McLaren-Mercedes has underlined its intention to wrest one, if not both, Formula One world championships from rival Ferrari by announcing that its 2004 challenger will begin testing as early as next month.

Usually regarded as one of the teams likely to launch last of all, McLaren could be the first to get its 2004 campaign up and running in earnest when the MP4-19 runs in the first tests after the lifting of the winter action ban. The car is understood to be a logical development of the MP4-18 which ran during 2003 without ever making its competitive debut. McLaren contested the world championship with a 'D' specification MP4-17 but still managed to run Ferrari and Michael Schumacher close for the world title.

Confirmation of the decision to hit the track with the new car before the end of 2003 was made by Mercedes boss Jurgen Hubbert, who told guests at the annual 'Stars and Cars' party that "if everything goes according to plan, the new car should be driven for the first time in the 48th week [of the year]".

Hubbert was joined at the celebration by Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug, and drivers from the company's various racing programmes, including both Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard. Both Haug and Raikkonen were in fighting mood.

"Overall, 2003 was a successful year," Haug said, "If we keep improving, we will soon be where we want to be. We want to win both titles and we must not be shy of anyone, definitely not Ferrari and not Williams."

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen narrowly missed out on the title this year, finishing second, two points behind Schumacher. McLaren ended third in the constructors' standings behind Ferrari and second-placed Williams.

Raikkonen agreed and, while not promising the assembled throng that he would bring back the drivers' title next season, insisted that he would be striving to topple another German favourite from the top of the tree.

Over 30,000 fans gathered to celebrate Mercedes' motorsport success in 2003, with DTM champion Bernd Schneider joining the F1 pilots to sign autographs and pit their skills against members of the audience in a DTM simulator. Raikkonen also paraded an historic Mercedes W196 'silver arrow'.

Most of the other nine F1 teams expect to launch their new cars in the early weeks of 2004.

 

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