Michael Schumacher kept a firm grip on pole position as China's favourite Formula One driver even as he struggled to ninth in qualifying yesterday.
Outstretched hands of fans have vied for autographs wherever he has gone, grandstands have been dotted with banners welcoming his return from retirement and spectators have come back to the Chinese Grand Prix purely to catch a glimpse of him.
"It's fantastic to see my Chinese fans and how much they support me," the seven-times world champion said.
The support has verged on crazed obsession in some cases. A teary-eyed woman clutched a photo of Schumacher after one practice session and unfurled a banner reading, "You Back, We Back" for him to sign.
Schumacher, who has been unfailingly polite, obliged and sent the fan into a screaming, crying fit. She would have collapsed but for a friend who propped her up.
While the fiercely competitive German is still all about winning, his legions of Chinese admirers have been content just to see him back behind the wheel.
"I know his results are not as good as they used to be. But that's not important. What's important is that he loves racing," said Du Fangfang, 29, waiting for Schumacher to sign a shirt emblazoned with his name.
Just over the starting grid, a large banner displayed a similar sentiment: "Michael, the best present is your comeback. No matter what happens, we are always with you."
While Schumacher is grateful for the support, it was of little consolation to him after he was outqualified yesterday for the fourth time in four races by Nico Rosberg, his team mate and compatriot.
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