Shanghai: Michael Schumacher kept a firm grip on pole position as China’s favourite Formula One driver even as he struggled to ninth in qualifying on Saturday.
Outstretched hands of fans have vied for autographs wherever he has gone, grandstands have been dotted with banners welcoming his return from retirement and spectators have come back to the Chinese Grand Prix purely to catch a glimpse of him.
“It’s fantastic to see my Chinese fans and how much they support me,” the seven-times world champion said.
The support has verged on crazed obsession in some cases.
A teary-eyed woman clutched a photo of Schumacher after one practice session and unfurled a banner reading, “You Back, We Back” for him to sign.
Schumacher, who has been unfailingly polite, obliged and sent the fan into a screaming, crying fit. She would have collapsed but for a friend who propped her up.
While the fiercely competitive German is still all about winning, his legions of Chinese admirers have been content just to see him back behind the wheel.
“I know his results are not as good as they used to be. But that’s not important. What’s important is that he loves racing,” said Du Fangfang, 29, waiting for Schumacher to sign a shirt emblazoned with his name.
Just over the starting grid, a large banner displayed a similar sentiment: “Michael, the best present is your comeback. No matter what happens, we are always with you.”
Room To Manoeuvre
While Schumacher is grateful for the support, it was of little consolation to him after he was outqualified on Saturday for the fourth time in four races by Nico Rosberg, his team mate and compatriot.
“I am obviously disappointed about my qualifying. It didn’t really come together today,” said Schumacher, who got the last of his 91 grand prix wins in China in 2006.
“It will be tough to be too optimistic for tomorrow from my grid position but then I had some good starts lately and there is always room for lots of things to happen in Formula One races.”
The Mercedes team, which will be adjusting Schumacher’s rear wing to help him match Rosberg’s pace, are at least reaping dividends off the track from the veteran’s return.
Chinese fans still lean toward Ferrari, though this is partly a function of Schumacher’s winning five consecutive championships for the Italian team starting in 2000 when F1 first made inroads in China.
The crowds at the Chinese Grand Prix have always been bedecked in Ferrari red, a lucky colour in China, but this year they are mottled in Mercedes silver.
“I’ll support whichever team Schumacher goes to,” said Zhao Shuai, 34, an architect wearing a Mercedes hat, coat and backpack, and waving a team flag for good measure.
“Now I’d say my goal is to buy a Mercedes within the next five years,” he added.
Winning over more fans like Zhao is a tantalising prospect for the German automaker. Daimler, owner of Mercedes-Benz, said last week that its premium unit’s sales in China more than doubled in the first quarter from a year earlier.