It was always expected that the introduction of the new chassis and engine specifications for 2012 would shake things up a little and leave some teams struggling while allowing others to take advantage to leap forward - and that's exactly what happened in qualifying on Saturday.
Even so, the sight of reigning four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti down in 18th place on the grid for Sunday's Honda Indy Grand prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park is a bit of a shock. The Scot struggled to optimise his set-up and locked up pushing too hard on his final flying lap of round 1, finding himself left outside the top six positions that went through to round 2.
"Lack of balance overall really," he summed up. “Lack of track time too - and we haven't been great so far." Being in a particularly tough round 1 group hadn't helped either, but Franchitti wasn't making excuses. "Not where we want to be but we'll go back and work on it."
At least his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon made it through that round and indeed all the way into the final Firestone Fast Six pole shoot-out. But in the end, Dixon's best lap wasn't enough to oust Penske's Helio Castroneves from pole position.
“It's a great result,” said a delighted Castroneves. "It's better to be lucky than good, and so far, it's paying off."
Starting alongside Castroneves on the front row will be Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 Rookie of the Year so far easily managing to avoid the year two doldrums that some drivers struggle with, and instead showing increasingly strong pace.
"Obviously a great start for us to be on the outside of the front row. It's my best start and it's a great result after the way practice went yesterday," said the Canadian. "I knew we had good tires for the run and the pole. To miss it by half a tenth is just gutting, but it's a great start for us."
Castroneves and Hinchcliffe were easily the best-positioned drivers of their respective teams, with Penske's Will Power looking faster than anyone in round 2 but then getting caught out by a late red flag caused by Ryan Hunter-Reay spinning in turn 9.
"It's a pretty frustrating qualifying result," admitted Power. "I know IndyCar threw the red flag there but I'm not sure why they didn't allow our fast lap. It's definitely going to be tough starting ninth tomorrow, but we know we've got a fast car. We have to have a good start and be strong on the restarts and hopefully work our way up front."
"I got too greedy," explained Hunter-Reay of this accident that triggered the red flag. “It's completely my fault. There's a fine line between hero and zero in qualifying.”
The red flag meant that Hunter-Reay had his times deleted for bringing out the caution, while Power's final flying lap (easily the fastest of the session) was incomplete and discounted from the time sheets. The final member of the Penske trio, Ryan Briscoe, was hit by clutch control issues and was unable to set a time in round 2, while the third Andretti driver - Marco - narrowly failed to progress from his round 1 group.
"We had a good first session and felt really good heading into the second round of qualifying with the #2 Hitachi car," said Briscoe. "We just had a problem with the clutch control unit and first gear. We could get it in first gear but the car wouldn't actually leave the gear. It's pretty disappointing because I really felt we had a car that was capable of winning the pole."
The stuttering performance of so many of the big names gave a chance for some strong showings for the so-called "little" team, such as Mike Conway putting the AJ Foyt Racing car onto the third row of the grid for Sunday alongside Scott Dixon.
"First time we've been in the Fast Six!" said a delighted Conway. "We made some changes overnight and they were good today. I just want to keep up all the good work and keep it up at the front."
Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand will starting behind Dixon and Conway, alongside KV Racing's Tony Kanaan who opted to pursue a tyre strategy and stay on the harder compound 'black-wall' tyres for the final Firestone Fast Six round and save the softer 'red-wall' tyres for the race.
“We went out, we knew we were going to be sixth at the time to save the reds for tomorrow," confirmed Kanaan. "I think warm-up tomorrow will be quite busy because everyone is going to be trying to figure out what to do for the race - we actually used the Firestone Fast Six this morning to start doing that, which helped me to get ahead of the game."
Earlier in the morning, the drivers lost their Saturday morning practice session because of heavy fog in the area delaying the arrival of the medical helicopter. With a packed schedule of support events, the session could not be extended and so the cars barely got in an installation lap before the chequered flag came out - which particularly hurt new drivers such as Rubens Barrichello who needed the track familiarisation time more than most.
"Oh, well. Once again I missed the next round by one thousand of a second," he lamented. "I wasn't able to run the morning session because of the fog and track time is so valuable for me, but no excuse, I have to get better and I will."
See also:Full qualifying times
and group/round summariesStarting grid positions
for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama