By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Two times world champion Fernando Alonso clarified on Saturday a comment in which he appeared to suggest he was better than Formula One's leading drivers, saying he had misheard the question.
The 39-year-old, who is making a comeback with Renault-owned Alpine and qualified ninth in Bahrain for his first grand prix since 2018, was asked in a BBC television interview this week if he felt he was still as good as the sport's top drivers.
"I'm better," the Spaniard had replied.
Asked on Saturday whether he might have heard 'better than then' rather than 'better than them', Alonso acknowledged he had probably misunderstood the question.
"I thought the question was 'are you as good as in 2018, when you left the sport?," he said. "The answer was well I hope that I am better than 2018 because all the experiences maybe make me a better driver.
"It was not compared to Lewis (Hamilton) or to Max (Verstappen) or anyone.
"First of all it is difficult to compare and then they have dominated the sport for the last few years so I never meant to say that I was better than them."
Mercedes' Hamilton, the most successful driver of all time, is chasing a record eighth title this year while Verstappen, on pole in Bahrain for Red Bull, is already the youngest ever race winner.
Verstappen could be the man to end Hamilton's reign, just as Alonso was the driver who stopped Michael Schumacher's run of title success in 2005.
Alonso, who was Hamilton's team mate at McLaren in 2007, said he had really enjoyed being back in a Formula One car.
"It was a very nice, enjoyable feeling. The first qualifying of the year is a little bit of an unknown, how fast we were, so every time I came to the garage it was a moment of curiosity looking at the screen."
The Spaniard said ninth was not a surprise, and he was confident the team could do a good season, but there were some fast cars behind and he had to get more up to speed.
"We are very close. You can be eighth, ninth or 14th within one tenth and a half (of a second)," he said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)