If Fernando Alonso had arrived at Ferrari expecting to rule the roost, then Felipe Massa gave him some food for thought in qualifying for the F1 2010 curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir this weekend – by outpacing the double world champion to earn himself a front row grid slot for his return to competitive action.
Massa has not raced in the top flight since his terrifying, life-threatening accident at the Hungaroring last summer – an incident that very nearly left him blinded, and caused some to wonder whether he would ever return to the fray, and if he did whether the popular Brazilian would still be the same driver he had been in the past.
Around the Bahrain International Circuit – admittedly a track that clearly suits his driving style well and holds fond memories for the Paulista, evinced by back-to-back victories there in 2007 and 2008 – Massa wasted little time in swiftly demonstrating that he is not only back, but back with a vengeance, by leaving his illustrious and doubtless also slightly surprised team-mate trailing almost four tenths of a second in his wake to join pole-sitting Red Bull Racing rival Sebastian Vettel at the head of the order for Sunday's race.
“It's great to get back to being so competitive after such a difficult time,” the 28-year-old acknowledged. “It's a good way to start the new season, and a nice reward for all the work the team has done over the winter. The race will be very difficult, but I am happy to be in with a chance of fighting for the top places.
“Yesterday, we did good work in preparing for the race and I think we went in the right direction, but this is only the first grand prix and there are still many unknown factors to work out, for example, finding the right moment to change tyres. Today, I gave it my all, doing a great lap on my last run, while the previous ones had not been so good. I wish to thank Sebastian for what he said about me at the start of the press conference; it pleased me a lot, and shows the great respect that exists between us drivers.”
team principal Stefano Domenicali was effusive in his praise for Massa's effort, recognising that Ferrari's faith in the driver who has triumphed for the Prancing Horse on no fewer than eleven occasions and very nearly claimed world championship glory two years ago has been both justified and well-rewarded.
“I am delighted that Felipe's return to racing will start from the front row of the grid,” remarked the Italian. “It is well-deserved after everything he went through last year. It's a good result, coming at the end of a very closely-contested session. I want to thank all the staff, who have worked hard these past few months to try and close the gap to what were the top teams at the end of last season. At least today, we have returned to breathing in the air at the top of the pack, even if we are well aware that the final figures are only totted up on Sunday afternoon after the race.
“We can expect quite a long and tough race, during which the number one priority, as always, will be reliability – with such hot weather, cars, drivers and tyres will be put under a heavy strain. It will also be important to manage the race as well as possible, finding the right moment to change tyres. I think this is something of an unknown for everyone, given that we will be experiencing very different conditions to those we experienced in the February tests.”