It didn't take long for Penske's Will Power to get up to speed and close in on the track qualifying record for Sonoma Raceway, as the Verizon IndyCar Series staged a three-and-a-half-hour long practice and promoter test session on Friday afternoon ahead of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the final round of the 2015 season.
Power's best lap of the day clocked in at 1:17.4858s (110.807mph) on the 2.385-mile, 12-turn road course which immediately compared very favourably to the existing record of 1:17.2393s (111.161mph) that Power himself set here last year on his way to clinching pole position.
CLICK: Full Friday practice 1 times from Sonoma Raceway.
"It definitely was an interesting session. it was the first time we got to try the new tyre," he said, pointing out the new Firestone primary compound in use on Friday designed to make the racing more exciting on street and road courses. "Basically on a long run, it definitely degrades a lot. I think that will create good racing. It was a good session, but tomorrow, obviously, really counts. We're in a good window. Just go home, study and have a look and see if we can make good changes, see if we can go a little faster."
Power was 0.1326s faster than Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Graham Rahal who was next-best of the session and the fastest Honda in the field. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay was third on the timing screens at the end of the session followed by Scott Dixon (Ganassi), Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport) and Simon Pagenaud (Penske).
Championship points leader Juan Pablo Montoya was ninth fastest on Friday as he bids to lock up what would be his first IndyCar championship this weekend. He comes into the race with 34 points in hand over Rahal, having led points standings ever since winning the opening round of the year at St. Petersburg in March. However, with double points on offer at the season finale, Montoya is all too well aware that it could be snatched away from him at the last minute should anything go wrong for him.
"I'm pretty excited," insisted Montoya. "I think we got everything we need to be doing to put ourselves in this position. Sunday, whatever is going to happen is going to happen with double points."
Montoya's title prospects were boosted when the nearest of his five rivals still mathematically able to win the title, Graham Rahal, crashed out during last week's race at Pocono following contact with Dale Coyne Racing's Tristan Vautier.
"The car seems good, it seems competitive, seems consistent," Rahal said at the end of Friday's trackwork. "I think it was a good start for us. The beginning of the session, we weren't very good. We made some changes from the test and we were struggling pretty bad there.
"At the end of the day, we got the car turned around. The guys made some big changes. The guys did an excellent job back in the garage and got it turned really quickly. We went out there and it was miles better."
Vautier had been penalised for causing an avoidable contact with Rahal last week and docked two hours of Friday's practice time, although he still managed to set a respectable time and was 20th fastest. As he was already under probation following an incident in June at Fontana, Vautier had also been fined $10,000 and penalised three points in the drivers championship standings.
"Well, our session was shortened, obviously, because of the penalty," he explained. "We tried to make the most of the time we had by making quite a lot of changes to the car. We didn't really get to where we wanted to be. I thought we would have improved our time at the end on fresh tyres, but the changes didn't quite work out. We will sit down and analyse why that is the case. I think we will get to where we need to be with a bit more time."
There was only one brief interruption to the afternoon's track time very early in the session when Oriol Servia went off and needed to be re-fired. The veteran Spanish racer has returned to IndyCar this weekend after agreeing to take over the wheel of the #25 Andretti Autosport car in place of Wilson who was tragically killed last week by flying debris in a freak accident at Pocono.
"It was a little bit what I expected after such a long time not being on a road course," said Servia, who was the slowest man on track on Friday as he felt his way back into the DW12 with its new aero kit bodywork. "These cars now have so much downforce, and this track is where you really feel it. It's just getting used to the car. I have not raced here in two years. The car feels good.
"Obviously this Andretti Autosport team has a good car," he added. "Overall, a good practice session. We tried a lot of things. We obviously want to be a lot faster than that, but I just really couldn't put it together on new tyres. Hopefully tomorrow."
Also back at work after a long absence in the series was Mikhail Aleshin, returning after a year away, meaning there are 25 cars in action at Sonoma. The Russian driver's last IndyCar appearance before Friday was during the weekend of 2014 season finale at Fontana when he suffered a serious practice accident from which it took most of the winter off-season to recuperate. He was 17th fastest in Friday's session.
"I'm very happy to be back in IndyCar for the Sonoma race with a great team like Schmidt Peterson Motorsports," said Aleshin, who has been spending this year competing in the European Le Mans Series. "I had such an interesting season here last year with this team. I enjoyed all the new tracks and it was very different from racing in Europe. It was a long journey to make it up here again and I will use this opportunity to give it 100 per cent of my effort.
"I would like to dedicate this race to the memory of Justin Wilson, who was a great race driver, man and father," he added. "I will miss him a lot."
The sentiment was universally shared up and down pit lane on Friday and will doubtless continue throughout the weekend, even while the teams, drivers and series officials all attempt to focus on a season finale to remember for the right reasons, and one that Wilson himself would be proud to see.
One indication of the series looking to the future was an experiment on the #11 KVSH Racing car driven by Sebastien Bourdais which had new LED equipment attached to the front and rear wheel hubs for the session. It has the potential to display logos or words for commercial partners, race or car information or other programmed details during a race in addition to the new LED car positioning panels already in place on the roll hoop of every car introduced at the start of August at Mid-Ohio.
"The LEDs flash very quickly slices of an image,” said Guy Margetson, owner of the UK-based Speed of Light Media Limited that had developed the technology. "[Originally] we only had one colour of LEDs, we were able to show the word 'wheel' in a wheel and it gave birth to the whole wheel technology. We patented it, and with full colour we can show logos in a wheel or whatever IndyCar or the teams want."
For Friday's session, Bourdais' front wheel displayed a red and yellow pattern while the rear wheel was painted a solid glowing green. Margetson explained that the colours had been chosen to see how well the technology performed in the brightest conditions they are likely to face all year, in the brilliant California sunshine in the cloudless blue sky of a hot afternoon at Sonoma.
The drivers will have another practice session available to them on Saturday morning, although it will consist of just 45 minutes this time around commencing at 10:45am local time (6.45pm BST). Qualifying for the season finale takes place later in the day at 3pm (11pm BST) and will consist of the two-group, three-round elimination format routinely used for street and road course events.
Drivers will get a half-hour warm-up session on Sunday morning at 10am (6pm BST) with the 85-lap, 202.7-mile race itself getting the green flag just after 2pm (10pm BST).
See full Friday practice 1 times from Sonoma Raceway.