Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2012 season on-track preparations finally got underway on Monday, with Takuma Sato taking the team's #15 Dallara-Honda car out on track for the first time at Barber Motorsports Park.
After completing 38 laps of the 2.38-mile, 17-turn scenic road course, Sato was reported to be within 0.1s of the 2011 pole position time of 1:11.4546s despite cold conditions in Alabama, confirming that the new-specification 2012 IndyCar Safety Cell chassis, named the DW12, is looking significantly faster on road courses than its predecessor.
"It was a good start, especially since it was our very first day," said Sato. "I am pleased to see the car runs straight away and we were able to check that every function is working - Barber is a very challenging track."
Team boss Bobby Rahal was also happy and more than a little relieved with how things went as well: "I'm very pleased with how today went," he said. "The car ran well and Takuma did a very good job for his first time out in the car. It's a good start."
"It was a little bit of a slow start since the car was just shook down but I think that is natural," said Sato of his day at the office. Although the former F1 driver had an initial taste of the new car during the engine tests in December, this is his first run in the car set up by his new team.
"Although I had a taste of the 2012 car at Sebring in December, there are quite different characteristics on this circuit," Sato explained. "It seems that we adapted quickly and I am happy with the basic setup. There is a lot of work to do but we will go over the data tonight and continue to work on it tomorrow."
Other cars at Barber for the two-day test include Ganassi quartet Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball; Dale Coyne Racing's British pairing of Justin Wilson and James Jakes; Penske's Helio Castroneves and Will Power; AJ Foyt Racing's Mike Conway; and Simon Pagenaud, debuting for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Will Power was reported to be quickest of all at the end of the day with an estimated time of 1:11.2s. His main rival in the series, Dario Franchitti, ended his day early when he ran off at high speed in turn 1, while Franchitti's team mate Scott Dixon was hampered by some early glitches and then a delay while the car was fitted with Dallara's new suspension package designed to tackle the excess rear-balance issues that earlier testing sessions had revealed. James Jakes' day was also curtailed when Honda mandated a precautionary engine change for his car.
Also seen in the paddock at Barber was 2011 GP2 runner-up Luca Filippi, who has been linked with a second seat at RLL
alongside Takuma Sato, providing that the financial backing for the team works out as Bobby Rahal hopes.