Scott Dixon set the pace on a grey Saturday morning at Barber Motorsports Park in the first practice session of the weekend for the Honda Indy Grand Prix Of Alabama.
The Ganassi driver set a time of 1:07.7754s (122.168mph) on the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, one second off his 2013 track qualifying lap record of 1:06.7750s (123.999mph) but already faster than Will Power's 2014 pole time of 1:08.3120s.
CLICK: Full practice 1 times from Barber Motorsports Park
Dixon earned his 36th career victory last weekend on the streets of Long Beach, in California, and has been the runner-up here at Barber on four consecutive occasions in the past and was third in 2013.
The weather had always been expected to be a factor at Barber Motor Sportspark on Saturday, although the forecasts are significantly better for race day. Fortunately the early morning rain on Saturday abated shortly before the scheduled 9am start time for the first one-hour practice of the weekend, and while there was a delay lasting nine minutes while the track was made ready the session was soon underway.
Race control had declared the session officially a dry one. While any standing water had been cleared off the racing line, that wasn't to say that the track wasn't still damp off the racing line and as a result there were few immediate takers when the green flag came out, as everyone decided not to be the guinea pig who ends up in a tyre wall first thing, especially as all the teams had been at Barber just last month to test the new road/street and short oval aerodynamic bodywork packages on March 16-17.
Eventually activity did pick up, with several of the Honda teams including Andretti Autosport, AJ Foyt Racing and Dale Coyne Racing decided that it would be a good idea to take advantage of the clear track to get some early running in. Takuma Sato soon et the early pace with a lap of 1:08.7163s putting him narrowly ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti in the early standings.
With no one running into any significant trouble during that first half hour - Sato's AJ Foyt team mate Jack Hawksworth went for a quick spin early on but was soon back up and running with no harm, no foul - the rest of the teams duly deemed it safe to come out of play and the final 20 minutes proved to be a much livelier affair.
By the time the chequered flag came out, Ganassi's Scott Dixon held a surprisingly comfortable 0.2175s margin over Penske's Will Power, while GP2 graduate Luca Filippi impressed for CFH Racing by going third fastest just 0.0676s behind the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Simon Pagenaud (Penske), Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing) and Helio Castroneves (Penske again) made up the rest of the top six, after which there were four Honda cars consisting of Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Andretti Autosport pair Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Sato rounding out the top ten rounding out the session just under a second off Dixon's best pace.
“You will always need mechanical grip, but the track surface is smooth and very fast so it is quite an aero-dominant track,” explained Sato of the challenge facing the drivers this weekend. "Barber is the type of track that you go fast with a more aero-efficient car.
"Even though you have more downforce now, following the other cars is not necessarily easy. In fact, it's pretty hard because all the wings and bodywork are more aero-efficient so any turbulence upsets the airflow, which means you lose downforce. Having said that, Honda designed the bodywork [to] minimise the effect of losing downforce when you follow a car, so let's hope we will be in good shape in traffic."
The only new face in the drivers' line-up in Alabama is Rodolfo Gonzalez who takes over the #18 Dale Coyne Racing car this weekend. He's the team's fourth driver behind the wheel of that car, after Carlos Huertas started the season at St Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park before Rocky Moran Jr. took over at Long Beach only to break his thumb and have to step aside in favour of last minute stand-in Conor Daly, who put in a solid day's work and as a result has now secured his second chance of entering next month's Indianapolis 500 with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports.
Gonzalez has previously competed in 64 races in the GP2 series as well as racing in Euro Formula 3. He also acted as F1 team Marussia's test driver in 2013 and ran in eight Grand Prix weekend free practice sessions. In his first IndyCar outing, the Venezuelan finished 22nd fastest and was over a second quicker than his team mate for the weekend, Italy's Francesco Dracone.
The drivers have a second practice session starting at 12:40pm local time (6:40pm BST) lasting for 45 seconds, after which the three-round elimination format qualifying session begins at 3.55pm (9.55pm BST) to decide the starting order for Sunday's race.
A half-hour Sunday morning warm-up session gets underway at 10am (4pm BST) with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama scheduled to get the green flag at 2.37pm (8.37pm BST).
See full practice 1 times from Barber Motorsports Park