Gil de Ferran set the pace on the opening day of qualifying at the Portland road course in Oregon. De Ferran won here last year driving a Reynard-Honda on Goodyear tyres for Derrick Walker's team.
This year of course he has moved to Roger Penske's team and is driving a Reynard-Honda on Firestone tyres and the team has clearly recovered its old form in recent months with De Ferran scoring Penske's 100th win at Nazareth last month and Helio Castroneves recording the team's 101st win in Detroit last weekend.
Today, Castroneves was fastest in the morning session before de Ferran asserted himself in the afternoon. De Ferran beat Christian Fittipaldi to the provisional pole by just under a quarter of a second. Everyone complained that the track was very slippery this afternoon, a result of oil laid down by NASCAR's Winston Northwest Tour cars which are running a supporting race this weekend.
"I was happy with the car from the time we unloaded the car this morning," de Ferran said. "I think the Penske team has done a tremendous job in understanding the new equipment, the Reynard chassis, Honda engine and Firestone tyres. It's really about building the programme brick by brick. We've been doing that. Penske Cars has been working very hard in the wind tunnel and we've been running well in testing.
"I was a little worried when we went out this afternoon because the track was definitely not in good condition," de Ferran added. "But it kept improving and was in pretty good shape by the end of the session."
De Ferran said that in addition to the oil and foreign rubber laid down by the NASCAR cars there were additional problems with a sealer put on the top of a series of concrete patches at the apexes of most of the corners. Portland's management said the track will be thoroughly washed this evening in an attempt to improve conditions for tomorrow's final qualifying.
Fittipaldi was second fastest today as he continues to show good road racing form. "It was more difficult in terms of conditions out there this afternoon," Christian said. "It got better in the last 10 minutes, but it was the same for everyone. We ran solid all day and tomorrow will be a much tougher day, but I'm pretty confident we have a shot at it."
Fittipaldi also said he was pleased that de Ferran had talked to him after last week's collision in Detroit. De Ferran apologised to Fittipaldi for hitting him in the tail while they were racing for second in Detroit. Fittipaldi was very upset in Detroit but said he and de Ferran cleared the air in a personal conversation last week.
"He came to me and apologised," Fittipaldi said. "We had a good talk about it. He knows he made a mistake and there's no problem between us."
Defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya was seventh today just over half a second slower than de Ferran. Montoya lost time with a water leak this morning and ran into trouble with a mistake in set-up this afternoon. Montoya switched cars during this morning's opening session because he didn't like the handling of one car. His spare car handled much better but a holed water radiator cut short his session. Chip Ganassi's team then transferred the set-up on Montoya's spare car to his primary car for the afternoon's qualifying.
"We made a small mistake in the set-up with the ride height," Montoya explained. "The car is OK. We should be fine tomorrow. The car was good this morning. We just have to get everything right."
The weather in often-rainy Portland incidentally was hot and sunny today and similar weather is predicted throughout the weekend. Sunday in fact, is expected to be even hotter with temperatures predicted in the low 90s (F).
Final qualifying takes place on Saturday.