Alonso fastest in first practice for Chinese GP

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Fernando Alonso finished fastest in today’s first practice session for this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix as Ferrari began life after Stefano Domenicali in good fashion.

The Spanish driver finished over three-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg as the Silver Arrows opted to limit their running in order to save some tires. Daniel Ricciardo was the leading Red Bull in third place, whilst Lewis Hamilton suffered a problem on his car late on that meant he could only finish down in eighth place.

Practice began in cool and dry conditions at the Shanghai International Circuit on Friday morning, but the heat was immediately on at Ferrari as the team had to repair the steering rack on Kimi Raikkonen’s car, costing him precious track time. The arrival of new team principal Marco Mattiacci in the garage also turned a few heads as the Italian remained behind his dark sunglasses, but it did not have an immediate impact as the Finn was unable to post a time during the session.

Out on track, Pastor Maldonado spun his Lotus early on after taking his eyes off the road mid-corner to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. However, the Venezuelan was able to recover and get his car going again.

With the new rules giving teams a free set of tires to use during the first 30 minutes of FP1, most of the teams got their drivers out early to post a lap time during this part of the session. Unsurprisingly, Mercedes once again set the pace as Nico Rosberg was the quickest driver in the first set of runs, but the team’s one-two streak from Bahrain was interrupted to begin with by Fernando Alonso, who sat in second place ahead of Lewis Hamilton after the first runs.

A low track temperature forced most teams to sit in the pits for some time after the first 30 minutes of the session. Lotus did send out Romain Grosjean for a long run in order to gather some data given the teams problematic start to the season. Daniil Kvyat’s inexperience showed when he ran wide at the tricky first corner and spun his rear wheels into the gravel. However, he managed to keep the engine running and get the car going again, although another spin late on would have given the Russian driver some food for thought.

With 40 minutes to go, most of the teams headed back out on track to complete some more running. Fernando Alonso was able to top Rosberg’s time and moved into P1 by over one second, and Daniel Ricciardo followed suit to go P2. The Mercedes drivers opted not to head out for another run alongside the other teams, with Hamilton instead completing an outlap before heading back to the pits.

In the final 20 minutes, the focus shifted to race simulations and long runs, meaning that the times remained largely unchanged. Rosberg did wind up his Mercedes to post a quick lap and jump up into second place, but he could not continue the team’s series of first place finishes from Bahrain. This meant that Alonso – who won last year’s race in Shanghai – began his weekend in the best possible fashion, and gave Mattiacci something to smile about on his first day on the job.

Be sure to tune into second practice live on on NBCSN from 2am ET.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).