By John O'Brien
SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Ferrari's Felipe Massa is fast becoming the renaissance man of Formula One after a strong start to 2013 following signs of improvement at the end of last year.
Massa's seat came under intense pressure last season but the Italian team's decision to retain his services appears to be bearing fruit as he out-qualified team mate Fernando Alonso for a fourth straight race at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday.
The 31-year-old Brazilian made full use of a late stop for fresh intermediate tyres on a drying Sepang Circuit to claim second spot on the grid behind Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, pushing Alonso back to third with his first front row start since 2010.
"I feel comfortable in the car. I think whenever you feel comfortable you can do a good lap and you can use the car to the maximum, it's possible," said Massa, who qualified and finished fourth in the season-opening race in Melbourne last weekend.
"It was really clear that I was not comfortable last year and the year before, so many things around the car, bad luck, around myself as well, so there were so many things that were not working in the proper direction, but now they are."
Massa finished second to Lewis Hamilton in the 2008 drivers' championship but suffered a serious head injury when hit by debris at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, missing the rest of the season.
He has struggled to rediscover his best form since but managed podium finishes in Japan and Brazil in the second half of last year.
"I know how quick I can be, I've showed that many times in the past. If everything works well, we can be competitive, it's pretty sure about that," he added.
"I believe in myself and I think it can be really important for the team, for Fernando as well, for everybody. We need a stronger team, a strong position and fighting for the best position in every race so I'm happy, that's a good direction."
Team principal Stefano Domenicali was quick to heap praise on Massa and was happy to see the team's confidence in the driver being rewarded.
"That's what I want, and that's what I said since last year when everyone was pushing me to do something different," the Italian said. "But I am happy for him and for the team because as always, we think as a team."
Alonso had seemed to be waging a lone war against the Red Bulls in recent years but the Spaniard said Massa had not been as far off the pace as results had suggested.
"I've been racing 27 years now in motor racing - I'm getting old - so it's not the first time that we have very close competition," the 31-year-old double champion told reporters.
"It was very close the last three years as well, but I know that for you, it was not that close in terms of results because Felipe had some bad luck, some incidents sometimes, some mechanical problems other times but the last three years was much closer than it looked in the points at the end."
(Editing by Mark Meadows)