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Kovalainen at McLaren - another Finn about to fly? 06 Mar 2008

Heikki Kovalainen tests the McLaren Mercedes MP4-23, Jerez, Spain, 11 January 2008. © McLaren Heikki Kovalainen prepares to make his debut for the McLaren team at Jerez, Spain, January 9, 2008. © McLaren Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Renault celebrates 2nd place with his team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd15, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Fuji Speedway, Fuji, Japan, Sunday, 30 September 2007 Heikki Kovalainen (ESP) tests the McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 for the first time. McLaren MP4-23 First Test, Jerez, Spain, 9 January 2008. © McLaren

This time last year, Heikki Kovalainen was preparing to make his Formula One race debut after taking up Fernando Alonso’s vacant seat at Renault. Twelve months later it seems to be a case of history repeating itself as Kovalainen adjusts to another seat left empty by Alonso - this time at McLaren.

While McLaren’s engine partner Mercedes would undoubtedly have liked a German in the empty MP4-23 (Nico Rosberg was touted as a replacement), the British team’s long standing tradition of Finnish drivers seems to have played right into Kovalainen’s hands. He was signed up to a long-term contract in December, but will it prove the right move for the 26 year-old - and for McLaren?

At first glance the affable Finn may seem to lack the ice-cool composure of McLaren forebears Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, but he has already proved he has just as much speed flowing through his veins. He has impressed in early tests with the team, even topping one recent Jerez session, and arrives having learnt some valuable lessons from his maiden season - one which featured a steeper than expected learning curve.

Over the opening five races of 2007, Renault’s bright young hope looked out of his depth. A similarly shaky start this year could spell disaster for McLaren’s title aspirations, but that looks decidedly unlikely, given that by the middle of ’07 Kovalainen was enjoying a much firmer footing. He went on to clinch the French team’s only podium, eclipsed veteran team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, and finished seventh in the driver standings, scoring 30 of Renault’s 51 points - a great end to his debut season.

With his speed and ambition not in doubt, much of how Kovalainen builds on that debut could depend on McLaren’s 2008 form. The team were championship runners-up in all but name last year, and before the Ferrari ‘spy scandal’ were in prime place to take a historic ninth constructors’ title. But in Formula One racing performance one season is no guarantee of a similar level the next - a maxim the Finn knows better than most, having experienced Renault’s fall from grace in 2007. And there is always a chance that McLaren’s promise to suspend development on certain parts, in the aftermath of the ‘Spygate’ scandal, could put the MP4-23 at a disadvantage.

But even if one assumes the ’08 McLaren will be quick and reliable, will it be enough to make Kovalainen a genuine title contender? He is still learning and unlike his world championship-winning predecessor, Alonso, he has yet to prove he is the complete package. Likewise, however, new team mate Lewis Hamilton, who also debuted at last season’s Australian Grand Prix. In combination, the duo is one of the least experienced on the grid and how they work together will be crucial for both men. After the disaster that was last year’s Hamilton-Alonso rivalry, McLaren will move heaven and earth to avoid a repeat and Kovalainen has to be both competitive and cooperative. Challenging Hamilton will not only be a real test of the Finn’s driving talent, but also his diplomacy.

Will he be quick enough to challenge his team mate? As de facto number one at McLaren, Hamilton will be under intense pressure this season. But so will Kovalainen, as he attempts to adjust to his surroundings and integrate himself into a team that counts Hamilton as its most prized possession. The British driver, with a year’s experience of racing a McLaren under his belt, will be faster - at least at first - and will certainly not be as easily overhauled as Fisichella was at Renault. Kovalainen knows, however, that Hamilton is far from unbeatable.

Having witnessed from afar Alonso’s McLaren experience last year, Kovalainen will be all too aware of the pros and cons of driving for the team. One suspects he has the talent. If he can harness the assets available to him - and avoid the potential pitfalls - then he has his best chance yet to prove just how good he really is.