With Fernando Alonso officially heading back to Renault, the next question to be answered was who was going to fill the vacancy left at McLaren. Back in October we speculated that anyone from McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rossa to Mika Hakkinen could take the position. On Friday it was announced that Heikki Kovalainen, who was left without a seat at Renault, will join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren for 2008. Kovalainen scored 30 or Renault's 51 points and finished seventh in the 2007 driver standings. The duo will be one of the youngest driver combos, and both will be starting just their second season in Formula 1. McLaren's press release as well as a Q&A with Kovalainen are after the jump.
Woking, United Kingdom, Friday 14th December 2007: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is pleased to confirm that Finn Heikki Kovalainen will team up with Formula 1 World Championship runner-up Lewis Hamilton for the 2008 season. Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa will remain the third driver and an integral part of the team, whilst Gary Paffett will assist Pedro with the testing programme when required.
"We had a number of options open to us and as always we want to make sure that we have the most competitive driver line-up and I think that Lewis and Heikki will be a formidable combination," said Martin Whitmarsh. "Both enjoyed great rookie seasons in 2007 and share a genuine passion for winning and being the best. Heikki made a strong impression and Lewis' performance so far has been outstanding and speaks for itself. I am confident that they will push each other on track and work well together off track. In addition with Pedro remaining our primary test driver alongside Gary, we really have a strong package and look forward to 2008."
Norbert Haug, Vice President, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport commented: "Heikki is a talented driver who showed his skills during his debut season in Formula 1 this year. Heikki's most impressive performance was at the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji where he finished second behind Lewis in extremely treacherous wet conditions. He is not only a quick driver but also one of the most consistent having finished in every Grand Prix except the last which puts him in the top five together with our drivers who covered most laps in 2007. Everybody in the team is looking forward to a very fruitful co-operation. Lewis and Heikki will form one of the youngest driver line-ups, and I am convinced that both will be very strong and at the same time co-operative competitors."
26-year-old Heikki, who made his Formula 1 race debut last year with Renault, joins the team on a long-term contract and will commence his on-track programme in early January.
"I am so excited to join a team like Vodafone McLaren Mercedes," said Heikki. "So far I have been blown away by the dedication and commitment to winning which is clear through the entire organisation and I am really excited about our joint future. As a Finn it's an honour for me to follow in Mika and Kimi's footsteps. I haven't really spent a lot of time with Lewis so far but from what I know I think we will work well together and do our best for the team."
Lewis who enjoyed the most successful rookie season in the history of the Formula 1 World Championship with consecutive podiums in his first nine races is looking forward to the 2008 season.
"As soon as the chequered flag went in Brazil I began to count down the days until Australia," said Lewis. "I am really looking forward to 2008 and working with Heikki as my team mate. Together with the team we will do everything we can to ensure that our Championship challenge is as strong and focused as possible. My first year in Formula 1 was incredible and I was so fortunate to spend it with Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and I hope that Heikki will enjoy his first year with the team as much as I did mine."
The Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 is scheduled to commence its on-track testing programme at an exclusive test at the Jerez circuit in Spain during the second week of January 2008. There are currently no plans for a launch presentation but the team will provide the media with photographs and further details about the car when it runs.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH HEIKKI KOVALAINEN
How does it feel to be a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver?
It feels fantastic thank you. The team has always been popular in Finland because of both Mika and Kimi's involvement, so when I was growing up there was a massive awareness of McLaren Mercedes especially when Mika won the World Championship twice. I am so happy to be part of this team. There is a lot of work ahead of us, but I can't wait.
When did you start talking to Vodafone McLaren Mercedes about a race drive?
Once I had been informed by Renault about their driver plans my management and I began to explore a number of options in Formula 1. Vodafone McLaren Mercedes was obviously an incredibly attractive opportunity and we began talking and here we are.....I am pleased it all worked out.
You will be team mates with Lewis Hamilton – how well do you know Lewis?
I don't know Lewis that well but we have spoken on a number of occasions during 2007. From what I have seen and heard he is a nice guy.
Lewis has been with the team for many years and consequently has a strong relationship with the team and management – are you worried that this will affect you settling into the team?
Not at all. It's up to me to build relationships with the team and the people around me, and I know everybody is excited about me joining, so I don't think that will be a problem at all. The one thing that has struck me so far is just how professional and dedicated the team is, and I know they will work so hard to give me the best opportunity. Also after the 2007 season I don't think there can be any doubt that the team is totally committed to equality amongst its drivers and I like that.
When did you visit the McLaren Technology Centre for the first time and what is your initial impression?
The first time I came to the McLaren Technology Centre I was just blown away. I have seen photographs and films from there but it doesn't prepare you for the wow effect when you actually arrive. You have that initial impact as you start to look around and then you begin to feel the atmosphere. I visited the McLaren Technology Centre for the first time only a few days ago.
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes had a tough year off track in 2007 – does that kind of thing worry you as a driver and did that affect your decision in any way?
I am employed to drive the car and am not a political animal at all. There was obviously a lot going on in 2007 but it's not for me to talk about. I just look forward to a competitive and fun future with the team.
Obviously you former Renault team mate Fernando Alonso's and Vodafone McLaren Mercedes partnership didn't work out – does that worry you?
Not in the slightest. It's not for me to judge what went wrong with Fernando and the team and I am really not interested. All I can say is how I feel about my opportunity and I am really excited and happy.
Do you think you can win the World Championship in 2008?
Any driver has to enter into a race and a World Championship believing he can win it so of course I do. However there is a long way to go and at the moment I am just looking forward to familiarising myself with the new car and the team.