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Ranking all-time greats

Published:Thursday | October 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Hubert Lawrence, Gleaner Writer

Athletics isn't the only sport where retired greats scoff at the greats of the present. The latest example of this trend has come in Formula 1, where a retired three-time world champion has put the brakes on Sebastian Vettel.

Sir Jackie Stewart, F1 champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973, recently said that Vettel won't be an all-time great even if he clinches the 2012 F1 driver's title at the upcoming Korean Grand Prix. That would give the 25-year-old German three titles in a row.

Stewart admires Vettel as a driver, but says the Red Bull Formula 1 car is so good that it deserves a lot of the credit. Stewart told the BBC: "If you've got a superior car, it's relatively easy to win the championship.

"To really show you're one of the greatest," the much admired Scot outlined, "you have to deliver when you haven't got the best machinery."

Vettel might disagree. Michael Schumacher is the most successful F1 driver ever with seven titles, with Juan Manuel Fangio on five and Alain Prost on four. Stewart is one of five with three titles. All of them - Jack Braham, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna - are F1 legends.

Stewart himself won his last two titles when his navy blue Tyrell was one of the best cars in the category. During that period, he had a sensational rivalry with Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian doubleworld champion.

In fact, Fittipaldi might have won more championships, but left McLaren to race and develop an all-Brazilian F1 car. The effort cost him.

Success in 2012 would put Vettel in a rare group. Only Schumacher and Fangio won three straight titles, with the German winning non-stop from 2000-2004 and the Argentine taking the title every season from 1954 to 1957.

Athlete of the Year 2012

A win for Vettel would also separate him from fel-low two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who is also in with a chance this year, Fittipaldi and Jim Clark.

Stewart has a point though. In motor racing, the result is credited by driver, car and crew. A weak link anywhere in the chain will cause defeat. As he well knows, the driver has to hold it all together in a sport where mistakes are costly.

Usain Bolt knows just how the reigning F1 champion feels.

Some believe he must win gold in the 2016 Olympics to be an all-time great. Others like Edwin Moses, the two-time Olympic 400-metre hurdles champion, thinks that Bolt is so good now that he should retire.

I'd be intrigued to hear the deliberations of the prestigious Laureus Academy when they meet to select their Athlete of the Year 2012. Moses and Fittipaldi are members. So is cricket great Viv Richards.

Athletics also has Seb Coe, the two-time Olympic 1500-metre champion man who led Britain's Olympic Games effort, Michael Johnson, Cathy Freeman, Daley Thompson, Nawal El Moutawakel, Kip Keino and Sergey Bubka.

If Vettel or Alonso win the 2012 F1 title, Fittipaldi, motorcycle hero Giacomo Agostini and another two-time F1 champion, Mika Hakkinen, will bring the motorsport perspective to the discussions.

Whatever happens, Bolt and Vettel have time on their sides. Bolt has turned 26 and Vettel is still only 25.

After the London Olympics, there shouldn't be too many people left who doubt that the tall man is the best sprinter ever and one of the best athletes in any sport at any time. He will probably convert the reluctant remainder in the run-in to Rio and the 2016 Games. That will start at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Russia.

If Vettel wins in Korea and later matches the four titles by Prost, or the five by Fangio, he will get his due. Schumacher's seven titles are a distant target, but some of them were won when the German's car, a Ferrari, was the best vehicle on the track.

It makes you wonder. Perhaps there are all-time greats who don't think Schumacher was great either.

Hubert Lawrence has been covering sport since 1987.