Grapevine: Schumacher Fans Dominate Rival Supporters

It's called the European Grand Prix even though it's a race held in a German forest before mostly German fans eating German sausage and drinking German beer.

Grapevine: Schumacher Fans Dominate Rival Supporters

It's called the European Grand Prix even though it's a race held in a German forest before mostly German fans eating German sausage and drinking German beer.

And even though six of the 10 Formula One teams can stake a home interest, it's clear the 130,000 fans who jam into the circuit in the Eifel have come to cheer one man - Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari.

Wearing red caps, red shirts and even red trousers in a colour-coordinated tribute to their hero, the Schumacher fans create a sea of red that overwhelms the occasional supporters of McLaren-Mercedes, BMW-Williams, Toyota, Sauber or Minardi.

"He's simply the best," said Michael Selt, 39, a truck driver from Moenchengladbach wearing a Ferrari racing suit and red shoes identical to the outfit worn by Germany's five-time World Champion as he watched Saturday's qualifying.

"He can do it all with a car," added Selt, whose wife and two children were also clad in Ferrari costumes. Selt saves all year for the annual excursion into the Eifel.

"Sure, McLaren-Mercedes and BMW-Williams are German but they're not as good. The other drivers don't have the same courage as Michael."

Aside from McLaren with Mercedes engines, and Williams with BMW engines and Ralf Schumacher, Toyota claims Nurburgring as their home race because the team headquarters in Cologne is less than an hour's drive away.

Sauber drivers Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld grew up in nearby Moenchengladbach.

Home Race

Minardi's Jos Verstappen is from the Netherlands, a country without a Grand Prix and this counts as its closest circuit.

"Obviously this is our home race," said Toyota's principal Ove Andersson, who said it only took him 30 minutes to drive from his home to the circuit. "Our workforce is 75 percent German. We are near the area and it is really our home race."

Michael Wehner, a Toyota employee from Cologne, was one of some 400 workers at the track cheering the team but nevertheless lost among the multitudes of Ferrari fans cheering Schumacher, who grew up in the nearby town of Kerpen.

"Sure, we all identify first and foremost with Toyota," Wehner said, adding it would nevertheless be hard to build up a big following in Germany. "But if we were to get Ralf or Michael driving Toyota that would be fantastic."

But that is unlikely to happen as Schumacher has committed himself to Ferrari until 2006.

"Michael's been a pioneer throughout his career," said Thomas Neckermann, 30, carrying a giant Ferrari flag all weekend. "He's a master, not only with his foot on the gas pedal but also with his head. Everyone else is a cheap imitation."

Schumacher even has Dutch fans, who despite wishing the best for Verstappen fret that he's driving an inferior car.

"I like Schumacher's driving style and I like the colour red," said Iris Kistemaker, 45, a clothing store manager from Amsterdam. "Verstappen is a very nice Dutch guy but..."

Her son Sven, a postal worker, said he and a group of friends were in Germany to cheer McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen.

"We like the style of Finnish drivers," he said. "They don't talk a lot, but they're very good and keep their cool. They also don't speak good English in the press conferences and it's entertaining to listen to them."

Uwe Bradka, 36, a streetcar driver from Cologne, was proud to wear his dark blue BMW-Williams cap but admitted feeling a bit like a foreigner in his own country.

"Everyone's running around here in red," Bradka said. "I feel rather exotic being for BMW even though this is Germany."

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