SAKHIR // Felipe Massa already knew it, but yesterday he proved it to the world. The Ferrari driver, competing in his first Grand Prix weekend since an accident in Hungary eight months ago that left him with a fractured skull, finished second in qualifying at the Formula One season-opener in Bahrain to prove he has lost none of his speed.
"I always expected to be competitive," said Massa after making an emotional return to finish behind Red Bull-Renault's Sebastian Vettel, who himself took a moment to congratulate the Brazilian on his long-awaited return. "It is fantastic to hear that because, while we are here to compete and race each other, the relationship and respect goes above everything. "I have a great relationship with the drivers and after such a difficult time, I am here and ready to fight again.
"I never had a doubt; everything I have been doing since last year has been the same. I remember going to the go-karts for the first time and everybody was watching, including the doctors. They were waiting to see if I would be OK and in the first lap I was on my side, pushing hard." Massa's teammate, Fernando Alonso, will start today's race third on the grid and the Spaniard said he is looking forward to being back in the hunt for pole positions, wins and championships after two barren years at Renault. The double world champion said: "Having spent two years with no possibility of that, obviously I missed the podium and the competition and stress of fighting for a world championship.
"After a long winter with some good signs of a very competitive car we thought we would fight, but we needed confirmation. And we got that in the first Grand Prix by showing we are quick enough." McLaren-Mercedes, the British team, were not provided such confirmation after Lewis Hamilton, winner of the series in 2008, finished fourth, while his teammate Jenson Button, the reigning world champion, ended his first qualifying campaign in eighth.
For all the questions raised regarding McLaren's controversial rear wing, it appears the Woking manufacturers do not have the pace that was expected. At one point during the second part of qualifying, Button alarmingly looked set to finish outside the top 10 before he rallied on his last lap to pip Rubens Barrichello's Williams-Cosworth. Hamilton admitted: "We don't have the same pace as Red Bull and Ferrari, so I am overwhelmed with fourth. There are a lot of quick guys behind me."
Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, said he was content with starting from seventh place after taking part in his first qualifying session for three years, despite being beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who starts fifth. "I am quite happy, we have steadily improved and we have worked quite well as a team which is what counts at the moment," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org