LONDON, March 10, 2012 (AFP) - After two stunning seasons, in which he has established himself as leader of the pack, Sebastian Vettel will face intense pressure this year as he bids to join F1's most exclusive club as a triple world champion.
The 24-year-old German knows he will be under attack on all sides - from his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, the McLaren pair of former champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, and Ferrari's two-time champion Fernando Alonso.
But, as an intense spell of winter testing ended last weekend at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya, it was equally clear that the rapidly-maturing 'wunderkind' remains the man to beat when the lights go out
at Albert Park, Melbourne on March 18.
"He is getting stronger all the time and we haven't seen the best of him yet, not by a long way," said his Red Bull team chief Christian Horner.
"Of course, the rest will be strong and very challenging rivals, but I feel, I suspect, that Sebastian knows what to expect and is ready to lift himself to a new level."
Vettel stands at the threshold of true greatness. Only two men have won three consecutive drivers' titles - the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954 to 1957 and fellow-German Michael Schumacher from 2000 to 2005.
Both established an era of individual domination that stamped their reputation and authority across the history of the sport. It is a massive challenge to Vettel, especially in a season when there will be six champions on the grid for a season of 20 races from March to November.
And he knows, only too well, how many of the 'other' triple world champions delivered memorable and record statistics, but without scoring a hat-trick in straight seasons - great men like Alberto Ascari, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Mika Hakkinen and Alonso both delivered 'doubles' in modern times, but without keeping their crowns for a third year.
For Vettel it will not be easy. After winning the title in 2010, he has changed from a hunter to become 'the hunted' and knows, on the evidence of the last year, the pack is drawing closer. It will be tight.
"It is great for F1 to have so many world champions," said Mercedes team chief Ross Brawn.
"The quality of the field and the fact the cars look as if they're going to be a bit closer - I think we're going to have a really exciting season. It could be one of the best for a number of years."
In 2011, Vettel and Red Bull were supreme from the start, but after establishing a massive lead and dominating, they were to feel the pressure in the second half of the season.
Vettel won six of the opening nine events, but only five of the final 10 - a sure sign that if he is not as fast, from the start of next weekend's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, he may be drawn into a close scrap for glory.
The team most likely to upset Red Bull is McLaren.
Last year, Button collected three wins and finished as runner-up behind Vettel, while Hamilton struggled for consistency.
The team has admitted to 'certain weaknesses' and recruited former Williams technical director Sam Michael to solve the problems.
The drivers were encouraged by winter testing, notably a revived Hamilton. He said: "From what I've seen, our new car seems a lot better than last year so I am hoping we hit the ground running. We want to go quick immediately and stay at the top.
"The Red Bulls, basically, are evolutions of the aerodynamic concepts they introduced in 2009. By midway in 2011, they were phenomenal, at the highest level, and they almost never broke down.
"When we had the same reliability, we did not have their performance, but we caught up and this is a new season isn't it? Let's see what happens."
Horner, relishing his Red Bull team's shot at more sustained success, said: "We will be ready. We adapt well, but we don't under-estimate McLaren and Ferrari. Nor does Sebastian... He is now the one the other drivers are shooting at. It's a different type of pressure, but, at just 24, he is still evolving and I think the best is yet to come."
Much the same has been said, too, of another German-born driver, Nico Rosberg, who partners Schumacher, now 43, at the improved Mercedes team.
Tipped by many to be a threat to the front-runners, Rosberg said: "It's still going to be the teams from last year that we need to beat, but I think we have a good chance to annoy them a few times early in the season."
Kimi Raikkonen, back with the 'new' Lotus team, formerly Renault, after a two-year absence, was fast in testing but the 2007 champion resisted all prompts to predict more glory ahead.
"Like everyone, I don't know who is fastest. There is no point in guessing. Nobody knows."