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Vettel tries to dampen treble talk

MELBOURNE, Australia, March 15 – Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel tried to dampen excitement over his bid for a landmark title hat-trick, as an upbeat Lewis Hamilton Thursday vowed to make a fresh start this season.

Red Bull’s Vettel, 24, breezed through 2011 with 11 wins, and another series title this year would lift him to the exalted level of Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher, the only men so far to take three or more in a row.

But the modest German did his best to deflect talk about his historic attempt as he prepared for this season’s curtain-raiser, the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

“Well, you know I am here to win races and to win all I can,” Vettel said. “But most of all I’m here to win the championship — so that’s the target, but we are not talking about anything else.

“Whether it is the third or not doesn’t make the difference. It would be a nice thing, but the reason why we’re here is to race and to win.”

Vettel, who became Formula One’s youngest back-to-back champion in such impressive fashion last year, also warned that he had little idea about the relative speed and strengths of his team.

“OK, we are all here and we are ready to start racing, but really, we have to wait until qualifying on Saturday and for the first couple of races to show a trend of what is happening,” said the German.

“Maybe after qualifying we will know a little bit more, but after tomorrow (Friday) we will not know much more.”

While Vettel was cautious about the season ahead, his McLaren rival Hamilton said he was looking forward to a “fresh start” after being hit by problems on and off the track last year.

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The 27-year-old Briton said he was aiming for a more focused approach than last season, when he was distracted by relationship problems with his pop-star girlfriend and also changed his management set-up.

“I feel great. I’m very happy to be here. I’m excited for the new season — it’s a fresh start,” Hamilton said. “The team has been working hard to prepare us a car to fight with and I’m in fighting shape.”

The 2008 champion repeatedly clashed with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa last year in a forgettable season which he finished fifth, well back from second-placed team-mate Jenson Button.

But Hamilton said he had realised how lucky he was to be an established driver in the high-profile sport.

“I’ve just got to keep my head down and stay focused on one goal,” he said. “I still feel quite privileged to be here in F1,” he said.

“I’m 27 years old, it’s my sixth year in F1, but I’m still one of the few people in the world who gets to do this job.

“I’m constantly having to pinch myself that I’m still able to be here. I’m very happy. I’m in a good place.”

Mercedes’ Ross Brawn said Hamilton, whose affairs will now be guided by experienced Formula One manager Didier Coton, would also learn from the example of his hard-working team-mate, 2009 winner Jenson Button.

And Ferrari insisted they could also make an impression in the upcoming, 18-stop series, despite a disappointing 2011 when their drivers Fernando Alonso and Massa placed fourth and sixth overall.

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“I’m confident. I’m very relaxed about the possibilities of our car,” Alonso said, adding: “I think the winter has been tough for us with so many tests to do.

“It’s quite a complex car in terms of set-up and understanding it. Maybe we didn’t reach our targets but it doesn’t mean that we are slower than the other cars. That we will not know until Saturday.”

Practice starts on Friday, with qualification on Saturday. The race, over 58 laps of the 5.3 kilometre (3.3 miles) inner-city circuit, starts at 5:00 pm (0600 GMT) on Sunday.

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