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Grapevine: Schumacher Fans Still Loyal

Michael Schumacher's German fans are staying loyal to their hero even though the seven times World Champion is struggling to score points

Despite having two other German drivers ahead of him in the Championship and three teams with strong German ties in front of Ferrari, Schumacher remained the main man at his home European Grand Prix on Friday.

"We're sticking with him even more loyally now than in the past when he was almost unbeatable," said Thomas Meier, 40, a skilled craftsman who drove six hours from eastern Germany to cheer for Schumacher this weekend.

"You can see what a truly great driver he is now when things aren't going so well with his tyres and that he's not just a machine but a real champion the way he keeps fighting for every point," he added.

"I'm sure he'll be back on top again sooner or later."

Schumacher, the most successful driver in the history of Formula One with 83 wins, has taken just 12 points from six races this year and last won in October.

The sea of Ferrari red shirts, caps and banners again filled the stands ringing the circuit not far from Schumacher's home town of Kerpen.

Thousands more in colour-coordinated tributes to 'Schumi' roamed the grounds outside the venue.

"He's still the best driver ever even if he's got lousy tyres," said Peter Mai, 49, from Cologne, who like many cheered Schumacher's daring moves on his way to seventh place at last weekend's Monaco Grand Prix.

"No one I know is giving up on him. In my book he's still light years ahead of everyone else."

The Championship this season tells a different story. Schumacher is currently in ninth place and has finished only three times, a remarkable turnaround for a man who won 13 of last year's 18 races.

"You can see how hard he's fighting to get back on top," said Thomas Gruenert, 31, a carpet salesman from Leipzig clad in Ferrari colours from head to toe, who spent 908 euros ($1,141) for two Nurburgring tickets.

"He's a true champion who's keeping the whole team motivated. How could anyone have any doubts?"

German Schumacher fans said they were appalled by the criticism in Italy that the 36-year-old has faced.

"How can they be so fickle about Schumacher. He's won so much and just because he doesn't win a few races they want to dump him. It's incredible," said Harald Detlefs, 38, a mover from Hamburg.

Astrid Kiefe, 35, said the Italian fans would return to the fold as soon as Schumacher starts winning again. "They're just a bit more emotional," she said.

Enthusiasm for Schumacher, who lives in Switzerland, and fifth-placed Ferrari remain high although Mercedes-powered McLaren are second in the standings with Cologne-based Toyota third and BMW-powered Williams fourth.

Germans Nick Heidfeld in a Williams and Toyota's Ralf Schumacher are both ahead of Michael Schumacher. But their fans were easily outnumbered.

"You feel kind of lonely as a McLaren fan here," said Otto Wittig, a plumber from Stuttgart. "It's strange feeling like a foreigner in your own back yard."

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