Motorsport.com - Team McLaren today confirmed what had been rumored in the media for the past several weeks, as they announced the addition of Kimi Raikkonen to their 2002 driver line-up.
At the exit door is two-time World Champion and Raikkonen's compatriot, Mika Hakkinen, who announced that he will be taking a year away from Formula One to spend with his family, but expects to return for the 2003 season.
"My will to drive has not gone away," Hakkinen explained, "The point here is that my body will get a bit of a rest. I need that, since right now I cannot perform to my maximum, which I want to do."
Hakkinen's year off is not unprecedented in modern Formula One, as both Alain Prost and Niki Lauda did the same thing -- and both came back to win another World Championship.
Hakkinen's chances of repeating this performance, though, will depend on the availability of a front-running seat for 2003. Will he be able to return to McLaren, alongside either Raikkonen or his current teammate, David Coulthard, or will he find a place at another team?
Raikkonen, who had his Formula One test only a year and two days ago, had only 23 car races under his belt when he joined Sauber for the 2001 season.
In spite of public reservations by FIA president Max Mosley and others about the young Finn's readiness for F1, he has impressed driving for the Swiss team. He has driven not only fast, but also with maturity belying his years, with few mistakes to date.
"When I made my decision about taking a sabbatical, it was my dream that Kimi would take my place at McLaren," Hakkinen recalled. "He is a fast driver with just the right kind of mind and approach to Formula One, and McLaren is the kind of team that will support and help a young driver grow."
Peter Sauber, the Sauber team principal, was trying to hold on to the young talent, but finally agreed to negotiate with McLaren after the Belgian Grand Prix. This truly started the rumor mill, with German press reporting that Mercedes was willing to pay up to $10 million for the rights to the Finn.
"I am a little surprised at the speed at which everything has happened, but at least my career is not going in the wrong direction," said Raikkonen. "I really wanted to be at McLaren, and I got the opportunity."
"I don't have to fear being the second driver," he continued. "McLaren guarantees equal cars to both drivers, so it was the ideal choice for me."
Meanwhile, Sauber will be testing Brazilian rising star, Felipe Massa, who is currently racing in F3000. The 20-year-old will be testing for Sauber next week at Nurburgring.