Massa won praise after an impressive comeback from his life-threatening injury [AFP]

Felipe Massa returned to Formula One qualifying as if the life-threatening head injuries he suffered last time he fought for pole position had never happened.

"First race he is back and he is bang, bang bang. It is good to have him back"

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull driver

The Brazilian has been absent from the starting grid since he was hit on the helmet by a heavy spring in Hungary last July, fracturing his skull and spending several days in an induced coma and on a respirator.

But on Saturday he showed he had lost none of his speed by putting his Ferrari on the front row for the first time since November 2008 – winning glowing praise from Sebastian Vettel, who qualified on pole.

Massa's new teammate Fernando Alonso, the double world champion who is making his Ferrari race debut this weekend, had to settle for the second row.

Lewis Hamilton qualified behind him in fourth, followed by Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button.

'Difficult time'

"I feel very happy to be back after such a difficult time," Massa said after qualifying.

"I was watching the races on television and was pretty excited but it is much better to be sat in the car."

Bahrain qualifying result

1 Sebastian Vettel (GER) RedBull
2 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari
3 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari
4 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren
5 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes
6 Mark Webber (AUS) RedBull
7 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes
8 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren
9 Robert Kubica (POL) Renault
10 Adrian Sutil (GER) Force India
11 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Williams
12 Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA) Force India
13 Nico Huelkenberg (GER) Williams
14 Pedro de la Rosa (ESP) BMW Sauber
15 Sebastien Buemi (SUI) Toro Rosso
16 Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) BMW Sauber
17 Vitaly Petrov (RUS) Renault
18 Jaime Alguersuari (ESP) Toro Rosso
19 Timo Glock (GER) Virgin
20 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Lotus
21 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Lotus
22 Lucas Di Grassi (BRA) Virgin
23 Bruno Senna (BRA) HRT
24 Karun Chandhok (IND) HRT

Massa, who has won twice before in Bahrain and has now been on the front row there four times in the last five years, was congratulated by Red Bull's Vettel who pipped him to the pole by 0.141 seconds.

"I think I am speaking more or less on behalf of all the drivers, to give some great respect to Felipe," said the German.

"It is very, very difficult, well, I don't know, you can ask him, but from the outside big respect for what he has achieved.

"First race he is back and he is bang, bang bang. It is good to have him back."

Massa thanked him for the kind words.

"It is just fantastic to hear that," he said.

"We are here to compete and race each other but there is relationship and respect which go over everything.

"All drivers have great respect and it is nice to hear that after such difficult times and such a difficult accident.

"Now I am here 100 per cent ready to fight again and most of the people are happy, so that is fantastic to hear."

Schumi determined

Michael Schumacher is determined his Formula One comeback race doesn't finish like his debut nearly 20 years ago.

On Sunday, Schumacher will start from the same grid position – seventh – at the Bahrain Grand Prix as his 1991 debut at Spa, where a clutch problem kept the then-Jordan driver from racing.

The 41-year-old insists a top-three finish in his first race in three years is "not unrealistic but it's going to be tough" as he continues to shake off the rust that has accompanied his lack of racing.

"There are several reasons but one is myself – I just have to get into it," Schumacher said.

Current world champion Button, who won in Bahrain last year, qualified one place behind in eighth.

Hamilton was pleased to start fourth, with team principal Martin Whitmarsh saying the McLaren car was not at its best in qualifying.

Source: Agencies