Force India picks Perez for second seat

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Sergio Perez arrived late on Formula One’s driver market for 2014, but the Mexican played his way into a seat anyway after strong performances in the final two races when he knew he was a free agent.

Perez shifts from McLaren to Force India for 2014, where he will team alongside Nico Hulkenberg. It’s a multi-year deal for Perez, who will have the chance to prove himself alongside one of F1’s most highly regarded drivers who hasn’t yet had a chance at one of the proverbial “top teams.”

“It’s great to announce my new team as Sahara Force India,” Perez said. “Coming here was always my first choice and I’m really happy everything has now been confirmed. I want to say thank you to Vijay and the whole team for giving me the opportunity.”

Perez gave the usual platitudes about hoping to lift the team into the top tier of the field.

“This is a young team with a lot of determination and they’ve produced competitive cars for the last few years,” he said. “It’s all change for next season with the new regulations, but I already have a good feeling about 2014. My plan now is to visit the factory and get to know everyone in the team.”

Team principal Vijay Mallya feels his squad has two top-flight stars who could potentially lift Force India into the top five in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It’s a pleasure to welcome Sergio to the team,” Mallya said. “He brings a healthy mix of youth and experience, and I’ve been very impressed with his recent performances. He already has several podium finishes to his name and being chosen by McLaren last year was a clear indication that he is a driver to watch for the future.

“We also recognize Sergio’s incredible talent and we are proud to have him in our team,” he added. “He clearly has great speed and plenty of fire in his belly. Our job is to make sure he settles in quickly by creating the right atmosphere so that he can realize his potential. By pairing Sergio alongside Nico, we enter the new season with an extremely competitive line-up, which will go toward helping us achieve our goals for the new season.”

Perez starred on numerous occasions in the midfield in his two years with Sauber, which helped to earn his promotion to McLaren this past year. But after a single season, he was dropped for rookie Kevin Magnussen, who is part of McLaren’s young driver program.

The move, of course, officially confirms both of Force India’s 2013 drivers are out. Adrian Sutil, a Force India veteran over six seasons (2007-’11, ’13) dating back to the team’s stint as Spyker, enters the free agent market as does Scotsman Paul di Resta after three years with Force India. Sutil has been linked to Sauber, where incidentally, he’d replace Hulkenberg. Di Resta, meanwhile, appears less likely to stay in F1 after three years with some very high peaks but unfortunately too many valleys.

Force India, interestingly, has now changed its driver lineup for a fifth straight season. The di Resta/Sutil partnership was in effect in 2013 and 2011, with di Resta and Hulkenberg in 2012, Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi in 2010 and Sutil, Liuzzi and Giancarlo Fisichella in 2009. The last time the team carried the same lineup into back-to-back years was when Fisichella and Sutil entered 2009 as teammates after the team’s first year in that guise, in 2008.

Hamilton leads damp first USGP practice at COTA, Hartley debuts

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Lewis Hamilton continued his impressive Formula 1 record at the Circuit of The Americas by topping opening practice for the United States Grand Prix on Friday for Mercedes.

A four-time winner of the USGP at COTA, Hamilton set the pace in damp conditions in first practice after rain hit the Austin area in the lead-up to the start of the session.

After initially venturing out on intermediate tires, Hamilton made the switch to super-softs at the halfway point in FP1, ultimately posting a fastest time of 1:36.335.

Hamilton’s time saw him finish over half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who he could beat to the F1 drivers’ championship at COTA this weekend should results go his way.

Mercedes got two cars into the top three as Valtteri Bottas wound up third in the second W08 car, six-tenths back from Hamilton, while Max Verstappen ended FP1 fourth for Red Bull.

Felipe Massa led Williams into the top 10 with an impressive lap en route to fifth, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was left to lead McLaren’s charge after a hydraulic leak sidelined Fernando Alonso for much of the session, limiting the Spaniard to just four laps in total.

Force India managed to get both its drivers up into the top 10 as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished eighth and ninth respectively, edging out Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. who was P10 in his first appearance for the team.

Brendon Hartley enjoyed his first run-out in Toro Rosso’s STR12 car ahead of his grand prix debut on Sunday, taking P14 overall.

The New Zealander had not driven an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 2012, but put in a solid first display in practice, even though his race hopes are set to be hindered by a grid penalty.

Second practice for the United States Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET today.