If the smell of the Abu Dhabi fireworks still stings with bitter disappointment in Lewis Hamilton’s nostrils, he’s doing a good job of hiding it.
The Briton won’t soon forget the way he lost the 2021 championship to Max Verstappen. The pair started the final race level on points and Hamilton led almost the entire race, but a late safety car restart, conducted contrary to the regulations, gifted Verstappen an easy pass for the lead and title glory.
Since that acrid night the FIA has restructured race control and dismissed race director Michael Masi from the sport, but the championship remained Verstappen’s to keep in an awkward compromise between admission of failure and the practicality of sporting spectacle.
But after an off-season away from the spotlight during which he reportedly considered his future, the Briton has returned with a new resolve to claim a record-breaking eighth title.
“While moments like this might define others’ career, I refuse to let this define mine,” he said. “If you think what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait until you see this year.”
And he’ll need to find a new level of performance, because there’s no doubt Max Verstappen will already be up there to meet him.
Verstappen’s maiden title campaign was almost faultless, and now in his eighth season but still only 24 years old, he’s not simply the current generation of the sport but also its future.
Growing in power year by year and clearly comfortable at the top of the sport, the newly minted champion will present a sterner test than last year.
“I can be a bit more relaxed,” he wrote on his website. “Of course I’m super motivated to keep winning, but the ‘must’ element is now gone, because I’m already world champion.”
But new rules for 2022 are adding an unpredictable twist in proceedings.
The all-new generation of car is set to improve the spectacle by enabling closer racing, but while Red Bull Racing has a handle on its new machine - Max Verstappen set the preseason’s fastest time - Mercedes is still struggling.
The team brought a dramatic new aerodynamic package to the second half of the test, but while other teams were perfecting what they already had, the German marque remained more than a second off the pace.
“I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins,” Hamilton lamented, estimating a one-month time frame before his car will be competitive.
Ferrari is poised to take Mercedes’s place. The Italian team’s horrid last two seasons meant it was allowed more development time than Mercedes and Red Bull Racing, and the team appears to have used it to powerful effect.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz completed the most laps of any partnership during the preseason and were always near the top of the order, teasing a long-awaited Ferrari resurgence.
“We should try to be at least outsiders, try to be as close as we can,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said. “And if we look at the performance, so far it’s difficult to judge.
“Certainly I hope that it will be very close at the end altogether.”
McLaren must be considered a dark horse too. The papaya orange car was consistently quick during early testing in Spain, but overheating brakes in Bahrain meant it couldn’t push the package.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo undoubtedly start on the back foot, but there’s clearly pace to be accessed once the odometer starts ticking.
A four-team title fight would be the stuff of F1 dreams. But as the sport proved last year in what may come to be regarded as its best-ever season, you really only need two drivers to create a classic.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton won’t need any other rivals, and they’re ready to renew their era-defining rivalry for a second season.