Lewis Hamilton may not have the quickest car in Formula One but in the past three weeks his followers must have wondered whether they were watching the world's fastest nervous breakdown. Rejecting the ancient dictum that in order to finish first you must first finish, Hamilton has had more collisions than a banger racer.
In Monaco, where some of his manoeuvres were hair-raising, he was penalised three times in two days and reacted by saying it was all because of his skin colour. He also hit out at two of his fellow drivers. Last weekend in Canada, Mark Webber suggested Hamilton had confused Turn 3 for the chequered flag and there was another crash, this time with his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, before he limped out of the race. To cap it all, the 2008 world champion then disappeared into the Red Bull motor-home for impromptu talks with their startled team principal, Christian Horner.
His recent actions have prompted a fusillade of criticism from former drivers-***-commentators. Jackie Stewart, who has been a big supporter of the driver, told The Guardian last week that Hamilton was being "unprofessional" when he blamed the car and his team for his failings. Niki Lauda said in Canada that Hamilton was "completely mad" and that "it will result in someone getting killed", while another former world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, said he was "too aggressive".
Even Stirling Moss said he had gone "too far," although the 81-year-old was well off the mark when he suggested that the driver missed his father's influence as manager: Hamilton junior has been much happier since his professional split with Hamilton senior.
A more sympathetic voice can be heard from the former commentator Jonathan Palmer. Palmer, a former doctor who raced in almost 90 Formula One races in the 1980s, is now the chief executive of MotorSport Vision, the motor racing organisation which owns a number of British circuits, Brands Hatch among them. "Lewis has done both the media and the public alike a huge favour. He is the sport's top entertainer," he said. "He is fierce, tenacious and courageous. He is a racer and if he doesn't go flat out he's not going to win. I don't really blame him for what happened at Monaco.
"In Monaco, it's virtually impossible to make a totally clean overtaking manoeuvre. You have to make a bit of a lunge and even then you are relying on some degree of co-operation from the man you are overtaking. If that is not the case there will simply be no overtaking at Monaco."
Yet even Palmer feels that Hamilton is getting close to the line with his actions. "He's not reckless. But he's not far off from being reckless," he said. "Now, he will have to tread a tricky line going into the race in Valencia. He will have to be just a little more cautious going into that race. The trouble is a driver is at his most vulnerable when competitors think he's going to be careful, so Lewis won't be saying anything about it."
Palmer is prepared to join the ranks of those who say Hamilton is out of order for blaming his McLaren. "He drives a good car," he said. "He drives one of the best two or three cars out there. The best drivers can't always drive the best cars, and the same applies to [Ferrari's] Fernando Alonso. I would say the best drivers drive inferior cars for at least half of their careers.
"Red Bull do have a big advantage in terms of speed. But pure pace doesn't always decide the result. That can be down to reliability, pit stop strategy, traffic and plenty of other wild cards out there. There are other ways to win a race."
Hamilton, though, might argue that he has already had an inferior car for more than half of his career. For this and the past two seasons Red Bull have been the team to beat. At the heart of Hamilton's malaise is a growing sense of frustration. He is not winning. He is not even winning pole – he won 17 pole positions between 2007-9 but only one since.
He is still not given the appropriate credit for his astonishing rookie season of 2007, when he almost – should have – won the world championship at the first attempt. The title did come the following year, at the very end of the last lap of the final race. But Hamilton, not surprisingly, has been unable to maintain his remarkable trajectory. Now his third successive season will end in disappointment. But even when he is not winning, Lewis Hamilton remains Formula One's top box office attraction.