KUALA LUMPUR, April 5- Eight months ago, Felipe Massa's life – let alone his career with Ferrari – was in grave danger.
Horribly injured in an accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix, he fought for survival. He suffered serious head injuries, a fractured skull and grave damage to his left eye.
Thanks to superb medical assistance and a determination to rise again, he not only survived, but he kept his seat as a Formula One racing driver.
And on Sunday, after a measured drive to seventh in the Malaysian Grand Prix – after starting at the wrong end of the grid – he topped the world championship standings, three races into the 2010 season.
But instead of celebrating, the 28-year-old Brazilian demonstrated all the commitment and maturity that enabled him to complete that remarkable recovery.
He did not talk of glory or titles – he knows the pain of missing out on a title after losing the 2008 crown to Lewis Hamilton in the final seconds of the final race, his home Grand Prix – but, instead, warned of the speed of his rivals.
"It is always nice to be leading in the championship, but it means nothing now," said Massa.
"Things can change so fast in this title race. It is so competitive and I know and the Ferrari team knows we have to work very hard to improve our car because the Red Bulls are very strong, very fast, and McLaren are very strong, too."
Massa, on 39, is now just two points clear at top of the drivers’ standings ahead of Ferrari team-mate Spaniard Fernando Alonso and Sunday’s race winner German Sebastian Vettel, both on 37.
German Nico Rosberg, who supplied the new Mercedes team with their first podium by finishing third behind second-placed Australian Mark Webber, in the second Red Bull, and defending champion Briton Jenson Button of McLaren share fourth on 35. Button’s team-mate Hamilton is sixth on 31 and Pole Robert Kubica seventh on 30.
While for Massa’s fans it may be a time to feel relief, joy and gratitude, the fact that only eight points separate the top six drivers signals a long, competitive and potentially-enthralling season lies ahead.
"Yes, it was a very exciting race," he said. "Especially if you look where we started, 21st, and where we finished – seventh! So, it was definitely positive.
"We know we are in the championship fight this time, but we need to work step by step to improve because many drivers are there, many things can change in one race. We need to keep our feet on the ground."
Bungled tactical decisions taken by the Ferrari and McLaren teams in Saturday’s storm-swept qualifying session meant all four of their drivers started at the back of the field and had to fight their way through.
Hamilton, showing searing pace and cold-blooded passing precision, rose from 20th to sixth for McLaren while Button went from 17th to eighth and Alonso from 19th to ninth before an engine failure forced him to retire as he fought Button for position.
Afterwards, the two-times champion Spaniard said it had been "probably the hardest race of my whole life."
While Alonso recovered his composure after an exhausting disappointment in the sweltering conditions, Vettel swigged heavily on the victor’s champagne.
"I am sorry, maybe I had too much of that and I feel a little tipsy," he said afterwards.
His team-mate Webber, 33, who had started from pole position, was stony-faced alongside the baby-faced 22-year-old as he giggled and joked.
A bad start had cost him his third career win.
"The start cost me a victory. I got a bit of wheel-spin and Seb worked the slipstream well. After that I had to settle, but this is a sensational result for the team.
"We have had a couple of races where its been difficult for us to have a clean weekend for differing reasons, whether it’s a bit of weather, a bit of reliability, or different things here and there.
"But no-one wants a shopping list of excuses. We’ve got to get results. We haven’t got them in the past because we haven’t been prepared. Well, we were prepared today and we blew everyone away."
The teams were packing up their air-freight cases again Sunday night for another flight across Asia towards the next race, the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai on April 18.
"Now we have that win, it is a relief, and we can look ahead to China with more pleasure," said Vettel. "Yes, it is a good feeling now."