Heikki Kovalainen says he is keen to uphold the strong record of Finnish success at McLaren-Mercedes, having signed to partner Lewis Hamilton at the leading British outfit in 2008 and beyond.

The 26-year-old enjoyed a superb debut season in Formula 1 this year, capped by a stunning run to second place behind Hamilton in the torrential Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, re-passing the Ferrari of countryman Kimi Raikkonen on the very last lap to seal the runner-up spot. He would end the campaign seventh in the world drivers' standings - ahead of infinitely more experienced Renault team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella - and his reward has been promotion to arguably the best team on the grid.

"It feels fantastic!" he enthused of his signing. "The team has always been popular in Finland because of both Mika (Hakkinen) 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!"

As soon as Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jnr were announced at Renault for next season, it was clear there was no longer any room at the inn for Kovalainen, who ironically is managed by the R?gie's team boss Flavio Briatore. He insisted, however, that he was never unduly concerned about not being on the grid in 2008.

"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," the inaugural GP2 vice-champion acknowledged. "McLaren was obviously an incredibly attractive opportunity, we began talking and here we are... I am pleased it all worked out."

As to what he hopes and expects to achieve in 2008, Kovalainen was rather more coy, but he did stress he was not at all perturbed by the well-publicised, fractious relationship between McLaren management and the man he has replaced at Woking. He also underlined he was looking forward to working with Hamilton, who by dint of his long relationship with the squad and close bond with Ron Dennis has made the team somewhat his own.

"I don't know Lewis that well," he admitted, "but we have spoken on a number of occasions during 2007. From what I have seen and heard he is a nice guy. 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. At the moment I am just looking forward to familiarising myself with the new car and the team.

"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. I visited the McLaren Technology Centre for the first time only a few days ago and 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.

"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. 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 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, happy and looking forward to a competitive and fun future with the team."

 

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