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.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.