First blood to Hamilton in Malaysian GP practice (VIDEO)

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Lewis Hamilton has finished fastest in the first free practice session for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, underlining the strong pace of the Mercedes car at the beginning of the new season.

The British driver posted a fastest time of 1:40.691 to finish ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and teammate Nico Rosberg as Mercedes excelled once again, whilst Lotus endured another disastrous session at Sepang on Friday.

As we saw in Australia, the opening 30 minutes of the first practice session saw lots of drivers come out early thanks to the allocation of an extra set of tires for 2014, with the installation laps giving them the first chance to see how their cars are running. Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to post a time after 15 minutes, and he was soon followed by Williams’ Valtteri Bottas among others.

After 30 minutes of running, Fernando Alonso sat at the top of the timesheets ahead of Kevin Magnussen, but the session was interrupted after Romain Grosjean’s Lotus stopped out on track. Thanks to some swift work from the marshals, the car was wheeled away safely under waved yellow flags, meaning that the session did not have to be red flagged.

Adrian Sutil also had a slight moment at pit entry as he spun his car through the gravel, but the German driver managed to keep his Sauber going and make it back to his garage. Having set an initial lap time and completed some set-up work, most of the drivers returned to the pits to talk to their engineers, leaving the track quiet at around the half-way point in the session.

With 40 minutes to go, a number of drivers got back out on track as Magnussen and Jean-Eric Vergne moved ahead of Alonso at the top of the standings whilst Kimi Raikkonen and Marcus Ericsson spun their cars, proving just how difficult the new cars area to handle. Having remained in the pits for much of the session, Sebastian Vettel finally posted his first lap time, albeit a slow one to leave him down in 16th place. He did improve a few laps later to move up into seventh place.

After setting the pace during the session, Magnussen’s day took a turn for the worse as his car came to a halt at pit entry, but he was able to get pushed by the marshals back to his garage.

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen took advantage of Magnussen’s setback to go fastest whilst teammate Fernando Alonso tested the limits of his car by spinning his car. Raikkonen’s sojourn in P1 lasted a matter of seconds as Lewis Hamilton went fastest of all, proving Mercedes’ pace with half an hour to go.

Pastor Maldonado finally made his way out onto the track with 20 minutes to go, but it lasted barely a lap as the car began to spew plumes of smoke from its engine. The E22 car eventually came to a halt at pit entry as Lotus once again struggled during practice with both cars.

In the final few minutes of the session, all of the drivers opted to focus on longer runs, meaning that the times remained relatively unchanged. However, with one minute to go, Hamilton took a trip through the gravel after making a mistake, proving that the Briton – despite being fastest – is by no means infallible.

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.