The start of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series was a step nearer on Monday, with all teams and drivers participating in the first day of open testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon left it late to set the fastest time of the day with a lap of 122.702mph (1:07.4805s) in the afternoon, his very last lap of the day putting him a slender 0.0524s faster than Penske new boy Simon Pagenaud on the 2.38-mile, 17-turn permanent road course.
See full open test times from Barber - day 1
Other than Dixon's late arrival at the top of the timesheets, Pagenaud led something of a Penske sweep with his team mates Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves firmly in control of the remaining top five positions by the time the session came to an end.
Pagenaud had earlier topped the times times in the misty morning session with a lap of 122.222mph (1:07.7456s), which had been almost three tenths faster than Dixon. CFH Racing's Josef Newgarden was third fastest, followed by Penske pair Power and Castroneves.
With all cars now fitted with the new bespoke aero kit bodywork components from their respective engine manufacturers, the times are already nearly a full second faster than the times that the drivers set in last year's sprint race at Barber. Power had taken pole with a time of 1:08.3120s and Dixon went on to set the fastest lap of the race with a time of 1:09.2995s.
"It's been a significant change in drivability or how to attack the car with all the downforce," said Dixon. "We're working with balance issues, weight distributions and just trying to feel out some of the changes with the aero kit and the loads changing significantly with the corner speeds.
"All in all, a decent day," he summed up. "We still have plenty to test tomorrow and try to find some extra things for when we come back for the race in April."
Overall, Chevrolet certainly had the best of the day, with Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay the fastest Honda runner in sixth place despite missing out on any morning running. "I'm not close to running flat out in turn 1 and we're still trying to find the balance because nothing from the past here is relevant with these new kits," said the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion.
It was not all good news from Barber on Monday, however. Sage Karam crashed early in misty conditions on Monday morning, going off the track at turn 14 on just his third lap of the session, slamming hard into the barrier in a "huge" near head-on impact. Afterwards Karam was complaining of a sore wrist, but doctors found no fracture and advised the 20-year-old simply to rest it.
"This track is notorious for feeling like you've got a lot of grip when you don't," he said afterwards, explaining that the car had bottomed out going into the flat-out left-hander, with Karam then over-correcting on the still-cold tyres.
The same lucky escape could not be said for Karam's car, with the #8 GE LED Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet reported to have suffered a crack in the basic Dallara safety cell which means he has been ruled out of any further involvement at Barber while a new car is built up.
Other drivers including Helio Castroneves also had off-track moments, with Jack Hawksworth putting his AJ Foyt Racing car into the barrier at turn 4 just past the midway point of the afternoon.
As well as the new aero kits, IndyCar has also been testing new LED displays mounted on either side of the airbox which will be used to show the car's position during a race in real-time throughout a lap rather than just at the start-finish line as is common in other motorsports series.
This project started over a year ago in concept and it really is about how we can get fans more engaged, allow them to see more of what's going on,” explained IndyCar's president of competition and operations Derrick Walker. "If you're not in line of sight of a video screen or a scoring pylon, it's hard to know who's doing what. It was a natural to do the numbering system."
The panels measure eight by seven inches and are just seven millimetres thick, and the brightness of the display will be adjusted according to ambient conditions. As well as showing the car's position, the display will also change colour from red to green when the push-to-pass power boost is being used. The series hopes to introduce the technology in time for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course race on May 9.
The 2015 season itself gets underway on March 27-29 with the street race in St Petersburg, Florida.
Full Barber open test times from day 1