x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Schumacher's fickle fans

The seven-time world champion, who raced at his home grand prix for the first time in four years at the age of 41 and for Mercedes, no longer commands the peerless pulling power of his glory years.

Germany's Michael Schumacher takes his helmet off after finishing ninth in Sunday's German Grand Prix.
Germany's Michael Schumacher takes his helmet off after finishing ninth in Sunday's German Grand Prix.

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY // The German Formula One fans camped out in the forest as usual, drinking and grilling sausages on damp barbecues, but the red sea of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher flags has receded into the distance. The seven-time world champion, who raced at his home grand prix for the first time in four years at the age of 41 and for Mercedes, no longer commands the peerless pulling power of his glory years.

Schumacher has yet to appear on the podium 11 races into his comeback. He qualified only 11th for a race he won last time out with Ferrari in 2006 and finished ninth, a spot behind fellow countryman Nico Rosberg and a lap behind Sebastian Vettel, the current German golden boy, who came in third. There were more Red Bull and Vettel shirts and caps in the grandstands now but, strikingly, many of those who walked in through the gates on Sunday showed no obvious allegiance.

"German people don't spend too much money any more on merchandising," said Katja Heim, a spokeswoman for the grand prix organisers. There were stalls selling Schumacher merchandise, with T-shirts and caps declaring "Schumacher - ready to race", "Seven times world champion ... so far" and "Comeback, his biggest challenge." Willi Weber, the German's commercial manager since his F1 debut in 1991, said selling them was a challenge.

"Michael in my eyes is still the best race driver in the world. He is a hero, a seven times world champion," he said in the Hockenheim paddock. "But in the head of the buyer he is not at the moment," added the German, whose red Ferrari comeback caps were still on sale along with the new silver Mercedes ones. "Everybody knows this is not Michael Schumacher, his performance and everything, and when he has a better car he will win races," said Weber. "It's nothing against him."

Weber said sales had also been hit by some companies handing out cheap or free merchandise in response to the gloomy financial climate. "When you go out here in Hockenheim there is a Dekra [Schumacher's former personal sponsors] cap you can have for just ?1 (Dh4.7). It's just given away because it's marketing for them." Heim said the euro zone crisis had as big an impact on ticket sales and purchasing habits as Schumacher's disappointing performances.

"When it was announced that Michael was coming back, there was a huge jump in ticket sales. But in a very odd way then it dropped," she said. "It dropped ... [because] of that recession talk with Greece. Germans are completely unlike the British, they are very worried of spending money that they don't have. And they are very worried about what will happen in the future," she added. Heim said around 66,000 grandstand seats were sold on race day, better than in 2008 but still little more than half the turnout at the British Grand Prix two weeks previously.

Outside among the fans, it was still easy to come across diehard Schumacher supporters. Stefanie Tkotz from near Stuttgart, paying for a couple of Schumacher mugs, said she was only there "for Michael". "We bought our first tickets last year for Spa and two days later he said that he's not coming back. So we went to Spa but without Michael it's not the same," she smiled. * Reuters