By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With the 2012 Formula One season set to get underway later this week in Melbourne, Australia, Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull begins his campaign for a third consecutive world championship.
Vettel, who turned 25 last week, had one of the most dominating seasons in the history of F1 in 2011. The young German scored 11 wins and 17 podium appearances in 19 grand prix. He also notched 15 poles, which set a season record.
He clinched his second straight title with four races left, while Red Bull wrapped up its second constructors' championship in a row shortly after.
If Vettel and Red Bull are once again in a league of their own, it could make for a lackluster year, and F1's top boss, Bernie Ecclestone, is hoping that won't be the case.
But does anyone have a shot of dethroning Vettel and Red Bull this year?
That's the big question heading into the new season.
AIMING FOR A THREE-PEAT
Vettel is certainly the heavy favorite to win this year's title. If he does it, he will join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as those drivers with three or more consecutive F1 world championships. Fangio captured four titles in a row from 1954-57, while five of Schumacher's record-seven championships came consecutively from 2000-04.
But Vettel will have stiff competition this season, especially with the return of former champion Kimi Raikkonen.
This F1 season will feature six world champions on the grid, the first time that's happened in the sport. Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Raikkonen and Schumacher will be contesting Vettel for the title.
"Obviously, we had a great year, and I think we'll always look back to 2011 and think how special it was, but to be honest, you don't start the season with expectations of having the same or similar season again," Vettel said. "The target is to obviously try to do it again and try to get everything out of ourselves. So we'll see how we get on with the new car, the RB8."
Vettel spent a lot of time getting familiar with Red Bull's RB8 car during recent preseason test sessions at Barcelona and Jerez, Spain. He topped the timesheets in the first day of testing at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya. However, Red Bull had its share of mechanical and engine issues with the car at both testing sites.
The last day at Barcelona did not fare well for Red Bull, as Vettel went off course and broke the front wing. The team later dealt with a gearbox issue.
Despite his dominating season, Vettel had his share of problems in the final two grand prix last year. In the penultimate race at Abu Dhabi, Vettel suffered a flat tire and spun out on the opening lap. He sustained suspension damage and ended up finishing last.
Vettel dealt with a gearbox problem during the season finale in Brazil, but managed to finish second. His teammate, Mark Webber, won that race.
HIGH HOPES FOR McLAREN
McLaren could be Red Bull's biggest challenger in this year's constructors' championship battle. The team had significant improvement in 2011 after a somewhat dismal season in 2010.
Judging from its performance in pre-season testing, McLaren seems to be on the right track with its new MP4-27 car. And that's quite pleasing to Button, who finished runner-up in the championship battle last year -- 122 points behind Vettel.
"I'm happy with our preparations," he said. "You always want more laps and more time in the car, but, unlike last year, we've had a very solid start to our pre-season. It's been very difficult to read pace over the winter, because a lot of teams have been playing their cards close to their chests. I think it's going to be extremely close, and I can't wait to find out where we sit in the pecking order."
After a disappointing fifth-place finish in points last year, Hamilton is hopeful in turning things around this season.
"I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I've ever done," he said. "Everything has gone smoothly with the car, which is more than we can say for last year. It just seems to be a responsive and reliable package."
TROUBLE AHEAD FOR FERRARI?
Once a dominating team in F1, Ferrari might be heading down the wrong path with its F2012 car. Team principal Stefano Domenicali did not hide the fact he was displeased with the performance and reliability of the car during recent tests.
The folks at Ferrari are feverishly working to get the car improved in time for Melbourne. But it might be some time before the Italian team sees the results they had initially expected.
"It's obvious that we can't be happy with how the test went considering our goals, but let's not forget that the championship still has to start," Domenicali said. "This is just the starting point, and we have a very long season ahead of us. We know that there are some areas where we have to work a lot, regarding reliability and performance."
If Ferrari resolves its issues with the car, expect Fernando Alonso to have another good year.
This will be a very challenging season for Felipe Massa. If Massa doesn't start posting better results, he might be looking for a new team by season's end.
After spending the past two seasons in the World Rally Championship, Kimi Raikkonen is back in F1, driving for Lotus (formerly known as Lotus Renault GP). Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, is paired with Romain Grosjean, who had served as a test and reserve driver for Renault last year.
Raikkonen faired well in his tests with Lotus, but it remains to be seen if his two-year absence from F1 will hurt his chances of being competitive, especially in the early season.
"I feel very happy with the team," Raikkonen said. "We're still learning things, but everything is going smoothly, and there are no problems at all, so it's a good position to start the season."
NEW RIDES, NEW FACES
While Lotus has a new driver lineup with Raikkonen and Grosjean, several other teams made changes to their lineup during the offseason.
Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov drove for Lotus last year, but Senna has now teamed with Pastor Maldonado at Williams, while Petrov has joined Caterham to pair with Heikki Kovalainen.
Nico Hulkenberg, Narian Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa return to F1 this season. Hulkenberg has been upgraded from test and reserve driver to teammate with Paul di Resta at Force India. Karthikeyan and de la Rosa landed rides at HRT.
Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne replaced Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari at Toro Rosso. Vergne will make his F1 debut in Melbourne.
Charles Pic is also a newcomer to F1 this year, driving for Marussia.
THE MUCH-ANTICIPATED RETURN TO THE U.S.
The 2012 F1 calendar will feature a record 20 grand prix. One week prior to the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, the racing circuit will compete in the United States for the first time since 2007. The Circuit of the Americas, located just outside of Austin, Texas, will host the United States Grand Prix on Nov. 18.
"I'm looking forward to it," Vettel said. "It's been a long time since we've raced in America, so it's good to go back."
Vettel made his F1 debut in the 2007 USGP, which was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is back on the schedule after it was canceled last year due to violent anti-government protests in that Middle Eastern country. Bahrain is slated for April 22.
The full 2012 F1 entry list of constructors and drivers is as follows:
1 Sebastian Vettel (Germany) 2 Mark Webber (Australia)
3 Jenson Button (Great Britain) 4 Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain)
5 Fernando Alonso (Spain) 6 Felipe Massa (Brazil)
7 Michael Schumacher (Germany) 8 Nico Rosberg (Germany)
9 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) 10 Romain Grosjean (Switzerland)
11 Paul di Resta (Great Britain) 12 Nico Hulkenberg (Germany)
14 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) 15 Sergio Perez (Mexico)
16 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) 17 Jean-Eric Vergne (France)
18 Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela) 19 Bruno Senna (Brazil)
20 Heikki Kovalainen (Finland) 21 Vitaly Petrov (Russia)
22 Pedro de la Rosa (Spain) 23 Narain Karthikeyan (India)
24 Timo Glock (Germany) 25 Charles Pic (France)
03/13 09:55:05 ET