OPINION: Why Sir Jackie Stewart is the greatest F1 driver of all time

There’s a distinction to be made between the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, and the greatest racing driver of all time.

They are not mutually exclusive as the greatest racing driver of them all is something vastly different to the title of ‘F1 GOAT.’

From Sir Stirling Moss and Mario Andretti getting in pretty much anything with four wheels and winning in it to Graham Hill, the only man to date to have won the famed Triple Crown of Motorsport, it is a debate that will go on and on in pubs and between friends, exulting the virtues of whoever you believe to be the best racing driver.

You name it, those three drivers raced in it and become household names, especially Moss who was once pulled over by a copper for speeding and asked: ‘Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?’ Imagine the surprise and confusion on his face.

But while they are all great racing drivers, they are not the greatest F1 driver of all time.

As your humble writer explored yesterday, three-time World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart has a claim to be considered the best F1 racer of all them.

Today (August 5th) marks 50 years since Stewart’s 27th and final Grand Prix victory at the 1973 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

So, what better way to celebrate that landmark by explaining why he should be considered the ‘F1 GOAT.’

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Sir Jackie Stewart

Stewart only raced 99 times in F1 between 1965 and his retirement as World Champion and undoubted ‘man to beat’ at the end of 1973.

If not for the death of teammate Francois Cevert in practice for the season-ending United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, he would have retired after his 100th start.

After the death of the great Jim Clark in an F2 race in 1968, Stewart effectively inherited his mantle in the line of succession as the yardstick by which all others would be measured.

His switch to Matra from BRM for 1968 began one of the most enduring partnerships in the history of motorsport, along with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari; Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes when the Ford Cosworth DFV was bolted in the back.

In terms of ability, there is not much to separate Stewart, Schumacher and Hamilton, with the dominance of Schumacher and Hamilton in particular perhaps nudging them ahead of Stewart.

After all, they’ve both won multiple titles back to back while Stewart never retained his, claiming the title in 1969, 1971 and 1973.

All three were excellent at building a team around them, fostering a strong team ethic at Tyrrell, Ferrari and Mercedes, respectively.

But in terms of legacy, fairness and skill in wheel-to-wheel racing, Stewart is by far ahead of either septuple champion.

 © Pirelli © Pirelli

Legacy

Stewart’s legacy to Grand Prix racing can be summed in one word: Safety.

In 1969, he led a driver boycott of the Belgian Grand Prix on the old Spa-Francorchamps layout as he deemed the safety provisions were not adequate.

It was in the 1966 race that Stewart suffered the worst accident of his career. In the rain, he went off and hit a telephone pole and was stuck in the wreckage of the BRM for nearly half an hour while up to his waist in fuel.

Only other drivers, including Hill and a borrowed toolkit from a spectator enabled him to be free. Yes, motor racing was, is and will always be dangerous, but the undue risks faced were too great.

In 1970, Jochen Rindt, Stewart’s great friend, was killed at Monza while leading the World Championship, two years after Clark had died at Hockenheim. Rindt would never know he was World Champion, mercifully the only posthumous title winner.

Or in 1973, when at the Dutch Grand Prix, Roger Williamson was killed when his car caught fire at Zandvoort. The race continued on and Williamson burned to death, despite the efforts of David Purley to free his fellow British driver.

It would be like the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix continuing on as Romain Grosjean’s Haas car continued to burn with him still trying to free himself. Unthinkable right?

Stewart took large swathes of vitriol, even from the media. Motor Sport magazine’s Denis Jenkinson even wrote this about the reigning World Champion after Spa lost the Belgian GP after Stewart’s calls for improvements were denied, because the organisers did not want to pay for it.

Jenkinson described Stewart as “a certain beady-eyed little Scot” before adding “his pious whinings have brain-washed and undermined the natural instincts of some young and inexperienced newcomers to Grand Prix racing and removed the Belgian Grand Prix from Spa-Francorchamps.”

Just imagine a journalist of Jenkinson’s standing publicly lambasting the likes of Hamilton or Max Verstappen today. These truly were different times.

Stewart responded to Jenkinson, in short calling him a “fence-sitter” but it was water off a duck’s back for the Flying Scotsman.

Without a doubt, there has been no greater impact on motorsport as a whole than the crusade which Stewart began for Safety.

In all the series and championships, on all the tracks over the last 50 years or so, how many drivers have been saved because of what Stewart started?

The continued push for safety has led to the halo (or aeroscreen for IndyCar) being introduced. The lives of Charles Leclerc, Zhou Guanyu, Grosjean and even Hamilton himself have been saved by the halo since it was introduced.

