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.
"The car was really fast and P2 today shows all the hard work the Team Penske and Chevrolet guys have put in over the offseason," the Brazilian IndyCar veteran continued. "The grip was incredible and the close times today show how competitive the racing will be this year. Hopefully tomorrow is another good day so we can keep getting ready for St. Pete."
As well as topping the timesheets on day 1 at Barber, Penske was also celebrating the return of a former team sponsor to the fold - and hoping that it was a good sign of things to come in 2013.
"I'm really excited to introduce Quicken Loans back to Team Penske," said team president Tim Cindric. "They were a team partner back in 2003 and 2004, and, in fact, the first race that they were on the car in 2003 we ran 1-2 at Indy. We hope to bring that back to the organisation!"
Power and Castroneves weren't the only ones to be going fast at Barber: in fact, 20 of the 26 drivers at work on Tuesday ended up within a second of the top time, and fully 25 of them posted times quicker than the official track record.
"The work that was done during the year last year and also engine work with the engine manufacturers," was Power's explanation for why times were so much faster this visit. "And it's a little cooler, which helps turbo and it helps grip. It's just a very fast situation."
"When the offseason is so long, our speed bottles up!" joked Andretti Autosports' James Hinchcliffe, who was the third-fastest runner on Tuesday, making it an all-Chevrolet top three on the end-of-day timesheets.
Surprisingly, Mike Conway was the fastest of the Honda-powered runners for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Conway caused a stir at the end of 2012 by deciding he no longer wanted to race on ovals, but RLL have handed him a one-off seat for the Long Beach street race - an event he won in 2011.
"Today was about getting comfortable in a car, working with the guys and seeing how they work and getting myself dialled in for Long Beach," said the British racer. "I think we got through a lot of stuff, and hopefully helped the guys out for tomorrow."
Conway will not be testing for the second of the two-day test session at Barber and instead will be handing over the #16 car to his compatriot James Jakes, while Graham Rahal will continue in the team's #15.
"Hopefully he'll like some of the things we got through today and be quick out of the box," said Conway. "Productive day and I think Graham and I got through quite a bit of work, so when the team comes back for the race weekend they will be strong."
EJ Viso and Simona de Silvestro had good days with their new teams (Andretti-HVM and KV Racing respectively), and Oriol Servia was also on the pace in seventh place for the day putting him ahead of the next-fastest Honda runner, Ganassi's Scott Dixon. The top ten was rounded out by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden and Schmidt-Peterson's Simon Pagenaud.
Further back, AJ Allmendinger was making progress in his first on-track appearance since it was confirmed that Penske would be fielding him in this year's Indianapolis 500 event in May, as well as a 'warm-up' in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama held here at Barber the previous month.
"Today was another positive step in the learning process, and I thought the #2 IZOD Team Penske Chevrolet showed some good speed," said the former NASCAR Sprint Cup and Champ Car World Series regular. "We need as many laps as we can get but my team mates are being great about sharing information to accelerate the learning curve and I am excited to see what we can get done tomorrow."
Ana Beatriz was also back in action over at Dale Coyne Racing alongside Justin Wilson, as she prepares for an expected but as-yet unconfirmed partial season with the team in the oval events, plus an outing in her native Brazil in the Sao Paulo race.
"It was good to be back in the car, I'd like to thank Dale for the opportunity," she said. Beatriz finished at the bottom of the timesheets, but that was because her track time was limited. "Unfortunately, we had some mechanical problems, so I didn't get to run as much as I'd like to. I wish I had more time, but it was a good to get back in a car."
Beatriz won't have the chance to get back behind the wheel on Wednesday, either, as the #18 is being turned over to Stefan Wilson, last year's third-place finisher in the Firestone Indy Lights championship - and also Justin's younger brother.
"I'm looking forward to it, it will fun seeing him out there," said Justin of the prospect of being team mates for the day with Stefan. "We have a lot work to do, it's going to be a steep learning curve from him. But we'll push on and see how it goes."
Justin said that it would be a first for the brothers to actually be team mates, at least at this level. ""We did a go-kart event where we spent about five minutes on the track at the same time. That's it."
Whether Stefan gets a shot at a race start in the 2013 IndyCar season is still to be confirmed, but if the deal comes together than the younger Wilson could be taking the #18 for the remaining road courses other than Brazil.See full Tuesday test times