By Alan Baldwin
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - This time last year Lewis Hamilton was surrounded by speculation, bombarded by questions about his future and seemingly dogged by controversy every step of the way.
At the Belgian Grand Prix on Thursday, the 2008 Formula One champion cut a very different figure - relaxed, at ease with his Mercedes team and untroubled by the rumors running wild elsewhere.
"As far as I can remember, this is the best I have felt going into the second half of the season," he told British reporters.
"I feel that I am able to focus more because I only have one thing to focus on and that's winning. Last year, I was having so many different things that I was thinking about."
Hamilton arrived at Spa eager to pick up where he left off after winning in Hungary - the last race before the August break.
While speculation swirled around the 2014 intentions of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen, and who will partner champion Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull next year, Hamilton's position is clear and settled and he hoped to benefit from the stability.
"Naturally, last year I tried my best not to let it affect me. But of course battling off the questions and also not knowing where I was planning to go, it was a constant strain taking away energy," he said.
"I don't have that now, so it is a great feeling coming here. It is a night and day difference compared to last year.
"I am settled in my new team, happy where I am and looking forward to a really successful three years with them that will hopefully continue even longer. I just hope that feeling continues."
Hamilton's win in Hungary was his first for Mercedes since the move from McLaren, the team he had been with since boyhood in karting, and moved him up to fourth place overall with nine races remaining.
The Briton is still 48 points behind Vettel but emerging as the German's biggest threat as the season enters its decisive second half.
He is nine points behind Alonso and 10 adrift of Raikkonen, but has started the last three races on pole position with the Mercedes the quickest car over a single lap.
"I am happy in my team and confident in my car. I won the last race and am confident we can win some more before the end of the season," said Hamilton.
He said he was feeling better than ever, even if his pet bulldog Roscoe is unwell and unable to join him on his travels while he recovers.
"I feel really healthy right now, feel the batteries are full," he said.
"In the previous six years I'd taken it (the August break) as a bit of a holiday and trained maybe twice a week. This summer I was training six times a week and trying to get myself centered and I come here today feeling more motivated than ever," he said.
"We know we have a quick car and that it has not suddenly got slower over the break, so we can come here and fight. It is a long way to go, but generally my second half to the season has been stronger and I hope that is the case again this year."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)