A racing car will always find a new and unforeseen way to crash and put its occupant at risk, and Stewart’s push for safety, even against criticism that seems medieval, is the single greatest action anybody has, and ever will do, in motorsport.

 © XPBimages © XPBimages

Fairness is where Schumacher falls

Perhaps it is a byproduct of the era that Stewart raced in, but he would never deliberately put a rival, fans, marshals or indeed other drivers in harm’s way the same way Schumacher did.

Take the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix as old mucker Rubens Barrichello came up to pass the Mercedes along the pit-straight.

Schumacher squeezed his former Ferrari teammate up against the pit-wall, with just inches of room to spare for the Williams, who immediately called for a black flag, while Stewart was less than impressed.

“For one driver to do that deliberately, knowing that the wheels could interlock and that he had nowhere to go, was shocking,” he said in the aftermath.

“It was one of the most blatant abuses of another driver that I have seen. It is a terrible example from a man who has seven world titles. [It was] bully-boy tactics.”

Then there is the 1997 title-deciding clash with Jacques Villeneuve where, after realising what was happening, Schumacher’s brain clicked into gear and he rammed into the side of the Williams.

It was the fourth title to be decided by a collision between the protagonists since 1989 (Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Damon Hill being the other to lose out) as Schumacher became the first driver to ever be disqualified from the World Championship.

The win-at-all-costs approach certainly propelled Schumacher to the stratosphere and incidents such as Monaco 2006 Qualifying where he ‘parked’ at Rascasse to deny Fernando Alonso pole are just the right side of the dark arts, even if he was stripped of P1.

But to do what Schumacher did that afternoon in Budapest and potentially cause an accident of horrific proportions docks him marks.

There simply has to be an underlying trust that drivers will not do that to a rival, no matter the situation.

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Wheel-to-wheel racing is a Hamilton weakness

Of all the tools in the Hamilton armoury, you’ve got to go some way to kind a chink, but his judgement in wheel-to-wheel racing can be lacking sometimes.

Take Abu Dhabi 2021 (yes, that race), and it must be said that your writer does appreciate a sometimes go-karter talking the seven-time Formula 1 World Champion’s wheel-to-wheel racing weakness is a little ‘WHAT?’ but bear with the thought.

When Hamilton got ahead of Sergio Perez as the Red Bull tried to hold him up, on the run to the new banked Turn 9, Hamilton was not fully over to the left-hand side of the track, leaving the width of a Red Bull for Perez to slither up the inside.

Which he did and then proceeded to wipe out Hamilton’s advantage to Max Verstappen. You can be damn sure that if it was Valtteri Bottas trying to pass Verstappen, that door would have been firmly closed.

There’s also the final lap where Verstappen stole the title away after a lunge at the Turn 5 hairpin.

Hamilton took the conventional racing line and left a huge gap marked ‘WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP AVAILABLE HERE’ which Verstappen strolled through. That Mercedes W12 should have been parked in the middle of the track and on the apex of the hairpin.

If, Verstappen then uses his fresher tyres to go sailing around the outside of you to take the title then fair enough.

As for Stewart’s wheel-to-wheel ability, take the 1969 British Grand Prix, held the day before the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their small steps.

He diced lap after lap for the lead with Rindt, each giving the other just about enough room and the respect they deserved.

Stewart was certainly no Jack Brabham, who would try to flick up gravel and dirt to put a rival behind off.

There is a way to win, and Stewart would do this, time and time again.

 © Mercedes © Mercedes

Is Jackie Stewart the greatest?

With the passing of John Surtees in 2017, Stewart became the oldest living World Champion, he is also the oldest living race winner following the death of Tony Brooks in 2022.

He is the closest thing to royalty that F1 has, if the Roger Federer incident on the grid in Miami is anything to go by.

It can be said that nobody has done more for Formula 1 than one certain B. Ecclestone by turning it from a pastime to a global business and the greatest annual World Championship on the planet.

Only the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup rival F1’s popularity across the globe, but they are held every four years. We have a World Championship every year, and for that Ecclestone must take credit, even if some of his opinions are controversial.

But then, by the same metric, nobody has done more for motorsport than Stewart.

His correct way of doing things on and off track make him a shining example and his safety crusade will ensure that drivers of decades to come will be safe and able to showcase their brilliant skill, even after Stewart is no longer with us.

It is a legacy that dwarfs anything any other driver will ever achieve, and as the complete package, Sir Jackie Stewart is the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time.

 © XPBimages © XPBimages

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