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.
After RLL concludes its testing at Barber on Tuesday, the team then relocates to Florida for further testing at Sebring International Raceway on Thursday and Friday. They'll be joined there once again by the Ganassi line-up and by Pagenaud, and also by Lotus Dreyer & Reinbold's new signing Oriol Servia and by Simona de Silvestro in the Lotus HVM Racing #78 car.
Meanwhile Bryan Herta Autosport had a less successful first day of it at the much-anticipated oval test session scheduled for the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval with driver Alex Tagliani, whose last test was in an engine development car on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course at the start of the year.
"[They] worked hard today to dry the weepers, from the 5" of rain they got here on Saturday," reported Tagliani via Twitter, but in the end the track didn't try sufficiently to allow him to complete anything more than a few installation laps before they had to call it a day.
BHA will try to get some running in on Tuesday instead. Penske's Ryan Briscoe and KV Racing Technology's Tony Kanaan are also due to take part in Tuesday's test session at Texas, which will be concentrating on finalising the oval-specification aero kit for the car for 2012.
"We're going to Texas to make sure of and define what specification we should run the car in aerodynamically," confirmed IndyCar vice president of technology Will Phillips, who said that the series organisers also wanted to see what effect the most recent set of changes to the suspension of the car by manufacturers Dallara was having on the performance and handling of the DW12.
"The intention is to run the cars in similar configurations," Philips told IndyCar.com
. "They'll have different setups because I'm not specifying a setup, but similar aerodynamic specification and then step through an agreed program with all three groups."
KV Racing Technology are also scheduled to take part in testing at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California this weekend, with EJ Viso running alongside potential new recruit Rubens Barrichello
. Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay will also be testing at Infineon, which will be open to the public for free.
"Infineon is one of the most challenging places to test and develop a car," said Viso, who was delighted by the chance to get some quality track time there. "It's a great decision. We pretty have much everything in that track."
There has been no further news about Barrichello formally signing for the team, but KV are still keen to tap into the Brazilian's two decades of F1 development experience to help them get the jump on their IndyCar competitors in the new specification cars.