It was very hot (into the 90s) and also very humid at Motegi for the 75-minute first IndyCar practice session on the 2.983-mile, 14-turn clockwise natural-terrain road course. With Motegi presenting the longest circuit of the year, few people had problems finding space to work with or had issues falling over traffic for once.
Dario Franchitti and Will Power settled into the top two spots after initial runs during the first half an hour, with a time of 1:40.4652s for Dario setting the benchmark at this point. Ryan Hunter-Reay in third was the only other driver to set an early time under 1:41 and he expressed surprise that he had, saying that he felt the car was more like a P20 given how much it was sliding around with balance and understeer issues affecting the rear end.
It was not until 18 minutes to go that Dario Franchitti finally improved on his earlier best time with a 1:40.3108s. Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon all bumped Will Power down (to sixth), at which point many teams switched to new tyres for ten minutes of fast lap attempts which began with James Hinchcliffe going top with 1:39.8531s and Alex Tagliani jumping into second
The final five minutes saw many new fastest laps posted on the timesheets, and when the dust settled it was Penske duo Will Power and Helio Castroneves who popped in ahead of Hinchcliffe, the only three cars under the 100s mark for the session with Ryan Briscoe next up in fourth with 1:40.1887s as the chequered flag came out to end Friday's proceedings.
That left Dario Franchitti in seventh, just two hundredths of a second ahead of 2010 Formula Nippon champion Joao Paulo de Oliveira who is making his first IndyCar appearance, but on a road course that unlike the rest of the field he knows very well indeed - having won here last year.
The times are still some way off de Oliveira's most recent Formula Nippon pole position lap of 1:35.012s, but that series has cars designed specifically for road courses while the current ageing IndyCar chassis was originally intended for ovals-only. A new chassis is being introduced in 2012 and is currently undergoing testing in the States in the hands of Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport.
There were no full course cautions. The track remained green despite an early spin out of turn 14 onto the frontstraight by Alex Tagliani, and James Jakes overcooking his run into turn 1 and going off into the sand trap midway through which was also handled under waved yellows. There was a minor spin in the closing minutes for Giorgio Pantano, and Will Power and Scott Dixon both struggled to make it into turn 1 after their final flying laps and Power ran off, triggering brief local yellows.
The usual pattern for the first practice session of a race weekend is to give rookies and those outside the top ten the run of the track for the first 45 minutes with the top drivers only joining the fray for the last half hour, but there was no split session today as the track was new for everyone.
There are two further practice sessions planned for Saturday at 9am and midday local time before qualifying at 3pm (7am BST).
Full Friday practice times
and positions available.