A change of tires and a change in strategy - to say nothing of a fast car - have made Will Power the favourite to repeat as champion on a bumpy 2.824-kilometre street course going into the Honda Indy Toronto weekend.
The Australian driver laid down the fastest time over two practice sessions - a record 1 minute 0.5581 seconds, or 167.903 kilometres an hour - heading into Saturday's battle for pole position for Sunday's 25th Honda Indy Toronto.
Second was New Zealander Scott Dixon and third was Scotland's Dario Franchitti, winner of three races this season. Top Canadian and top rookie was James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., in fourth (1:01.005, 166.670 km/h). Canadians also placed 14th (Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que.) and 17th (Paul Tracy of Toronto). Marco Andretti - winner in the last IndyCar race, at the Iowa Speedway oval - was 19th.
Tim Cindric, who had been the race strategist for the No. 3 Team Penske car driven by Helio Castroneves since 2000, has moved to Power's No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car for the remainder of the season at the behest of team general manager Clive Howell. Power has had some inconsistencies in the pits in recent races, according to the IndyCar website.
Penske general manager John Erickson was ousted from Power's team and will be Castroneves's strategist. Roger Penske will continue to be the strategist for the No. 6 Penske car driven by Ryan Briscoe.
Power has come to midseason as IndyCar points leader ahead of Franchitti and will be seeking his eighth consecutive pole start on a road/street course. He's won three races this season, same as Franchitti. He can't afford to coast home, as evidenced by his change to fresh tires for the last practice sessions to beat other times posted Friday and to get a choice of position for qualifying.
"It's where you want to be," Power said. "It's a hard, physical street circuit," he said of the bumps drivers felt after a cluster of races on oval circuits in the IndyCar Series. They also had to get used to right turns again after nothing but left turns on ovals.
"As for the change in strategists, it was a decision by Tim and Clive and Roger," Power said. "There were some problems in the pits. There was no one person, or one problem, but it's a variety of things. I think they wanted someone higher up with a bit of experience."
Hinchcliffe said the session, which featured a new rubber composite on the racing slicks and a difference of only 2.4551 seconds for 26 cars, "only underlines how close it is. It's a new rubber compound that we all thought was going to be slower. It turns out it's a little quicker.
"I learned an awful lot today I didn't know before. This place is so demanding and challenging in so many ways. It's incredibly difficult to get around there by yourself. I can only imagine what it will be like when 26 cars are out at the same time."