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INDIANAPOLIS – Mikhail Aleshin made his first trip to the U.S. last November when he was contemplating taking a ride in IndyCar. He stepped off a plane from Moscow expecting a balmy Indianapolis winter and learned the hard way it was colder than he was used to in Russia.
Fast-forward six months and the first Russian driver to compete in the IndyCar Series has adjusted quite well to his new home. Aleshin likes living in Indy, is finding his way in the open-wheel series and getting quite comfortable at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Four days after completing the Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation program, Aleshin was back at the speedway Thursday for the opening day of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He briefly sat atop the leaderboard in the second practice session and ended the day with the fifth-best overall time.
Scott Dixon paced the day at 1 minute, 10.4654 seconds. Aleshin, who was the fastest of the five rookies in Monday's rookie program, posted a best lap at 1:10.6681 and said he's been awed by the speedway.
"When I had my (rookie) test, I understood why it's so special because it really is very special," Aleshin said. "It's just amazing. You drive so fast. I think I really like the oval stuff. I just can't wait 'til I'm going to be racing with the guys around because that's going to be exciting."
Aleshin's first experience on an American race track was a November test with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. But the 26-year-old said Russians are aware of the Indianapolis 500 and race fans in Europe try to watch the event each year.
But IndyCar is an unknown in his home country, something Aleshin believes will change later this month when he expects media attention as he prepares for his Indy 500 debut.
"IndyCar was never showed on Russian TV so much. We had a couple Indy 500 races a long time ago," he said. "But from this year, it is on TV already, so people start to follow. For the 500 race, there is a lot of media coming here from Russia, as well."
Here's five things from the opening day of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis:
WHAT TO EXPECT: Indianapolis Motor Speedway reconfigured its existing road course for this inaugural Grand Prix, which will be run on a 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit Saturday. It will look nothing like the Indianapolis 500, and the cars will race clockwise. Turns 2 through 6 run through the north portion of the infield and the exit of Turn 6 begins a long run through the middle of the facility into a left-hand turn.
The cars will race behind the Hall of Fame Museum and their final braking point will be in Turn 12, which is a right-handed turn in front of the South Vista.
"I think this layout, because it is smooth, the grip is quite high, you'll see some really good racing," said reigning series champion Scott Dixon. "I expect it to be one of the best races we have this year just because of the layout of the track and how trim the cars have to be, and even the different configurations that teams may choose to run the race."
"I think we have enough data to keep improving in the dry condition," said Simon Pa In the wet, you just deal with it really. There's not much you can do.
Usually a good car in the dry is good in the wet. Hopefully it's the case tomorrow if it rains.
BOURDAIS QUICK AGAIN: Sebastien Bourdais was again one of the fastest drivers on the track, clocking the quickest time in the morning and third fastest in the combined two sessions.
It remains to be seen if he can translate that into a solid finish on Saturday.
Bourdais has been consistently quick since signing with KV Racing-SH, the team that won the Indianapolis 500 last year with Tony Kanaan. The Frenchman has nothing to show for his fast practice sessions, though, and his best finish this season was 13th at St. Pete. He's been penalized by IndyCar five times in the first three races.
"We had a good test on the new road course last week," Bourdais said. "We made a lot of progress and learned some things."
BAD WEATHER: The opening day of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis may have had the best weather of the three-day event. Thunderstorms are expected in the Indianapolis area Friday, the day drivers will qualify for the inaugural road course race.
It could be dry for Saturday's race, but will certainly be cooler than the near 90 degree heat drivers prepared in on Thursday.
But it's the rain for qualifying that could present this biggest issue.
"I think we have enough data to keep improving in the dry condition," said Simon Pagenaud, who was second-fastest Thursday. "In the wet, you just deal with it. There's not much you can do. Usually a good car in the dry is good in the wet. Hopefully it's the case if it rains."
THEY SAID IT: Mikhail Aleshin's career goals, like most European drivers, were always geared toward Formula One. He previously won the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship in 2010, and tested the Lotus Renault F1 car and Red Bull F1 car. But three races into IndyCar, he said his fans are enjoying the American series more than F1.
"They are starting to open (to) this category, and they comparing it to Formula One," the Russian said. "Actually, a lot of people say to me it's a little bit more interesting (because) of fighting, activity on the track — which I can actually completely agree."
PENALTIES: Both Josef Newgarden and rookie Jack Hawksworth were penalized by IndyCar on Thursday for showing up late to the mandatory weigh-in session. Newgarden was docked six minutes of track time from Thursday's second practice, while Hawksworth was held out for three minutes. The penalties correlated to how many minutes late each driver was to weigh-in.