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McLaren see Raikkonen as winner first, then rival

Written by: Staff

MILAN, Sep 11 (Reuters) McLaren expect Kimi Raikkonen to leave them as a winner before Formula One's Finnish 'Iceman' becomes their main rival with Ferrari next year.

''We've got some further improvements for the last three races and we believe we can win some,'' managing director Martin Whitmarsh said after Raikkonen finished second in yesterday's Italian Grand Prix.

''(Kimi) has the support of everyone in the team to get on and get the job done,'' he told Reuters. ''We're going to give him absolutely everything to try and win those last three races.'' Ferrari confirmed an open secret yesterday when they announced that the Finn would be joining them next season as a replacement for retiring seven-times champion Michael Schumacher.

''Losing someone with that level of talent isn't something that any race team wants to do,'' said Whitmarsh, whose team have 25-year-old world champion Fernando Alonso arriving from Renault.

''But it's not exactly a bolt from the blue. Kimi has made a decision and the team understands and respects it.

''We've thanked Kimi for everything that he's done so far, we've expressed our pleasure in working with him, and some great achievements.'' TOUGH OPPONENT Next season will be very different, with Raikkonen in the red car that beat him at Monza yesterday as Schumacher claimed his 90th win before announcing his retirement .

''Beating Kimi is always going to be tough,'' said Whitmarsh, whose team have yet to win this year and risk ending the season empty-handed for the first time in a decade.

''I hope and believe that we will continue to have a strong and positive relationship out of the car, and in the car we'll try to beat him.

''Kimi is a formidable competitor and a great driver. He's a winner -- he wants to win the last three races, so do we, so we are totally aligned in that regard.'' Raikkonen has spent five seasons at McLaren, finishing championship runner-up in 2003 and 2005. He has won nine times with the Mercedes-powered team.

''They are a great team and nice people to work with, but in the end I wanted something else and there were only two choices -- to stay with McLaren or go to Ferrari,'' said the 26-year-old of his decision.

''For me personally, I wanted to go there one day and this was the best moment and I think it is a great team to join.'' Raikkonen replaced two times champion Mika Hakkinen at McLaren and he said stepping into Schumacher's shoes at a team previously dedicated to the German would be another challenge, even if he hoped to be champion next year.

''Of course the team (Ferrari) will expect a lot but in the end I also expect a lot from myself and I want to win,'' he said.

''This is different to McLaren, where there was Mika world champion twice, and it wasn't easy then and it will not be easy this time. I will go there and do my best and hopefully it will be enough for everybody.'' REUTERS PDS KN1623

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