F1 returnee Luca Badoer has shrugged off suggestions that he will be swiftly ejected from the cockpit of Felipe Massa's Ferrari should he fail to perform - arguing that the drive is his for as long as the Brazilian remains out of action.

Following his terrifying high-speed accident in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix at the end of last month - when he was struck on the helmet by a spring from the rear suspension of the Brawn GP of compatriot Rubens Barrichello ahead of him on the track, necessitating a spell in hospital and emergency surgery to a fractured skull and eye injuries - Massa has vowed to rejoin the grid before the 2009 season is out.

Until then, however, Badoer insists the seat is his, and though the Italian has not raced at the very highest level in almost a decade - his last competitive appearance came in the 1999 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, where he qualified on the back row and dropped out of contention 43 laps in with engine failure - he is determined to make the very most of the opportunity that has been presented to him, one he has described as akin to winning the lottery.

"I am very excited as this is my dream," he enthused. "To drive for Ferrari in Formula 1 was for all my life simply a dream. Now I can have it and I am the happiest driver in the world, but I have no objective for this weekend. As I said before, it's a sort of test for me, so it would be nice to finish the race. My last race was ten years ago more-or-less, but I drove in these ten years close to 150,000 kilometres in Formula 1. I am used to doing two races in one day because of the tests - sometimes we did two races in a day - so it is not that really I am worried for this aspect of the situation.

"I am used to racing as before I've done a lot of races in my life. I did F3000, F3, go-karts, so this was just a pause. If you think about somebody who had never raced maybe it is a problem, but I know what it was in the past, so I have an idea. I am in a better position than somebody who hadn't raced, so at the moment I am very calm.

"I have worked very hard in a physical way because after Felipe's accident and Michael tried to drive the car it was very clear for us that, if Michael was not able, then it was my turn. I kept really concentrating and thinking about everything I could do to be in the best position for the race. I did really a lot of training. I drove a go-kart because I think it is very good for general training. Obviously I did special training for the neck with my special machine to improve all the muscles and the resistance of the heart, so I was pushing really hard.

"I've raced in the past, I can race again in the future, so honestly, for me Valencia will be a race in which I have to learn everything. I have to get used to being back in the car because it's a long time since I drove - it's not so long but it's enough. I have to get used to this kind of qualifying and I have to get used to being at a race again, so if I had only Valencia, only one chance, I would be very worried - I would try to do everything, and maybe with a lot of pressure and maybe with a lot of mistakes, but that's not the case because until Felipe is in a position to come back, the car is mine and nobody else's, so I have some time in which to improve, to develop the situation."

Adamant that he was not upset not to have been the Scuderia's first choice to replace Massa, Badoer also dismissed stinging criticism from triple F1 World Champion Niki Lauda that Ferrari might as well have asked him to come out of retirement to race, contending 'that doesn't bother me...Lauda speaks like that about everyone'.

The 38-year-old went on to explain that there were no hard feelings about being initially overlooked - not for the first time in his career at Maranello - in favour of someone else to replace an injured driver, especially as he is a 'big fan' of Schumacher, a man he considers to be a 'very good friend'.

"I have spent a lot of time with him over the last 20 days," he related. "We trained together; we drove go-karts together. As I said before, I have a great relationship with him. We are very good friends, so we lived this time together. It was funny because we knew immediately that it was him or me and honestly, I don't feel that to replace Michael Schumacher is like a second choice or a bad choice because I'm replacing the best champion in the world at the moment.

"I can let you know that he was really pushing very hard. He spent a lot of time training because he wanted to come back. He did everything, he tried everything, he lost three kilos in seven days - he was really pushing 100 per cent because it was sort of his dream to come back and drive in Formula 1 again. You have to keep in mind that he was missing something; he really tried everything, but it was not possible because of the neck problem."

Admitting that his future is now up in the air - 'I was talking with Ferrari before Hungary to renew my contract for next year, but after Hungary everything is...I don't know, I honestly don't know what will happen next year' - of more immediate concern for Badoer now is getting to grips with Valencia's demanding Circuit Ricardo Tormo, upon which prior to this weekend he had never so much as set eyes before. Eighteenth-quickest at the end of the opening day of practice - just under 1.3 seconds shy of Kimi Raikkonen in the sister F60 - may not look much, but the man from Montebelluna insisted he was happy with his work.

"I just tried to understand the circuit," he revealed, after picking up a fine for speeding in the pit-lane along the way. "It's the first time I've been to Valencia, so everything is new to me - the car parking, the entry, the pits, so I was looking around for all these things and then I went out onto the track. [On Thursday] I did two or three laps of the track, to better understand physically the corners, the kind of asphalt, the walls at the side of the track - everything - with my engineer.

"The feeling at the moment surprises me, but I'm very calm. It's like being in a test situation because a lot of the time, at the test, I am with all the team and we are pushing very hard in every way, so until I'm in qualifying or on the starting grid, I don't think I will feel a big difference. I am happy with the way things went in practice. I expected a difficult day and so it was. It was vital that I did not make any serious mistakes, so that I could get through the programme we had established.

"Now we can begin to work on the car set-up to try and adapt it to my driving style. The team has not set me any specific goal for this weekend, and I am pleased about that consideration because it is important I return to having full confidence in the car and with the world of the grand prix weekend. I am also grateful to Michael, who wanted to be here this weekend. It is important for me to be able to count on his support, especially from the human point-of-view and, of course, also in terms of technical matters."

Badoer's performance drew praise from Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali and chief track engineer Chris Dyer for his composed and error-free approach, and now the target is to progress step-by-step as the weekend advances

"Luca faces a difficult task," acknowledged Domenicali, "but he can count on the support of everyone in the knowledge that Ferrari has every confidence in him. Given his situation - a long time away from racing, an unknown circuit - the first day can be considered a positive experience for Luca. Clearly this weekend is something of a test session for him, and that is how it must be judged."

"For Luca it was a case of regaining confidence in the car and learning a new track," concurred Dyer. "For him, obviously the more kilometres he completed the more the situation improved and we are confident about the rest of the weekend."

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