MONTREAL, June 9 (Reuters) - Fast-improving Ferrari showed they were truly back in the hunt in Canada on Saturday with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa reeling off the team's best qualifying performance of the season.
Championship leader Alonso will start Sunday's race from third place while Massa, who struggled in the early races, qualified sixth.
After starting the championship with a car panned as one of the team's ugliest, and that looked further than ever from securing Ferrari's first pole since 2010, the red racers are looking much prettier.
"We can be pleased with our qualifying session, the best out of the seven so far this season with both our drivers in the top three rows on the grid," enthused team principal Stefano Domenicali at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
"We are back to being in the hunt for the pole and that is the most important fact.
"(That is) all the more encouraging, when one considers that this track actually highlights the very qualities that to date had been our weakest points, in other words traction and top speed," he added.
"It means all our efforts to improve the performance of our car are bearing fruit."
When the 2012 car was unveiled, the dramatic broken nose was jarring to Ferrari purists who would rather admire something stylish and smooth.
The initial performance, despite Alonso's against-the-odds win in Malaysia in March, did not make it any more attractive but Ferrari have turned things around.
They have also been helped by a wildly unpredictable season that has thrown up six different winners in six races and rewarded consistency over outright speed.
Alonso now has 76 points, three more than Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel who will start Sunday's race from pole for the second consecutive year.
"I am happy with way things have gone so far this weekend, especially because the car has proved to be competitive even on a track which certainly does not suit its characteristics," said Alonso, the 2005 and 2006 world champion with Renault.
"I well remember where we were in Australia (season opener) and if today we are in a fight for the pole, it signifies we have done a good job over the past few months especially as the others have not exactly been twiddling their thumbs."
Despite the progress, Alonso was quick to point out that there was still much work ahead.
"We must not forget that today there were two drivers that were quicker than us therefore there is still some ground to make up," said Alonso. "Third on the grid is a good position from which to attack in the race especially as pole is not so important here."
It is eight years since Ferrari last won in Montreal, whose island circuit is named after their late great.
"For sure it would be nice to give all the Canadian Ferrari fans a nice result on the 30th anniversary year of the death of Gilles Villeneuve," said Alonso. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Montreal, editing by Alan Baldwin)