On a sunny, warm and dry day in California, Team Penske had no trouble finishing on top of the timesheets after Friday's practice sessions. Reigning series champion Will Power once again led the way to a dominant team display that will make Penske hard to beat come Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the third round of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
Power's best lap of the day on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course was 1:07.5485s (104.885mph), already quicker than last year's pole time of 1:07.8219s time set by Ryan Hunter-Reay, and closing in on the all-time open wheel lap record of 1:06.886s set by Sebastien Bourdais back in the days of the Champ Car World Series in 2006.
“A lot of cars were running and laying rubber, but with the new aero kits and everything the cars were just faster," said Power, who has won at Long Beach twice in 2008 and 2012 and who was runner-up 12 months ago. "It's always super tight around here when it gets to qualifying. The top six are usually separated by about a tenth and a half or something."
CLICK: Full combined Friday practice times from Long Beach
The four Penske drivers actually weren't actually the quickest off the blocks on Friday, and in the first 45-minute practice session that commenced just after midday it was Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan who were able to secure a strong 1-2 start to the weekend for Chip Ganassi Racing, with Dixon setting a top time of 1:08.6458s (103.208mph) putting him 0.1618s ahead of his team mate.
Behind the Ganassi duo, Andretti Autosport's Hunter-Reay also got Honda's weekend off to a decent start with the third fastest time in the same session, with Penske pair Pagenaud and Power relegated to fourth and fifth ahead of Sebastien Bourdais in the KVSH Racing car rounding out the top six.
However in the later session is was emphatically back to business as normal as far as Penske were concerned, Power fastest with his best lap of the day a little under four hundredths of a second quicker than that of Pagenaud in second. Helio Castroneves made it a top three lock-out for the team with Dixon narrowly able to finish in fourth just 0.0868s ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya to stave off a complete 1-2-3-4 rout for Roger Penske's squad.
The top Honda runner in the second session was Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Graham Rahal in seventh place, with Hunter-Reay dropping down to ninth position just ahead of his team mate Marco Andretti, and ahead of Bourdais in eighth.
"We had a pretty good day going," said Hunter-Reay after practice had ended for the day. "We didn't get a lap on our last new set of tyres so hopefully we'll be saving that for tomorrow. We're making some strides. This is the position we were in last year after day one of practice."
"Obviously I'm disappointed, we are not where we want to be or thought we would be," said Bourdais, admitting that the KVSH team now had a lot of work ahead of them. "We have to sit down and review all the date, keep our noses to the grindstone and keep working hard. The good news is we have another practice session tomorrow before qualifying and I am confident we will come up with something to make the car faster."
It was a very solid start in the circumstances for new Dale Coyne Racing recruit Rocky Moran Jr who replaced Carlos Huertas in the team's #18 entry. Despite a complete lack of seat time in the car prior to this weekend he nonetheless finished 1.2725s faster in first practice than his team mate Francesco Dracone who has already had two race outings in the car so far in 2015.
"After a very difficult weekend in New Orleans it has been pretty hard to be back with the team and get my head straight with the tricky circumstances," admitted Dracone, who received a heavy fine and six-race probation after knocking over his chief mechanic with a spin in pit lane during last week's race. "I have to admit that I'm a bit over-concerned after what happened.
"It is taking a bit longer than my expectations to get back up to speed and be consistent coming into the pits," he said. "On top of that, this track is very tricky being here for the first time. It is very narrow compared to what I'm used to. It is very bumpy and pretty technical. There are a lot of places where you can make mistakes. It seems to be especially important to have a good setup and have the shocks set up perfectly because of the bumps. I'm going to give it my best tomorrow and see what happens."
After his promising start in the first session, Moran also hit problems in second practice when he went into the wall in turn 1 following contact with Andretti's Carlos Munoz to bring out the first and only red flag stoppage of the day just before the midway point. As a result, Moran ran fewer laps than anyone else in practice 2 and was the only driver not to improve on his earlier time although he still ended the day over a tenth and a half faster than Dracone.
In total, 18 of the 23 drivers competing at Long Beach this week were within a second of Power's benchmark time at the end of the first day. Of the five who finished outside that psychological milestone, the only Chevrolet-power car was that of series rookie Luca Filippi in the CFH Racing #20 - the car that won this event last year with Mike Conway at the helm.
"It was a tough day for us, we had a lot to learn," admitted the GP2 graduate. "From the set up point of view, we're still exploring this new aero kit and working towards the best drivability for me. We are not where we wanted to be in terms of lap times, but [team mate] Josef [Newgarden] proved that our car can be fast. The pack is so tight, tomorrow is going to be very tough qualifying. It will be important to have a fast lap to be able start at the front."
The drivers still have another 45-minute practice session ahead of them on Saturday morning at 10am local time (6pm BST) to fine tune their cars ahead of qualifying, which will get underway at 2pm (10pm BST). There will be an additional half hour warm-up session on Sunday morning ahead of the race itself which gets the green flag just after 1.30pm (9.30pm BST).
Away from the track itself, IndyCar announced on Friday that it was mandating immediate further changes to the aero kits provided by Chevrolet and Honda to their respective teams in the series.
The series had already directed the manufacturers to carry out structural upgrades to the components to make them more robust under contact, after multiple cautions for debris at the season opener at St Peterburg - and one incident where a fan was struck on the head by a piece of flying bodywork dislodged from a car early in the race.
"This process will be ongoing as IndyCar is committed to delivering an entertaining on-track product throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series season," the official announcement from series officials said.
This week, race officials said that they were requiring two further specific changes to the bodywork in advance of Sunday's race. Chevrolet has beenordered to add a tether to the winglets, or remove the winglets, from its front wing assembly, while Honda has been directed to implement additional reinforcements to its rear wheel guards.
"We applied an additional layer of carbon in a couple of spots to further strengthen the parts, and those made their debut at NOLA," explained Bourdais, whose car sports the Chevy aero kit package. "I'm pleased with how it turned out. We had a number of instances of car-to-car contact during that race and we did not have a single instance of parts coming off the car.
"That fix worked well and IndyCar was pleased with what they say from that race," Bourdais added. "If all goes well at Long Beach, our plan is to essentially take that strength as a benchmark and make the original shape with that new strength level for replacement parts."
See full practice 1 times from Long Beach
See full practice 2 times from Long Beach
See combined Friday practice times from Long Beach