By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Felipe Massa will start Sunday's Australian Grand Prix right behind the Mercedes cars but the Brazilian had few illusions about his Williams team's chances of winning the season opener.
Third fastest in qualifying, Massa's best lap was nearly one-and-a-half seconds shy of Formula One champion pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and nearly a second adrift of the Briton's team mate Nico Rosberg.
Given that Williams are powered by Mercedes, Massa could only shrug and laugh when asked the awkward question as to where the difference lay between the teams' performance.
"If it's the same engine, the difference should be in the car," he said, raising chuckles at the post-qualifying media conference.
"I hope we have the same engine. I believe we have the same engine. So it's the car!"
Massa's team mate Valtteri Bottas qualified sixth behind the Ferraris, but the Finn suffered back pain during the sessions and was taken to hospital for checks.
Though Bottas may be uncertain for the race, Williams performance boss Rob Smedley saw promise in their showing after an encouraging winter testing.
"Reasonably happy with that. To get the first one out of the way and be in a reasonable position," he said.
"Felipe’s done a great lap, he’s put it all together. And the good thing is there’s still margin there, he could have gone quicker again. We were just learning in these conditions through the qualifying.
"We are here to win, but being realistic that gap is very big to Mercedes. So that’s the one (the gap) I’m looking at. What happens behind is of interest, but it’s of less interest.”
Ferrari, Massa's former team, was foremost in the Brazilian's mind however.
"We see the difference in the lap-times between me, Sebastian (Vettel) and Kimi (Raikkonen) and also Valtteri, it's pretty small," he said.
"It won't be easy fighting with Ferrari but we are there. We are really looking forward that both (our) cars can start the season well."
Red Bull were not in the same league, Massa added.
Daniel Ricciardo, who qualified seventh, complained of reliability problems all day while Daniil Kvyat could manage only 13th after a gearbox problem.
"I think Red Bull is not really there for the moment," Massa said. "I'm sure Red Bull will get there because they are really strong.
"But for the moment Ferrari is really strong and made a big step forward compared to last year."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)