SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel hailed Michael Schumacher as his hero and inspiration on Thursday as the German great prepared for a final farewell to the sport at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Sitting alongside the seven times champion at a news conference, Vettel suggested the 43-year-old might like to cover his ears before singing the praises of a man he first met as a schoolboy karter.
“He was a true inspiration back then, for me and for many other kids,” said the 25-year-old, who could become the youngest triple world champion on Sunday.
“He was our hero.”
Vettel recalled how Schumacher, then at the peak of his fame and success with Ferrari, had handed out the trophies in the German karting championship at the champion’s family-owned circuit in Kerpen.
Schumacher, he said, had spoken to the fans and every competitor and only now, as a champion himself, did he realise how much time he had set aside from a busy schedule.
“When I met him the first time, obviously I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t want to ask something stupid,” said the Red Bull driver.
“When I talk to him now, it doesn’t feel like talking to my childhood hero, it feels like talking to Michael so I see the person rather than what he has achieved.”
Vettel, who was once nicknamed ‘Baby Schumi’ and Schumacher have become firm friends since the older German returned to the sport as a Mercedes driver in 2010 for a comeback that has delivered far less than he had hoped.
The two have also competed together as a team in the annual Race of Champions event, winning it for the past five years and preparing for a sixth victory in Bangkok next month.
Asked whether there was ”a certain sadness“ in his imminent retirement, Schumacher - winner of a record 91 races with Benetton and Ferrari - replied: ”Probably not, no.
“I have tried that mission to end successful,” he added. “It didn’t work this time but I‘m quite happy to finish from here and go for a different life again.”
Editing by Alison Wildey