McLaren completed its 2008 race driver lineup on Friday by confirming that Heikki Kovalainen has been signed to team up with fellow rookie Lewis Hamilton. The 26-year-old Finn made his formula one debut this year, and - as he also did at Renault in 2007 - replaces Fernando Alonso, on a long-term contract. He will begin testing for McLaren in early January.

“We had a number of options open to us and as always we want to make sure that we have the most competitive driver lineup and I think that Lewis and Heikki will be a formidable combination,” McLaren chief executive Martin Whitmarsh said.

“I am confident that they will push each other on track and work well together off track,” he added. A statement issued by the Woking based team also announced that Pedro de la Rosa will stay in 2008 as third driver, with Gary Paffett to test “when required”.

Kovalainen’s best finish last season was his second place, behind Hamilton, in Japan. Following Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, he will be the third Finn to race for McLaren in recent years.

“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,” Kovalainen, who made his first visit to the McLaren factory a few days ago, said.

Asked if he thinks he can win the championship in 2008, he answered: “Any driver has to enter into a race and a world championship believing he can win it so of course I do.” (GMM)