After a long lay-off over the winter, the Verizon IndyCar Series finally gets back to racing this weekend, with Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal topping the Friday practice times for the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg in Florida.
The Japanese driver posted a best time of 1:02.5615s (103.578mph) in the afternoon on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, putting the AJ Foyt Racing #14 just 0.0502s ahead of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Graham Rahal.
"I am very excited to back in St Petersburg, and excited to be on track," said Sato. "The car worked really well, and we made good progress during this session. I am happy with the balance and the boys and the team worked really well today. Let's hope this continues and we will work on speed for tomorrow."
For Rahal, it was a particular accomplishment to place so highly so early in the weekend's track action, given that the team's transporter had caught fire earlier in the week while on route to St Pete from the RLL headquarters at Brownsburg, Indiana.
"Overall for our first day out I think it was a great day. For us to be that competitive right off the bat feels awesome," he said. "It was only 48, maybe 72 hours ago that we had a big trailer fire and our guys did an incredible job getting everything switched back over in Indy.
"It was a rush, it was absolutely a rush to get down here," he added. "I am proud of them and as dad [team co-owner Bobby Rahal] said last night to them, 'Through adversity comes a team' - and I think we have a great group of people and I think that is going to show this year."
After that Honda 1-2 at the top of the times, Will Power was the highest-placed Chevrolet driver in third just ahead of his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves. By contrast, the third member of the team - former F1 and NASCAR star Juan Pablo Montoya - was down in 19th place nine-tenths off the top time for the day, as the Colombian did his best to get to get to grips with the tricky street course.
"Not a bad day today with the #2 Verizon Chevy," he insisted. "Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process. This is my first time on this circuit so we had to guess a little bit on the setups - unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off.
"In the second sessions we picked up a big understeer," he added. "At that point we really quit focusing on speed and just tried to get the car driving better. I learned quickly that there are places on the track where the penalty of missing it is much greater than the gain, so from a track-learning perspective I'm much better off than I was when I got here."
Montoya, like most of the drivers, was faster in the afternoon session, but that wasn't the case for either James Hinchcliffe or Justin Wilson, the two men who had paced the morning run.
"I'm a little frustrated that we lost a bit of performance there in the second session," admitted Wilson. "We just lost a little bit and we didn't put tyres on the whole session. We started on used tyres and ran on them the whole time, but I think we are better than that. I'd like to think we can get into the top ten, we just have to try to get a bit more front grip out of it. The front feels pretty light everywhere so we'll just keep working on it and try a few things overnight and come back tomorrow."
"Good first day, honestly," insisted Hinchcliffe, blaming the overcast conditions in the latter session for failing to make further progress. "The second session was a little bit of a toss-up with the weather the way it was. We maybe didn't get as good of read as we would have liked but, at the end of the day, we weren't going the be the guys that did something silly and put the car into the wall trying to win practice."
In total, there were four incidents that produced red flags during the day, the first being for Sebastien Bourdais going off-course in turn 4 and and needing retrieval during the morning session. In the afternoon there were further stoppages for Bourdais' KVSH Racing team mate Sebastian Saavedra who went off at turn 10, and then for Josef Newgarden who spun the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing #67 into the runoff at turn 4 with an apparent steering issue under braking.
The final red flag was for rookie driver Jack Hawksworth, who hit the tyre barrier at turn 12 in the #98 Bryan Herta Autosport car. The Briton finished his first day in the IndyCar Series in an impressive 11th place in the times.
Also appearing in his first IndyCar session on Friday was 22-year-old Colombian Carlos Huertas was only confirmed on Thursday as the driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing car. Understandably given his late call-up, Huertas was the slowest man on track on Friday as he worked to acclimatise himself to his new surroundings.
"I was just learning the circuit and the car," he agreed. "I didn't get a lot of laps in the morning so it was good that it was dry because the race should be dry. I only ran one set of tires so I don't think it was that bad."
Saturday morning sees a further 45-minute practice session for all drivers followed by afternoon qualifying for the race using the now-familiar elimination round format for street and road courses. The race itself is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.