Lewis Hamilton said he had never seriously considered stepping away from Formula One following last season's controversial finale and warned rivals he was heading into the 2022 campaign in better shape than ever.
The Briton went off the grid, disappearing from social media and not speaking publicly, after missing out on a record eighth title when altered safety car rules allowed Red Bull rival Max Verstappen to seize the lead on the last lap of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
At Mercedes’ new car launch on Friday he was back at his fighting best.
“If you think that what you saw at the end of the last year was my best, wait till you see this year,” declared Hamilton, who won three straight races, including a stirring recovery drive from the back in Brazil, heading into the decider in Abu Dhabi.
“I always feel like through these sorts of experiences, you can turn that emotion into strength, into power. That’s what I’m doing.”
Hamilton’s silence and team boss Toto Wolff’s comment that the Briton was “disillusioned” had fanned speculation surrounding his future.
The 37-year-old, who is the sport's most successful driver with 103 race wins, said questioning whether he had the motivation to return was something he did every year.
“I think at the end of seasons you think and the question is whether you’re willing to commit the time, the effort that it takes to be a world champion," he said.
“But of course this one was compounded by a significant factor.
“But I’m generally a very determined person and I like to think to myself, whilst moments like this might define someone’s career, I refuse to let this define mine.”
F1's governing FIA on Thursday removed Australian Michael Masi, who made the controversial safety car call, as race director in an overhaul of the sport’s refereeing process.
Hamilton said he welcomed the changes but his faith in the system would take time to be rebuilt.
“I think accountability is key and we have to use this moment to make sure this never happens to anybody else in the sport ever again,” he added.
Hamilton, who spent the winter with his family, also said he bore no grudge towards rival Verstappen.
“I never think that’s ever a good thing to carry around with you,” he said.
“I don’t have anything over my shoulders holding me back this year.
“... I’m not letting that experience be one of those.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Toby Davis)