Sebastian Vettel is aiming to become the youngest driver to win a hat-trick of titles when the longest Formula One season yet begins next week in Australia.

The 24-year-old German Red Bull driver could better five-time winner Juan Manuel Fangio and compatriot Michael Schumacher, the record seven-time world champion, for whom the 2012 season looks likely to be a second farewell.

“All good things come in threes and that would of course be something great, but until then there’s a long way to go,” Vettel said.

After Red Bull’s dominance of the past two seasons, rivals are looking slightly more confident of their prospects as the teams brace for a season featuring a record six current and former world champions.

Although nothing will begin to come clear until the opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 18, all the signs from pre-season testing have shown that while Ferrari with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso may struggle, Lotus could be the big surprise.

Testing has been promising for the former Renault team, which has hired ex-world champion Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn was in 2007 the last world champion from Ferrari, two years before he had to make way for Alonso.

Also back in the fold is the German Nico Huelkenberg, who following a year as reserve driver for Williams, has replaced fellow German Adrian Sutil at Force India.

Red Bull’s biggest challenge could come from McLaren, which is the only one of the top teams to go without the stepped nose design. Last year’s runner-up Jenson Button and teammate Lewis Hamilton, both former world champions, should be in contention in the MP4-27.

Mercedes are looking to make bigger strides this season with the German pairing of Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, but whether they have the pace to turn the season into a German duel with Vettel remains to be seen.

The team’s progress could well affect any decision 43-year-old Schumacher makes to continue or not. Schumacher’s contract runs out at the end of the season — which with 20 races is the longest yet.

Team principal Ross Brawn reckons on a decision by the first third of the season.

It is set to be a marathon season, ending on November 25 with the Brazilian Grand Prix. A week earlier Formula One will also be back in the United States for the first time since 2007 with a race in Austin, Texas.

That could be Vettel’s 100th race, and perhaps a jubilee to remember if it also coincides with him clinching a hat-trick of titles a week before the final race.

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