, under the terms of his departure, Leach would likely have "a restrictive period of several years" before he could join another major carmaker.

This has resulted in further speculation that Leach might become the successor to Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. High-speed fanatic Leach was once a champion European go-kart racer, has made some important Formula One deals (Jaguar, Jordan) and is a good friend of Ecclestone's.

The diminutive Ecclestone, who reportedly wears specially made shoes to boost his height, once said: "My successor should only be a maximum of three centimeters taller than me."

Leach is also of small stature -- so the speculation could be true.