|© Foto Studio Colombo/Ferrari
Felipe Massa's renaissance continued as he set the fastest time in practice for the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, significantly shading his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso once again.
Massa earned praise from his team for an "incredible" performance as he set a best time of 1 minute, 35.340 seconds around the Shanghai International Circuit in the afternoon session, putting him 0.15 seconds ahead of Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen, with Alonso third.
Massa's strong showing surprised his team, with engineer Rob Smedley telling him over his pit-to-car radio that "the pace is not good, it's incredible."
Massa, who was pipped to the 2008 world championship, had been in a prolonged form slump since a life-threatening accident at the 2009 Hungarian GP.
Just when it appeared his Ferrari career was coming to an end, the Brazilian rediscovered his confidence in the latter part of the 2012 season and carried that into the new campaign.
He qualified ahead of Ferrari No. 1 Alonso in four straight races, and should he do so again on Saturday, he will be the first teammate to ever out-qualify the Spaniard five straight times.
"Today, I immediately had a good feeling in the car and even if, at the start, I was not completely happy with the performance of the medium compound (tyres) and we were not as quick as our rivals, the times were good all the same," Massa said.
"When I fitted the softs, the car improved a lot and this meant I was able to set the fastest time of the day. It was impressive, like driving two completely different cars."
Massa's performance on soft tyres was in marked contrast to most other drivers who complained of rapid degradation after as little as one lap. That bodes well for qualifying on Saturday, when the softs will be used for the last flying laps.
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg -- who had his only career win here last year and led in China the two races before that -- was fourth fastest on his pet circuit and Red Bull's Mark Webber was fifth. Webber, who is feuding with teammate Sebastian Vettel, will doubtless take some pleasure in seeing the three-time world champion down in tenth on the timesheets.
"I seemed to struggle a little more this afternoon, with the gap to the guys at the top being a bit bigger than I would like to see," Vettel said. "It's not a disaster. It is not as if we are in the dark, we know a little bit about what we need to do."
McLaren driver Jenson Button was sixth in a performance he was disappointed by, due to a lack of significant improvement from the major upgrades the team brought to China, while Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was seventh, with both those drivers among many complaining of degradation.
The sides of the main straight were carpeted in marbles of shorn rubber and the softer of the two compounds was barely lasting two laps before the times began to drop away.
Raikkonen complained over his radio that the soft tyres will not work in the race, raising the prospect of a slew of early pit stops on Sunday, as the race leaders will begin on the softs they used in qualifying.
However, Pirelli motorsports chief Paul Hembery said evolution of the track on Saturday meant the soft tyre should last around 12 laps in the race, and he forecast a two or three-stop strategy on Sunday.
Force India pair Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta were eighth and ninth fastest respectively, with their cars well suited to maximising speed on the very long main straight.
The main casualty of the session was Marussia driver Max Chilton, whose car ground to a halt very early with an oil pressure failure. Having got it restarted for the final ten minutes, he again soon pulled off the circuit with the same problem.
Williams driver Valtteri Bottas also missed the first half of the second session with a mechanical failure.