Rumours link engine guru to Renault

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The Independent Online

Renault may be in big trouble here, in stark contrast to the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona a fortnight ago, but the future may be brighter if rumours prove true that the Mercedes-Benz engine guru Mario Illien will be leaving shortly to join the Anglo-French team.

"No comment," was all the talented Swiss designer would say, but the paddock is alive with suggestions that he will replace the recently-departed Jean Jacques His, who led the design and development of the Renault V10 engines that won world titles in the Nineties. The veteran French designer admitted that he left the company because of differences with managing director Flavio Briatore, who has made several overtures to Illien in recent months.

Over the winter, Illien agreed the sale of his shares in Ilmor Engineering, the Brixworth-based company he formed with partner Paul Morgan, to Mercedes-Benz. The German company was actually a founding partner in Ilmor. Morgan died in a plane crash two years ago this month, and his death is said to be one of the reasons for Mercedes-Benz's dip in performance in recent years after championship-winning domination in the Nineties. Recently Mercedes-Benz recruited Werner Laurenz from their main rival BMW.

In the morning practice, David Coulthard had set the fastest time and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was only fourth, but in qualifying the world champion let rip and fully exploited the new tyre that Bridgestone has brought to Austria. Not even a temporary scare during mandatory post-qualifying weighing, when the Ferrari momentarily appeared to be underweight, could temper the team's mood. Schumacher's best lap of 1min 07.908sec comfortably bettered his team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who spoiled his run in the first corner.

"This was a very encouraging qualifying session," said Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt. "Bridgestone has done a very good job, and even though we know that the only positions that are valid are those at the end of Saturday afternoon, this is a good start."

It was also a good start for Jaguar and BAR Honda. Once again Mark Webber starred in the green car, recording the third-best lap, ousting Jacques Villeneuve and team-mate Jenson Button, who complained of oversteer.

"The balance was very good, and I'm pretty happy," Webber said. "To be honest, I was not expecting to be so high."

Meanwhile, against expectations, Formula One's powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone indicated that the days of the Austrian GP may not, after all, be numbered. "We don't know what's going to happen," he said. "We'll see what happens with our friend from Red Bull."

The energy drink magnate, Dietrich Mateschitz, has recently announced plans for a major revamp of the track. It had been expected that Austria would give way to new races, in Bahrain and China.