By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Schumacher enjoyed more wins, more titles and more success than any driver in the history of Formula One but where he ranks in the pantheon of greats will be debated for decades to come.
To his fervent fans the seven times world champion will always be simply the best - a giant whose fame transcends the sport and whose name is familiar even to those with scant passion for motor racing.
'Schumi', 'Schuey', 'The Red Baron', 'Der Weltmeister' (world champion): The German won an unprecedented 91 races and set record after record including five titles in a row with glamour team Ferrari between 2000 and 2004.
In 2002, Schumacher finished every race on the podium and statistically, stands in a class of his own.
The prayers and tide of goodwill messages as the 44-year-old lies in critical condition in hospital in Grenoble after a skiing accident in the French Alps testify to his status and esteem in the sport and beyond.
It seems almost churlish at such a time to point out an alternative view, that his greatness was flawed by favoritism over team mates and a questionable sense of fair play with too many controversies.
The late triple champion Ayrton Senna remains revered, despite the Brazilian's own suspect behavior on the track, and was mourned like no other driver after his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Argentina's five times champion Juan Manuel Fangio and Briton Jim Clark were hugely popular, admired by team mates and rivals alike, while Ferrari fans adored Canada's Gilles Villeneuve.
Although Schumacher's popularity in his native Germany was always unquestionable, bringing out the fans in droves even in his unsuccessful comeback years with Mercedes, it was far from universal.
"I think he is the greatest racing driver of this century," his former Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said when the German announced his definitive retirement last year, an accolade that neatly sidestepped the sport's first 50 years.
Even that assessment may be questioned sooner than anyone expected, with compatriot Sebastian Vettel this year chalking up his fourth successive title to become Formula One's youngest ever quadruple champion.
With Ferrari in 2004, Schumacher had chalked up a record 13 wins including seven in a row. Vettel, still only 26, matched that total this year and also racked up nine successive victories.
In truth, Schumacher's career stands as a drama in two acts with a three-year intermission.
The Schumacher Mark II drove a gleaming silver Mercedes but was still a scuffed shadow of the shiny Mark I model, who dominated racetracks around the world in the colors of Benetton and then Ferrari.
In 2006, when he told the world at an Italian Grand Prix news conference that he had decided to retire as a Ferrari driver, it seemed like the end of an era.
In some ways it was. His Mercedes comeback produced just one podium finish even if he looked as fit as ever, positively glowing with health and far more mellow in his attitude.
When he called time for good in Japan last year, looking forward to a new life with his wife and two children in Switzerland, there was more a sense of relief that he was getting out intact. The Formula One world had already moved on.
"I have had my doubts for quite a while," he acknowledged. "It's time for freedom again."
Self doubt was never a big part of the old Michael Schumacher's make-up, even from the early days when his bricklayer father Rolf took him to the Kerpen Kart track near Cologne where his mother Elisabeth worked in the canteen.
He entered Formula One in 1991 with Jordan as a late replacement for jailed Belgian Bertrand Gachot after a payment from Mercedes, who had contracted him for their sportscar team, eased his passage.
Schumacher had only ever ridden around the Spa circuit on a bicycle but his debut made everyone sit up and take notice when he qualified seventh. He was immediately snapped up by Benetton and the rest was history. By the end of 1994, he was a champion.
Schumacher II was softer, more prepared to admit mistakes. He became much more approachable than in the Ferrari days when his life seemed divided into compartments and nothing was allowed to interrupt his focus.
He even practiced his Italian - something he rarely managed at Ferrari whose loyal 'tifosi' worshipped his success but often wished he would be a little less German.
"In my first career, as I entered into Formula One (with Jordan in 1991), immediately I had a lot of focus on me. So there was a constant demand and pressure on me that was difficult to cope with over the years," he said last year.
"In that absence (from 2007 to 2010), I was more free and recharged myself... when I was back, I noticed it is possible to be open, to enjoy, but not lose the focus. And that is something I was not doing in the first part.
"(In the second part) I had a bigger picture, I had more experience, it was much more easy to handle things."
The controversies of the past continue to hang over his reputation like the mists that shroud his favorite Spa circuit in the Belgian forests and always will.
There was the collision with Damon Hill in the 1994 title decider, the notorious attempt in 1997 to run Jacques Villeneuve off the road and the global scorn and outrage that followed Austria 2002 when Ferrari ordered Brazilian Rubens Barrichello to gift him an undeserved win.
On his day, and particularly in the wet, he was breathtaking. His mind-management, and ability to gel a team around him and give swift and incisive feedback, set him apart from the rest.
But his achievements were countered by the feeling that he benefited from the best car and a subservient team mate throughout his Ferrari years, even if others argue that only happened because he was the best.
The 2006 Monaco Grand Prix saw him branded a cheat after a blatant attempt to block rivals in qualifying by stopping his car at the penultimate corner in the final seconds.
"I was very privileged to work with Michael from the very beginning," Brawn said last year. "We had some fantastic times, tough times but also very successful times.
"I think Michael brought a lot to the team in his second period that people don't see, a huge contribution behind the scenes... when we do achieve in the future, Michael will have made a contribution to it."
Mercedes finished the 2013 season as runners-up to Red Bull, with Schumacher's reputation already going through a reappraisal.
So much so that when Lotus needed a replacement for Kimi Raikkonen at short notice late in the year, they even sounded out the 44-year-old.
"Michael's performance against Nico and Nico's performance against Lewis (Hamilton, the 2008 champion who replaced Schumacher) made a lot of people aware of how good Michael still was," said his spokeswoman Sabine Kehm.
"But he just feels so good in his new life."
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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