Grapevine: Fans: Schumacher Not Finished

The legions of Michael Schumacher fans who over-run the small village of Hockenheim with Ferrari flags and red shirts could be watching his final German Grand Prix as reigning champion on Sunday

Grapevine: Fans: Schumacher Not Finished

With Schumacher's record-breaking string of five consecutive Formula One World Championships about to be broken this year, he has already conceded that his chances of a fourth career win here in front of home fans are remote and his hopes are for third place.

The masses of loyal Schumacher supporters, however, are confident they are not witnessing the twilight of his career.

They are certain Sunday's race will not be his last German Grand Prix as defending champion and doubt that the 36-year-old with seven titles in 14 years will quit before reclaiming his crown.

"He's too ambitious to give up now," said Volker Krause, 49, a butcher from Leipzig wearing bright red Ferrari colours like some three-quarters of the enormous crowd watching Saturday's practice and qualifying sessions.

"Schumacher has too much fire in his blood to quit," Krause added. "He doesn't need the money, but he's too competitive to retire when he's not on top. I'm sure he'll be around for years to come. He'll be the defending champion here again in 2007."

About 110,000 spectators are expected for Sunday's Grand Prix, packing into the sleepy village of 20,483 that lies south of Frankfurt.

A year ago, Schumacher claimed his 11th victory in 12 races at Hockenheim and ended up taking first place 13 times. This year, he has won just one race and is 34 points behind the Championship leader Fernando Alonso with eight races left.

"I don't think he has much of a chance," said Johann Giederer, a Munich house painter who like hordes of Schumacher fans camped in tents outside the track. "But he won't quit when he's losing. It's not his fault. It's the tyres."

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Thomas Paar, a technician from Nuremberg, said he believed Schumacher's many difficulties this year would likely prolong his career beyond 2006, when his current contract runs out.

"It's Ferrari's fault - they should provide him with a better car," said Paar, 35. "It's not just the tyres. He's by far the best driver and I'm sure he'll stay long enough to come back to Hockenheim as defending champion again. He's only 36."

Spain's Alonso may be leading the Championship but at the main Renault merchandise outlet four bored sales clerks with no customers watched quietly as thousands of red-capped Schumacher fans in Ferrari shirts streamed past into the arena.

Business was brisk, by contrast, at the Ferrari outlet where shirts cost 85 euros ($103) and red jackets are 170 euros.

"Anything with the little horse on it is magic," said outlet manager Frenchy Romain, referring to the Ferrari logo. He expects to sell more than 1,000 Ferrari shirts during the race weekend.

"Sales are still very good even if they are down slightly this year. Wed' be doing better if Schumacher were winning. But the economic situation in Germany is tough now too. People don't have as much money as they did two or three years ago."

But Irena Fenna, 36, said she sensed the Schumacher era was coming to an end and predicted the popularity of Formula One in Germany would fade when he quit - just as Germans' interest in tennis waned after Boris Becker and Steffi Graf retired.

"It's all over for Schumacher," said Fenna, an office clerk from Zurich. "His days are numbered. I don't think he has enough zeal to become a winner again. He's over the hill."

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