Lewis Hamilton was hurting after the remarkable conclusion to the 2021 season, but he has had time to reset and prepare for another tilt at a record-breaking eighth Formula 1® drivers' championship.
Hamilton was denied the title in dramatic fashion last year when a highly contentious decision from then race director Michael Masi gave Max Verstappen the opportunity to pass him on the final lap of the season to be crowned champion for the first time.
Mercedes feared Hamilton would quit the sport as a result, but the man Toto Wolff described as a "lion" in last season's run-in is ready to fight again – starting at this week's Bahrain Grand Prix.
Not that Hamilton is expecting this season to be any more straightforward than the last.
Verstappen has proven he can match Hamilton over the course of a campaign, while George Russell will hope to prove more competitive than Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes seat. The new F1® regulations also mean a potential challenge from the midfield, with Ferrari fast in pre-season.
"We're certainly not at the top," a pessimistic Hamilton said last week, but Verstappen dismissed those comments while acknowledging Ferrari's pace.
The Red Bull superstar suggested Hamilton and Mercedes would quickly turn their fortunes around – and that certainly fits with the Briton's career to date.
"He's an exceptional driver," former Ferrari star Felipe Massa told Stats Perform, "one who is undoubtedly the main man in the sport today because of the records he holds in Formula One.
"No one ever imagined that he would even come close to beating [Michael] Schumacher's records. He overtook pretty much everyone else. One more title is missing to go ahead as a record holder."
That eighth title will remain the goal this year, but Hamilton could move ahead of Schumacher in another sense as soon as Sunday; he has won in 15 consecutive F1 seasons since 2007, meaning victory in a 16th would top the German (1992-2006).
Hamilton's happy hunting ground
In pursuit of that new benchmark, Hamilton will be happy to be back in Bahrain, where he has such an outstanding history.
Of the 17 editions of the Bahrain GP, Hamilton has won a record five races, including the past three. No other driver has won three in succession at this event – and that sequence could be extended to four this week.
Mercedes have recorded the most pole positions (six) and podiums (15) at the Bahrain Grand Prix, ranking one ahead of Ferrari in each category.
The Silver Arrows and the Scuderia are tied for Bahrain wins (six) and fastest laps (five) heading into the 2022 race.
We are in a special week for Mercedes, too, as this is the team's 250th grand prix. With 124 victories so far, they could mark the occasion by improving their win rate to an outstanding 50 per cent, the best such performance by any one team.
Is Red Bull set for a reality check?
Verstappen's record at this track is not quite so impressive, even if he almost beat Hamilton last season having started from pole, forced to give his place back after exceeding track limits in passing his rival.
That was Verstappen's seventh Bahrain GP without victory – an eighth fruitless appearance would make this the grand prix he has entered most without winning.
He has retired three times at the Bahrain GP and, including the 2020 Sakhir GP, a career-high four times at this circuit.
The Dutchman at least has the benefit of the confidence of his championship triumph – and a "ridiculously fast" Red Bull, according to Hamilton – but first-time champions have not typically fared well in the first race of their title defence.
Only three of the past 14 first-time defending champions have won on the first weekend of the new season: Michael Schumacher in 1995, Fernando Alonso in 2006 and Sebastian Vettel in 2011.
At least securing pole would mean a positive omen, as Red Bull drivers have gone on to win the title on the four previous occasions they have started the season by qualifying fastest (Vettel in 2010, 2011 and 2013, plus Verstappen last year).
Hamilton in 2015 and 2016 was the last driver to achieve back-to-back Bahrain poles, although only seven Bahrain GP winners have started from the front of the grid.