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Japanese fans say farewell to 'Red Emperor' Schumi
Fred Varcoe | October 07, 2006 18:33 IST
Michael Schumacher can barely move at the Japanese Grand Prix circuit without someone following him.
A legion of red-shirted fans waves flags excitedly when he drives past, cheering when he lapped inside the circuit record in practice on Saturday and again when he completed the qualifying session.
One camera crew even followed the Ferrari great striding across the paddock to the toilet block and patiently filmed the entrance while he was inside, waiting for him to re-emerge.
The seven-times champion, who could add an eighth title on Sunday if he wins and Renault's Fernando Alonso fails to score, has won more times at other circuits but his six Suzuka victories have earned him local hero status.
Now, with retirement looming, they are flocking to Suzuka to see him one last time.
Some Ferrari merchandise had already sold out by Saturday afternoon, the fans demonstrating their passion with their wallets.
Schumacher has won four of the last six races at Suzuka and his success, as well as the Japanese fans' love affair with Ferrari, has made him almost as much of an icon in Japan as former great Ayrton Senna.
"Schumacher is the Red Emperor," said one woman racing fan, an office worker from Fukui Prefecture. "He is wonderful."
A shop selling Schumacher branded goods was still filled with customers nearly four hours after Saturday's afternoon qualifying session.
The sign above it stated reverentially, if quirkily: "Michael Schumacher. The Highest Champion. Thank you for the impression Schumacher."
Local resident Yuko Sakai was one of many taking the chance to say farewell.
"I came here today and will be at the race tomorrow because it's Schumacher's last race here," she said. "He's such a great driver. Everyone is very sad that he is retiring."
"This is the last time I am going to race in Japan and I really look forward to this particular grand prix for many reasons," Schumacher said. "There has been a tremendous friendship that has built up over the years."
Although there is a strong local element to Sunday's race from Honda, Toyota, Super Aguri and Bridgestone, most fans will still be rooting for Schumacher.
Even Toyota fans.
"I'll be supporting Schumacher tomorrow," said Juji Suzuki, a 42-year-old Toyota employee, referring to Michael rather than younger brother Ralf who drives for Toyota. "I really want him to win the championship.
"It's sad he's going to retire. I wish he would carry on."
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