Making a bid for the reliability that saw fast but fragile cars fail to score Formula One driver championships this century, McLaren's new model, the MP4-23, carried championship hopeful Lewis Hamilton to 103 laps on the Jerez, Spain, circuit Thursday in private testing by the McLaren Mercedes F1 team.
Coming into his sophomore season off of a rookie year in which he posted four victories, led the world title chase, and finished joint second in the drivers competition with his erstwhile teammate, two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, the Englishman joined Finnish co-driver Heikki Kovalainen and Spanish test driver Pedro de la Rosa in Jerez.
Kovalainen and De la Rosa took to the track Wednesday. McLaren supplied two completed chassis for initial testing for the first time in team history.
"It was fantastic to get my hands on the MP4-23 this morning in Jerez," Hamilton said. "I saw the completed car for the first time on Monday at the team's launch in Stuttgart, and I have been pretty impatient since then."
The team showed off the car Monday in Stuttgart, Germany, on the occasion of Hamilton's 23rd birthday. "My first impressions are encouraging," he said. "I covered over 103 laps, which is 456 kms, today. Considering this is only the second day the car has been on the track, I am pretty happy with that. We have a lot of work to do, but now we have a real understanding of where we are starting from."
Fellow F1 sophomore Kovalainen, who joined McLaren Mercedes after a season with Renault, echoed Hamilton's thoughts on a baseline measure of the car.
"We are all still spending time learning about the car and starting to get used to it," he said. "That we were on track for 204 laps in total today is definitely helping us to learn and progress with the car. For me in particular the car is very different from last year, and I have been focusing on that side of things. Settling into the team has been very easy, and I am looking forward to continuing our preparations for Melbourne next Tuesday."
Hamilton's best lap time was 1 minute, 19.132 seconds. Kovalainen turned a quick time of 1:19.462.
Hamilton and Kovalained are scheduled to test again Friday before De la Rosa and fellow test driver Gary Paffett take to the track Monday. Hamilton and Kovalainen will return to the track Tuesday and Wednesday next week.
The first race of the 2008 Formula One season is March 16 in Melbourne, Australia.
McLaren's lack of reliability, the factor most frequently cited as costing Kimi Raikkonen world driving titles in 2003 and 2005, is thought to have prompted the Finn's move to Ferrari last year, where he won the title in 2007, a point ahead of Hamilton and Alonso.