By Abhishek Takle
GREATER NOIDA, India (Reuters) - India bid a fond farewell to seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher on Sunday as the great who got young sports fans in the country hooked on Formula One competed in the country for the last time.
Formula One has never been popular in the cricket crazy nation but the German's fame traveled way beyond the confines of a circuit and he became the face of the sport and a household name in India.
Many of the 62,000 spectators at the Buddh International Circuit were there to cheer on the 43-year-old Mercedes driver, and former Ferrari champion, who is retiring at the end of the season in three races' time.
"I'm wearing this T-shirt because of being a patriot," said one fan in a Force India team shirt and Schumacher cap.
"But I've been supporting Schumacher since I was 16 years-old and I know he's not in the best of form because of his car but he's a legend and he'll always be one. And I'm only supporting him, only him."
Formula One has only been regularly aired on television in India since the mid-90s and a generation of young fans grew up watching Schumacher take the fight in a relatively uncompetitive Ferrari to the far more superior Williams and McLaren cars.
Stories of his drives in Hungary 1998 or Spain 1996 are the stuff of legend among fans of the sport here and his success in restoring Ferrari's luster, and his dominant run of five world championships from 2000 to 2004, only made him more popular.
Last year's inaugural Indian Grand Prix, when Schumacher was a shadow of his former self, was the first chance for locals to see him race.
Even if his three-year comeback has not lived up to expectations, the loyalty of India's small legion of Formula One fans appeared undiminished on Sunday.
"He has that brand value, no other player has that brand with him," said Rishabh, an 18-year-old from Delhi who admits he isn't a regular follower of the sport.
"Not the car but the number of fans Schumacher has no one else has. He's the personal favorite of many."
If most fans were clad in Ferrari or McLaren merchandise, affection for Schumacher was evident.
"The legend always stays the legend so there is always a soft corner for Schumi, so I guess it feels bad that he's going to be out of racing," said Priyadarshan, who works for McLaren sponsors SAP and was a guest of the team.
"In fact, even though I was sitting in the McLaren paddock, I was trying to get a glimpse of Schumi," he said.
In the end it was another German, Red Bull's championship leader and race winner Sebastian Vettel, who hogged the limelight with Schumacher's supporters disappointed.
The German started 14th and a puncture as a result of Jean Eric Vergne's Torro Rosso clipping his right rear wheel at the first corner dropped him to the back of the field where he was soon lapped.
He retired three laps from the end, after also coming under investigation for ignoring blue flags warning him of faster drivers behind.
The fans forgave him anyway.
"Michael Schumacher is my favourite, all time hit, he's there," Vimal Jain, a die-hard Ferrari fan attending his 26th Grand Prix, said. "Whether he won, whether he lost, no problems."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)