Alonso fastest in first practice for Australian GP

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Fernando Alonso has started the 2014 Formula 1 season in the best possible fashion by finishing fastest during the first practice session for the Australian Grand Prix today.

The Spanish driver managed to see off the challenge of McLaren’s Jenson Button and both Williams drivers to finish on top of the timesheets as Mercedes and Red Bull both encountered problems during the opening session of the season.

Formula 1’s new era got underway in typically sunny conditions in Australia with Alonso being the first driver out on track. He was joined by a number of other drivers for an installation lap, but some had to bide their time, including Sebastian Vettel as Red Bull worked on his car.

However, the session was soon interrupted when Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes came to a halt on track after just five minutes, appearing to confirm the reliability concerns that had been raised throughout the winter. The W05 was craned away a few minutes later, allowing the session to continue after a yellow flag period. The team later confirmed that a sensor shut down the car, and it was not a problem with the power unit.

Despite Red Bull’s problems, Daniel Ricciardo was the first driver to post a lap time, setting an early benchmark of 1:37.290, and he was soon followed by McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen who was around half a second off with his first lap. A number of other drivers came out and posted a lap time inside the first 30 minutes of the session, with Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg trading fastest lap times. As the drivers sought the limit of their cars, a number of mistakes were made. Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat both had sideways moments, whilst Sergio Perez very nearly spun his Force India at turn three.

Thanks to the new rules in 2014, all drivers have an extra set of tires to use in the first half an hour of the session, meaning that there was a great amount of on-track action to kick-start the new era of Formula 1. However, at the end of this period, there was a lull on track as teams took a second to regroup and prepare for the final hour of the session.

Jenson Button and Esteban Gutierrez both looked to set some fast laps at the halfway point during the session, and the British driver managed to move to the top of the timesheets with a lap of 1:32.357. After a disastrous 2013 season, McLaren began 2014 in good fashion with Button leading the way. However, Caterham’s year got off to a bad start as both Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson were forced to sit out due to problems with the CT-05 car.

With 40 minutes to go, defending world champion Sebastian Vettel finally got out on track for the first time after a lengthy rebuild by the Red Bull team. However, he only completed an installation lap before returning to the pits. At Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso, Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat kicked up some grass after running wide, but he was able to continue. Teammate Jean-Eric Vergne also made a mistake at turn one, lamenting his lack of experience with the new brake-by-wire system over the radio.

Felipe Massa, running in his first official session for Williams, soon began to show his pace by popping up into second place with around 30 minutes remaining. Former teammate Fernando Alonso soon returned to the top of the timesheets though, wrestling P1 away from Button by going half a second quicker than the McLaren. Marussia’s Max Chilton managed to come out and post a lap time in the final half an hour of the session, although he did hit a trolley in his pit box on entry.

Towards the end of the session, the drivers began to focus on their long runs with heavy fuel, meaning that the times remained relatively unchanged. Lotus managed to send its drivers out during the final ten minutes of the session, but Pastor Maldonado suffered a problem with his car that saw him take a trip through the gravel before returning to the pits without any power.

Come the end of the session, none of the drivers could better Alonso’s time, giving Ferrari a great start to the season as its rivals faltered. However, with this being just the first session of the year, it remains to be seen who will be the man to beat come race-day.

Free Practice 2 begins at 1:30am ET and is live on NBCSN and Live Extra.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Remaining part-time drivers

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MotorSportsTalk wraps up its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the remaining part-time drivers, after the 23 drivers who ran anywhere from six events to the full season.

There were 15 drivers who made four or fewer starts this season. Some overly impressed or drew major headlines in their limited opportunities.

They were, by start count:

  • Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 Juncos Racing Chevrolet, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 4)
  • Gabby Chaves (No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, 3)
  • Oriol Servia (No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 3)
  • Jack Harvey (No. 50 MSR w/Andretti Autosport Honda, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 3)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, 2)
  • Zach Veach (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, No. 40 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, 2)
  • Fernando Alonso (No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti Honda, 1)
  • Pippa Mann (No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Jay Howard (No. 77 Team One Cure/SPM Honda, 1)
  • Sage Karam (No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, 1)
  • James Davison (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Tristan Vautier (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Buddy Lazier (No. 44 Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, 1)
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo (No. 13 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 1)
  • Robert Wickens (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Practice Only)

Going through them, in terms of impact, Alonso’s one-off at the Indianapolis 500 easily resonated loudest. It was incredible to witness the amount of buzz, worldwide support and media attention that Alonso generated, and fueled a running joke that he was the only driver in this year’s race. It was capped off when he beat Ed Jones to race rookie-of-the-year honors, despite losing a Honda engine late while Jones dragged a broken Dale Coyne Racing car to third place.

Elsewhere, Chaves and Harding Racing’s debut was the most unexpected pleasant surprise from a driver and team standpoint. A solid ninth at Indianapolis was followed by an even more impressive fifth at Texas. Their three oval races laid the groundwork for a step-up to a full-time entry in 2018.

Montoya proved he still had it with a pair of top-10s in a fifth Team Penske car. He’ll be in Penske’s Acura prototype sports car program next year and the hope is that we haven’t seen the last of him in IndyCar.

Saavedra re-established himself on the scene after a year-plus hiatus. The likable Colombian overachieved given low expectations with two different teams. Whether it was enough to see him and longtime backer AFS Racing for further races in 2018 is unknown.

Harvey and Veach each came up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee, both rookies in the Indianapolis 500 alongside Alonso and Jones while also getting additional road course starts. Neither of them looked a world-beater in their road course outings owing to tough circumstances, but they logged key laps and miles to build for a brighter future from 2018 and beyond in recently announced multi-year programs (Harvey with Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Veach with Andretti Autosport).

Of the rest, Servia’s results left a bit to be desired, a potential top-five fading in Indy when he and Davison collided to trigger a multi-car pileup. Davison and Vautier impressed in their lone starts of the year with their pace and aggression but were unable to parlay them into results.

Mann made her usual Indy 500 one-off entry and secured her best finish in six starts, but pressed through a challenging month that she’ll be keen to improve upon in 2018. Her day was significantly better than Howard’s and Lazier’s, who both ended their ‘500 bows in the wall, and with Howard having contributed to Scott Dixon’s savage accident when he crashed in Turn 1 and then came into Dixon’s path.

“ZCD” made his debut at Sonoma in a second RLL Racing entry and did rather well, competitive on lap times as the weekend progressed on a track that’s notoriously low-grip. Wickens never got that far. Despite a preseason ride swap with his close friend James Hinchcliffe that reignited his passion for open-wheel after several years, and with Mercedes announcing it would pull the plug on its DTM program after 2018, Wickens got only a practice day at Road America before Mikhail Aleshin sorted his visa issues. The circumstances evolved in Wickens’ favor at season’s end to see him get the second seat for 2018 at SPM after all.