x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Michael Schumacher still rules the roost at Hockenheim

He may not be the German who is winning right now, but fans remember the Michael Schumacher who paved the way for the rest by winning all the time back then.Gary Meenaghan writes from Hockenheim.

As far as most fans are concerned, the long view of Michael Schumacher's career has not been damaged by his troubles to get Mercedes to the winner's circle upon his return to Formula One.
As far as most fans are concerned, the long view of Michael Schumacher's career has not been damaged by his troubles to get Mercedes to the winner's circle upon his return to Formula One.

Anybody who claims Michael Schumacher's standing in the grandstands has waned since the seven-time world champion hung up his helmet at Ferrari, took a three-year break and returned to a Mercedes-GP team without a car capable of fighting for the world championship, has clearly never been to Hockenheim.

German drivers make up more than a fifth of the Formula One field this season, so it could be expected Schumacher's native fan-base may have been diluted by the likes of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg and reigning world champion, Sebastian Vettel.

Yet a wander through the F1 village at the Hockenheimring proves there is still no bigger draw in German motorsport than the 43 year old.

Every grand prix on the 20-race calendar features a merchandise complex, which includes separate tents each selling a specific choice of wares, be it Red Bull Racing gear, Lotus memorabilia or Ferrari products.

There is also - always - a tent selling solely Michael Schumacher merchandise. Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours before qualifying for Sunday's German Grand Prix, the area surrounding the Schumi Stall was as packed as a jar of olives.

According to one of the six members of staff hurriedly manning the tent, the most popular item was the black and gold Schumacher-branded baseball cap. It retails for €39 (Dh174).

"He is the best, always has been the best and will continue to be the best in the next years, too," said Anke Reeder, a smiling German fan in the process of swapping her Ferrari apparel for a Mercedes-GP shirt and cap.

"I like only Michael and whichever team he races for, and I think more people actually love him now than even before.

"For sure, with Vettel, more people watch F1, but with Schumacher there is always more. You look around here and all the Ferrari fans transcend from Schumacher's time there, but now you also have all the Mercedes fans, too."

Schumacher's two-and-a-half season spell with the German manufacturers has steadily improved, but he has yet to come close to the heights he reached while racing in the scarlet of Scuderia Ferrari, where he secured five consecutive drivers' titles between 2000 and 2004.

A third-place finish at Valencia last month is his best result so far with Mercedes, but few of his compatriots are of the belief age is catching up with their idol.

"Michael is doing all he can, but Mercedes are not doing enough for him," said Christoph Huber, protecting himself from the wind in a white Schumacher-imprinted rain coat. "The car is not fast enough; even in his prime, he would not have been able to do better than he is."

Reeder, carrying two bags of merchandise, added: "If he had the car he has now 10 years ago, he wouldn't be winning either. Mercedes need to give him a better car. He has the best man in [team principal Ross] Brawn and he is the best driver in the team, but the car needs improving."

Directly opposite the Schumacher stall sits Hockenheim's Motor Sport Museum, where, at the entrance, a waxwork of Sebastian Vettel greets visitors with a skywards-pointing index finger.

The spectators who admire the driver's alarmingly lifelike doppelganger are symbolic of F1's new following: young, enthusiastic and educated. They know Schumacher's legacy, but have never seen him win.

Max Priest supports McLaren-Mercedes and calls Lewis Hamilton "the best".

On October 1, 2006, as Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium in Shanghai, the then-six-year-old Priest, from England, was "probably playing in my back garden".

"I only started watching F1 a few years ago, after Lewis became champion, so I don't really remember Schumacher from before," he said as he posed with Vettel. "I know he was the best back then, but maybe I think he is too old now."

Inside the museum's turnstiles, however, Schumacher remains king.

The car he drove to the 1990 German Formula 3 championship sits on a pedestal.

A montage of photos of him dressed in a yellow Benetton race suit and surrounded by German flag-waving fans hangs on the wall, subtitled "1993 - Schumi mania begins".

His handprint, cast in concrete, is displayed proudly inside a glass case. "He is a hero in this country," said Hermann Frenke, a silver-haired spectator sporting no noticeable team apparel.

"No matter what he does with Mercedes, he will always be remembered as the best driver Formula One has ever seen."

Not every German is so impressed by their compatriot's exploits, though.

On the streets of Heidelberg, a picturesque town 20 kilometres from Hockenheim, Hendrick Dielemann will be doing his utmost to avoid Sunday's grand prix.

"I hate Formula One; it's not green enough and it's a business that is going nowhere," he said. "Schumacher is no hero of mine. He is just able to drive a car pretty quick, like millions of other people.

"It's all nonsense."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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