By Alan Baldwin
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Michael Schumacher said farewell to Formula One with a battling seventh place for Mercedes at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday before an embrace for newly-crowned triple champion Sebastian Vettel.
By a remarkable coincidence, seventh was where he qualified in his first grand prix back in Belgium in 1991 for the now defunct Jordan team 308 races ago. The seven times champion also had the number seven on his car at Interlagos.
After a stellar 21-year career, the most successful by any Formula One driver with his record 91 wins, Schumacher recognised his time was up at the age of 43.
His army of fans made clear they will miss the former Ferrari great all the same.
"On 25 Nov 2012, last day of the golden age of F1," declared one banner in the grandstand overlooking the main Interlagos straight.
"Michael, F1 is nothing without you" and "Michael, we love you," said others.
The former Ferrari great started in 13th place but, despite an early puncture and four pitstops, made the most of wet and chaotic conditions to end a run of six races without a point.
"We're not really in a position to offer a lot of fireworks in this last race although I wish to do," he had said, standing next to Red Bull's champion Vettel on a truck as they went around the circuit for the pre-race drivers' parade.
He did himself justice anyway, with a performance that showed some of his old 'never-say-die' philosophy as well as solid overtaking and ability to keep the car on the slippery asphalt.
"It's been a pleasure to come back," said the sport's most successful driver, who won his titles and 91 races with Benetton and Ferrari before returning with Mercedes.
"I enjoyed most of it. It wasn't as successful as we wanted it to be but still I learned a lot for life and I'm quite glad for the good emotions again. Now is a good time to go..."
Schumacher retired for the first time in Brazil in 2006 and came back in 2010.
With Mercedes he has just one podium finish to his credit, at the European Grand Prix in Valencia this season.
"My final Formula One race was tremendous fun," he said as team members donned Schumacher farewell T-shirts post-race. "I would once again like to thank the team and all my fans for their support over the past years.
"I've enjoyed the time we've spent together very much indeed."
Team principal Ross Brawn, who masterminded his titles at Benetton and Ferrari, repaid the compliment.
"In terms of results, his second spell in Formula One hasn't been as special but it has been so for all of us who have had the pleasure of working with him," said the Briton.
(Editing by Alison Wildey and Greg Stutchbury)