Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso pay tribute to the retiring Michael Schumacher
Title rivals give glowing tributes ahead of Schumi's final race
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 22/11/12 6:03pm
The two drivers that will this weekend battle it out for the right to cement their place among Formula 1's greats have come together in their praise of the most successful driver of them all, Michael Schumacher, ahead of the German legend's swansong in Brazil.
Sunday's season-ending race at Interlagos marks Schumacher's 306th and final grand prix start after the 43-year-old decided to retire for the second time - Mercedes having signed Lewis Hamilton to race in his place in 2013.
Although the seven-times Champion's final race is a relative sideshow to the battle for the drivers' title at Interlagos, the significance was still not lost on the organisers of the Thursday drivers' press conference, with Schumacher positioned front and centre and flanked by Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
Michael Schumacher's career stats
Fastest laps: 77
Teams: Jordan, Benetton, Ferrari, Mercedes
Having first met his countryman as an eight-year-old while competing at Schumacher's hometown karting circuit in Kerpen, and over recent years forming a close bond with the 91-time GP winner, Vettel was particularly fulsome in his praise of his mentor's career, describing the retiring star as an "inspiration".
Prefacing his comments with the request to his elder compatriot to "close his ears now", Vettel said: "Obviously I had the privilege to meet Michael when I was a small kid and he was my childhood hero."
"He was a true inspiration back then to me and many other kids in Kerpen. He was our hero and obviously we had the honour to meet him.
"He was taking care of the championship in Kerpen and came to the last race and presented all the trophies to every child - more than 100 at the time. So he was very patient and obviously I now understand the busy schedule he had, taking that extra time for the fans, especially for us, the kids racing, was something very special and a very special memory."
Given Schumacher is 18 years Vettel's senior, and originally retired the year before the Red Bull driver made his full F1 debut, the reigning title winner admitted that, as he hadn't expected to have the chance to race against his boyhood hero, the last three seasons had been very special.
"Today it's a little bit different because you are all grown up and you have a normal relationship," Vettel continued.
"So when I talk to him now it doesn't feel like I'm talking to my childhood hero, it feels like talking to Michael, so I see the person rather than what he has achieved.
"Obviously you remind yourself of that and the fact I was racing against him the last couple of years - unfortunately not as close as probably he shared with Fernando - but still that thought or that image was very, very far away when I was a small kid because he was obviously already in Formula 1, but for me it was a dream and very far away.
[It has been] very special the last couple of years. Very special the relationship we share and I think he will always be an inspiration for myself."
Alonso, meanwhile, experienced a more direct rivalry with Schumacher during the then Ferrari driver's record-breaking first career and denied him what would have been an eighth world title the first time he retired, also in Brazil, in 2006.
The Spaniard has previously suggested that that particular Championship carries more weight because he beat Schumacher at his peak, and asked to assess his former rival's career achievements on Thursday, Alonso was also generous in his praise.
"I think we will always remember the privilege to race and compete with someone like Michael who will be record [holder] in history of Formula 1 maybe for a very long time," Alonso said.
"We've been there, on the grid close to him, having some good fights and great respect on the circuit and always constantly learning with someone that changed a little bit this sport."
While there was praise aplenty from the illustrious names sitting either side of him, Schumacher himself admitted he wasn't feeling particularly emotional about stopping this time.
"I guess I have some experience [of retiring] so I guess that's why I'm rather relaxed about the happenings," he said.
"On top, we are not in any championship fight compared to last time, so [I'll] just take the best out of it and enjoy it as much as I can."
Indeed, asked if he had any sadness about the occasion, the departing Mercedes driver replied: "Probably not, no.
"I have tried that mission to end successful [with Mercedes], it didn't work this time, and I'm quite happy to finish from here and go for a different life again."