Friday saw the first time that the IndyCar field has ever taken to the 2.983-mile, 14-turn road course at Motegi. The series has been coming here since 2003, and before that had hosted an annual CART/Champ Cars race, but that had always been run on the speedway oval at the facility.
With the speedway damaged by the massive March earthquake that devastated the region, IndyCar was faced with the choice of either cancelling or switching to the natural-terrain road circuit instead - and from the sound of post-practice comments on Friday they're very pleased they decided on the switch.
"It's a very, very nice circuit," said Penske's Will Power, who topped the day's timesheets. "It's smooth, flowing. It's one of the nicest circuits we've been to all year. I think it is going to be tough to pass ... Turn 11, after the long backstraight, that's a potential area to pass. Maybe down in Turn 3."
Dario Franchitti was equally taken by the new circuit, even though a switch from oval to road race might end up favouring Power in the championship. "It's a lot of fun to drive. It's challenging. I enjoyed my first session."
Franchitti ended up seventh in the standings on Friday despite topping the times for much of the session, and he confirmed that it was simply because he had opted not to follow the late trend to take fresh tyres. "I think a lot of people ran a second set of tyres. We ran just one set so I'm fairly happy. We'll work hard tonight and see where we come out tomorrow."
Instead, three of the top four spots were held by Penske drivers, who came out running with a point to prove this weekend - none more so than Helio Castroneves, who won the oval race here last year but hadn't won an event since. Despite last year's success on the speedway, even he was happy with the switch to the road circuit.
"It's impressive. The run-off areas are pretty nice. The track is very smooth, especially coming from our last race on a street course," he said after finishing in second place to Power in the Friday practice session. "The corners are long: sometimes we got too hot coming into a corner and it upset the exit, sometimes we were too slow coming in and we had plenty of exit ... We're very lucky that the car came out of the plane with the brakes set up."
Ryan Briscoe was fourth in the timesheets and admitted that he and the team still "have a little work to do to get the most out of the car." But he was another to give thumbs up to the road course: "The Motegi road circuit is very nice, but it's very slippery out there. I'm sure the track will grip up and we have a bit left in the car so tomorrow should be good."
The only driver to break up the Penske dominance at the top of the timesheets was Newman/Haas driver James Hinchcliffe, who revealed how he had prepared for this unknown challenge: "Now I can justify to my girlfriend why I was in the basement on PlayStation for three days!