Sportsview by David Eidlestein
IT'S never quite enough for our sporting superstars to simply be the best of their era – to achieve legendary status, they have to be better than yesterday's heroes too.
It is, of course, an impossible game to play, comparing the merits of modern-day champions with those of years gone by, whose exploits and achievements are often gilded by the passage of time.
While it may make the perfect topic for public bar debates – Messi or Pelé? Federer or Laver? – it is always a question without an answer, only an opinion.
The theme has arisen a time or two this week because the brilliant German Sebastian Vettel clinched his fourth straight Formula One world drivers' title by winning the Indian Grand Prix.
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It was the culmination of a near-perfect season. At 26, he has only Michael Schumacher, on seven, and Juan Fangio, with five, ahead of him; he has now matched Alain Prost's haul of four but Vettel has done it in successive years.
And while nobody would dispute the fact that his Red Bull has been the quickest car on the circuit for a while now, he has had to see off challenges from plenty of supremely talented drivers, including his teammate Mark Webber, runner-up Fernando Alonso and British ex-champion Lewis Hamilton.
World titles are not the only measure of any driver's greatness, of course. Some of the very best never won one – Stirling Moss is the stand-out example. The garlands have to be balanced against the conditions under which they have to compete and the quality of their back-up teams.
Many experts believe Vettel's all-round set of skills and dedicated approach to his craft have already elevated him to the pantheon of truly great drivers, but there is also a widely held view that he will have to win in the colours of a less dominant manufacturer before he can be fully acknowledged.
Vettel certainly won this year's championship in scintillating style. He rattled up 10 wins in 16 races, was rarely off the podium and attained a level of consistency seldom encountered in this most demanding of sports.
He admits he has been wounded by the booing he has received after some races and he does not enjoy universal popularity within the Formula One community. There are echoes of his compatriot Schumacher in that respect but Vettel, fiercely competitive though he is, does not cross the line into cynical ruthlessness sometimes displayed by his illustrious predecessor.