Team Penske's Will Power was flying at Barber Motorsports Park on Tuesday, on the first of two days of official IZOD IndyCar Series pre-season testing - the final track time the teams will get before the season starts with the first race on March 24 at St Petersburg.
Power set a new unofficial track record for the 2.38-mile, 17-turn road course with a time of 1:07.8625s after the lunch break. His team mate Helio Castroneves was second fastest for the day with a time of 1:07.9388s, just 0.0763s back.
"The car is incredibly hooked up here ... I've never felt so much grip in this car," said Power, looking energised after a lay-off lasting nearly six months since the 2012 season finale at Fontana. "Penske one-two: it's only the first day of testing, but that shows that we worked hard in the winter."
Power was looking good this time last year, too, but his season didn't go according to plan. He lost out on a shot at a maiden Indianapolis 500 win when he was crashed into by Mike Conway, and his championship hopes ended in heartbreak at Fontana when an early crash there allowed Ryan Hunter-Reay to pip him to the title.
"As a team we're very determined to kick a couple of boxes this year: the Indy 500 and the championship are absolutely top of the list," said Power. "We expect to get be fighting for the first few races for sure."
But he was cautious not to talk up his and Penske's hopes based on their performance in this test session.
"It's important to test here to race here [but] it's not really relevant anywhere else because it's a pretty unique track," he pointed out. "We'll get as much as we can out of testing here and when we go to St. Pete it's very different. Very different track, very bumpy and different tyres. We've got to prepare for that, too."
Barber Motorsports Park track manager Mark Whitt explained that the surface of the circuit had been 'polished' in order to prolong its working life.
“It runs like a diamond-bladed polisher horizontal with the surface of the racetrack and takes the aggregate back down to the base," Whitt described the grinding process. "We've been running 10 years so the aggregate gets exposed. We ground the aggregate to get it back down to the base, which makes a smoother surface but more grippy surface."
The extra speed had certainly gone down well with the drivers, and Castroneves was as excited as his team mate about being back in harness at long last. "Wow, it was fun to get back out there today," he said.