The MP4-23, was unveiled at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart-Untertükheim on Monday, January 7th, Lewis Hamilton's 23rd birthday. The latest challenger from Woking was literally only completed the previous evening, and its debut coincided with the introduction of Finn Heikki Kovalainen as Fernando Alonso’s replacement. He was joined on stage by Hamilton, Pedro de la Rosa and fellow test driver Gary Paffett, and 48 hours after the event the new car began a rigorous testing schedule at Spain‘s Circuito de Jerez de la Frontera.
Ron Dennis and Dr Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, were typically bullish about the new machine, Dennis confirmed the team's clear intention: “We will fight for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships. We are looking forward to another competitive season as we look to build on the momentum of last year. Every single member of the team has worked extremely hard since the end of the 2007 season to get the MP4-23 on track as soon as possible to ensure we have the maximum amount of testing time available before the cars leave for Australia.”
The MP4-23 had begun life 10 months previously, detailed simulation and analysis work forming an integral part of the development process. The latter was, as usual, an ongoing process that would continue right up until that first race just 68 days later, and beyond. There were 150 engineers assigned to the project from the outset when initial wind tunnel tests had taken place in late May 2007, and the first chassis was ready for the autoclave in mid-November. By the time the car was ready for its launch in Stuttgart some 14,000 engineering man-hours, and the same again in manufacturing time, had been invested in its gestation.
It represented a substantial evolution of the MP4-22, and though it was visually similar outwardly then, by the time it was flown Down Under upgrades to most of the including wings, bodywork, barge boards and additional bodywork components, endowed it with its own clear identity.
The latest version of the 2.4-litre, eight-cylinder Mercedes-Benz F0 108V, a 90° unit conforming to the FIA-mandated 19,000rpm limit, and driving through McLaren’s own seven-speed box, was installed in a chassis that represented a familiar mix of McLaren moulded carbon fibre/aluminium honeycomb composite technology incorporating the necessary crash structures and an integral safety fuel cell.
Testing at Jerez began first thing on the Wednesday after the launch and, with chassis number two being sent out directly from Woking, it was the first time the team had ever had two cars ready for the first day of testing. Heikki was delighted with his first day as an active Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver, and expressed favourable early impressions: “We have a comprehensive development schedule to work through over the next couple of months, but the performance today is an encouraging starting point."
The two cars completed 69 laps of the 4.4km circuit with the runs taking place in near perfect conditions - sunny in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon, Pedro de la Rosa posted the best lap time of 1m 19.955s, Kovalainen 3m 20,559s.
Lewis Hamilton had his first run in the new car the following day, when he ran 103 laps. He too was characteristically buoyant, describing the experience as "fantastic" and bettering de la Rosa's time. Having seen the completed car for the first time only days previously at the Stuttgart launch, he also admitted to having been: “Pretty impatient since then! As this is only the second day the car has been on track, I am pretty happy."
Kovalainen faced a steeper learning curve in his new role, and despite finding the car different from the previous year’s, improved his times and said that settling into his new team was proving very easy. Back at the circuit the following day, by which time the weather was providing slightly more trying conditions with some showers, and cooler track and ambient temperatures, Hamilton again posted the best lap time with 1m 19.69 s, but Kovalainen was right behind him on 1m 19.752s.
The closeness of their two times - and of de la Rosa‘s performance earlier in the week - indicated that the team was achieving the consistency its new cars would need to deliver results. Significantly the three drivers had collectively covered nearly 2,000kms without any major issues coming to light, and had amassed a great deal of data which would be crucial for ongoing development.
It paid off handsomely, as Lewis got his 2008 title campaign off to the best possible start by winning the Australian Grand Prix with ease from pole position. Heikki was on course to back him strongly in second place, but ultimately finished fifth after falling victim to the third safety car intervention period.
As it made the transition to yet another fresh chapter in the ongoing story, McLaren had done so on a winning note and taken the lead in both the Drivers‘ and Constructors' World Championships.