Sebastian Vettel has admitted that he may on the face of it be taking a 'step back' in 'graduating' from Scuderia Toro Rosso to parent outfit Red Bull Racing in Formula 1 in 2009, but he is hopeful that - as he did this season - he can ultimately turn it into a 'step forward'.

The German - already the youngest points-scorer in the 58-year history of the top flight - added to that record with those of youngest pole position sitter and youngest race-winner when he sensationally triumphed in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza back in September.

Even now, he admits, he still has to pinch himself to believe that it's true - particularly given the less-than impressive manner in which STR began the campaign.

"[I learned] to never, ever give up!" he joked in an interview with the official Formula 1 website. "We started 2008 with the B-version of the '07 car and that caused us numerous retirements. Performance-wise too we were not where we would have liked to be.

"I had four retirements at the beginning of the season. That was quite a difficult situation, because I came to race after race and did not manage to finish. That caused some quite frayed nerves, so the need of the moment was to not give up.

"Me and the team were refocusing every single time; we didn't back off or try to take less risks - we always tried to stay aggressive and in the end that paid off. With the arrival of the new car - the STR3 - in Monaco we could bank on both our mental strength and a competitive car.

"That made the post-Monaco races so pleasant. Before we were always thinking of positions around 15th or 16th - on a good race day possibly even 13th - but after Monaco our results horizon expanded significantly.

"You usually don't change cars mid season as we did. It was seen by many as quite a risky move, but for us it was the dead-right decision - and it gave us a dream second half of the season. Everything changed after Monaco, and when we added some updates towards the end of the season our performance level was going up further. We can still hardly believe that we scored so many points - and even won a race! It's phenomenal."

Indeed, come season's end Vettel and STR's performance was strong enough to see him hassle - and overtake - the McLaren-Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton in the Brazilian Grand Prix finale at Interlagos. Acknowledging the Briton as one of his top three drivers in the sport - along with Kimi Raikkonen and Robert Kubica ('I never judge myself. Someone else has to mention me - hopefully') - he admitted that it was a real sign of the small Faenza-based squad's progress over the course of the campaign that he had been able to challenge the newly-crowned 2008 F1 World Champion.

"In the end I just wanted to pass the car in front of me," the 21-year-old underlined. "That's what racing is all about. I knew when I came out after the last pit-stop on intermediate tyres that I was behind Lewis, running solidly P5. I was hoping for some rain - and the rain came.

"That turned the race a bit chaotic, but in the end I was able to pass him. At that stage, because almost everybody was pitting, I didn't know what position I was in - I just passed him. Thinking about it now and how important that manoeuvre was for Ferrari and McLaren, it was a damned important situation, a very special moment.

"Who would have ever guessed that a Toro Rosso would eventually pass a McLaren in a championship-deciding race? To pass the guy who is now the reigning world champion is not too bad..."

Not too bad at all, and Vettel hopes to be able to race wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton and the other front-runners on a more regular basis still in 2009 - but in order to do that, he knows his new employers Red Bull Racing have a mountain to climb, having ended the 2008 campaign just seventh in the constructors' standings.

The Milton Keynes-based concern began the year strongly and even led the fraught five-way scrap over the coveted and lucrative fourth position in the constructors' rankings early on, but as its rivals increasingly developed and upped the ante, the energy drinks-backed outfit was unable to keep pace.

An entirely new set of regulations for next season will provide the team with the opportunity to start afresh from a clean sheet of paper and effectively on a level playing field, but following Mark Webber's mountain-biking collision with a car whilst on his annual Pure Tasmania Challenge at the weekend [see separate story - click here], new boy Vettel knows the bulk of the initial, crucial testing and development work of the RB5 will fall squarely on his shoulders.

"What happened to Mark was a shame," the man from Heppenheim acknowledged, "and I hope he gets well soon. I haven't had the chance to talk to him yet. We will proceed as usual with testing and for sure he will be missed, but it is more important that he is back next year to get the new car running. We have to be even more focused down in Jerez at our next test and can't afford to make any mistakes, as time is valuable.

"We know pretty well by now how the slick tyres will work and I trust that the engineers know very well how to work with aerodynamics, as there will be a significant change in aerodynamics next season. KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) will be the biggest challenge - but not only for us.

"[At the Barcelona test last week] you saw teams with new front and rear wings similar to next year's, and some were already running KERS, playing around with the basics. We have a good idea of the '09 car and we are going about things in the smartest way we can.

"From the previous tests I did for Red Bull Racing I know pretty much the whole engineering staff, and I'm getting to know them more and more. My race engineer will stay with Toro Rosso and I will have new people to work with. It will surely take some time to get the perfect understanding and finally speak the same language, but we are definitely getting there."

For a man with a BMW-Sauber testing contract in his pocket in mid-2007 and a reputation inexorably on the rise, jumping into F1 full-time with Toro Rosso was a gamble this year, as Vettel recognises. Equally, it is a gamble that paid off - and now the former F3 Euroseries runner-up is determined to prove the naysayers wrong again by turning what is on the surface a backwards step into a further progression of his career.

"Of course," he confessed when asked if he had ever wondered if he had done the right thing in quitting his BMW test role for the underperforming STR2B in the early stages of 2008, "but I wanted to race and when I was offered the Toro Rosso cockpit there was no second of doubt in my mind that I would take it.

"Sure there was risk involved because at that moment Toro Rosso wasn't a good team at all, but in the end my race appetite prevailed. If I had stayed with BMW-Sauber I have no idea where it would have taken my career. Probably sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move several steps forward, so the decision was right. Hopefully I'll be able to say the same at the end of next season."