By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA (Reuters) - On his way to winning Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel found his mind wandering already to next week's first in-season Formula One test and how much he was looking forward to it.
The four-times world champion, now seven points clear of Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton after winning two of the first three races, is enjoying his best start to a season since his dominant 2011 Red Bull campaign.
That year he also won two of the first three and went on to take his second title.
The German, who did not start in Bahrain a year ago in a season that Ferrari completed without a win, is having the time of his life again and relishing the battle with Mercedes.
"The last half of the in-lap (after the finish) when all the fireworks were there and track was lit up, it was 'I just love what I do'. I didn’t find any words," he said.
"I’m really enjoying it, the car has been a pleasure."
Last year was the first, and to date only, no-start of Vettel's Formula One career, with the car breaking down on the formation lap at the desert circuit, but Sunday proved an evening to savor.
The groundwork for a title challenge laid last year is bearing fruit.
Vettel won in Australia, finished second to Hamilton in China and was then first again in Bahrain -- a race he won with Red Bull in 2012 and 2013.
"Compared to last year, I’ve started the race. That helped," he said.
"Australia obviously was a massive boost for all the team and yeah, you can see when they are singing down there (below the podium), and the whole factory has really come alive so that’s great and we need to just make sure we keep it going.
"I think the team has obviously done a really, really great job, a lot of hard work, commitment and... things start to click," he added.
"Hopefully that sort of success now in the first couple of races helps us to build up some sort of momentum that maybe these guys (Mercedes) had in the past and the last couple of years, so they will be the ones to beat."
Mercedes have won the last three drivers' and constructors' titles but are now facing their biggest challenge of the V6 turbo hybrid era.
"We are now completely confident that our victory in Melbourne wasn’t just a one-off and that we will be at the forefront of this World Championship until the last," said Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne in a statement.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)