Michael Schumacher, a controversial great

Michael Schumacher's position as a Formula One icon, the most successful driver in the history of the sport, is assured

Michael Schumacher, a controversial great

Whether Ferrari's seven-time world champion is also the greatest is another question, one guaranteed to trigger endless debate long after the ever-controversial German has finally left the stage.

It is one that has dogged Schumacher ever since he overtook the late Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five championships in 2003.

For more than a decade, Formula One has been divided by the behaviour of a man blessed with sublime talents and some all too obvious failings.

He is one of the greats, a figure who transcends his sporting arena as a global celebrity familiar even to those far removed from the world of motor racing.

A generation of fans has grown up watching Schumacher punch the air as he performs his familiar victory leap, fans who have revelled in his skill in the rain at Spa and celebrated alongside him in his native Germany.

There are plenty of others, however, who feel that the 37-year-old's career has been too chequered for him to be due the worship accorded to Fangio, Jim Clark or Ayrton Senna - even if the latter was no angel himself.

There have been accusations of cheating, after his first title success in 1994 when he collided with Briton Damon Hill to win by a point, and again in 1997 when he tried to barge Canadian Jacques Villeneuve off the track.

This year's Monaco Grand Prix, when Schumacher was punished for deliberately impeding rivals to ensure he took pole position, was the latest in a list of controversies to have enraged rivals over time.

"Where Schumacher cannot draw the right line is on track," former teammate Martin Brundle wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper.

"He cannot see when he crosses the line between tough but fair, and ruthless but foul. That is exacerbated by his total belief that he cannot be wrong.

"He has a default mode in the car: if you're going to pass him, he will drive you off the road," added Brundle. "He even did it to me as a teammate."

The final farewell will come in Brazil next month, after Schumacher announced in the wake of Sunday's victory in the Italian Grand Prix that he would quit at the end of the season.

Schumacher will not be forgotten, not by his enemies and certainly not by the Ferrari faithful thronging the historic Monza circuit for his European farewell.

He will appreciate more time with his young family, whom he has shielded from the public gaze.

Schumacher, who often came across as arrogant and brash in his early days, has shunned the fame and hero worship that go with the territory.

"I don't want it, I have a problem with it, just as I do with the hysteria surrounding my person," Schumacher once said, professing little interest in the many records he has accumulated and the Formula One history he has made.

"Obviously I appreciate what people think of my achievements and how it lifts them, but I don't see myself as a hero.

"I am just like everyone else, I just happen to be able to drive fast."

The German has been a winner like no other.

The bare facts are incontestable: a record 90 victories after Sunday's triumph at Monza, five successive titles for Ferrari and more points, pole positions and podiums than anyone else in history.

Renault's world champion Fernando Alonso is one who doubts that anyone will ever get close to beating Schumacher's number of victories.

"I think you need to be extremely lucky, with the right team always," he said. "When you are in the wrong car at the wrong moment, you can't do anything."

Schumacher has excelled at being in the right place at the right time, and almost always in the best car. He has also been the architect of his own success by building a strong team around him.

The son of a bricklayer, who now owns a go-kart circuit in Kerpen near Cologne, Schumacher was born in Huerth-Hermuelheim on Jan. 3, 1969.

The man who would go on to become Germany's first and so far only Formula One world champion started karting at the age of four in a machine built by father Rolf and powered by a lawnmower engine.

He made his debut in a Jordan at Spa in 1991 after that team's Belgian driver Bertrand Gachot was imprisoned for assaulting a London cab driver with CS gas.

Schumacher's manager Willie Weber convinced Eddie Jordan that the young German, little known outside the Mercedes sportscar team, knew the famed circuit well. In fact, he had merely been around it on a bicycle.

The former garage mechanic was an instant hit, snapped up immediately afterwards by Flavio Briatore's Benetton and taking his first win at Spa in 1992.

That was followed by a first championship with Benetton in 1994 after Brazilian Senna was killed at Imola.

Senna's death robbed Formula One of an enthralling battle, the young pretender against the triple champion. Only later, with the emergence of Alonso as Formula One's youngest champion in 2005 and Kimi Raikkonen winning with McLaren, did that generational showdown emerge.

Instead it was with Hill, stepping into the breach at Williams after Senna's death, and McLaren's Mika Hakkinen that Schumacher fought the duels that lit up the championship in the mid-1990s.

After the infamous collision with Hill, and a second title in 1995, Schumacher left for Ferrari to seal his fame and establish a new era for the glamour team.

Hill won in 1996, and then came the debacle of 1997: "If there is anything in my career that I could undo, it would be that episode," he said later.

In 2000 he secured Ferrari's first driver's title in 21 years and the pressure came off with four more in a row.

Few would rule out an eighth crown before he goes.

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