|© AP Photo/Yves Logghe
Formula 1 great Michael Schumacher is pleased to have been awarded honorary citizenship of Spa, where he will compete in the 300th race of his career on Sunday.
The 43-year-old German has developed a special affinity with the Belgian circuit, the site of his F1 debut in 1991 and the first of his record 91 race victories a year later.
"This morning I had a nice welcome by becoming an honorary citizen of Spa. That was really special to me," Schumacher said Thursday. "First race, first victory, the seventh title; last year was the 20th anniversary and now the 300. I've always called Spa my living room, and now I can officially do so."
He's poised to join an exclusive club this weekend when he lines up on the grid. Only Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello, with 326 races, has more than Schumacher.
He would probably have already surpassed Barrichello but chose to retire from F1 at the end of 2006, only to return in 2010 with Mercedes.
One banner hanging out of a window close to the Spa track read: "Michael, give us 400." It was brought to Schumacher's attention during a news conference on Thursday.
"For the 400 races? I think we can say no ... But it's nice that the fans are still encouraging me to go on," Schumacher said. "(300) is certainly an interesting, beautiful and nice number. A number that I didn't think about at the time that I retired at the end of 2006.
"At one time there was talk about whether someone could beat (Italian driver) Riccardo Patrese's number of 250. The 300 is a beautiful side effect."
Statistically, Schumacher is the greatest driver the sport has seen, with 155 podium finishes, 68 pole positions and 77 fastest laps to go with his record seven titles. Six of his race wins have been in Spa.
"It's uncanny how I always seem to have special moments there," said Schumacher, who was paraded around the track before last year's race in which he finished fifth in difficult circumstances.
Schumacher started out with Jordan in 1991 and won back-to-back drivers' titles in 1994 and 1995 with Benetton. He moved to Ferrari in 1996, winning five more championships and leading the team to six successive constructors' titles.
Schumacher's fifth place last year in Spa felt almost like a victory as he started last because of a crash in qualifying.
He drove with all of his old panache to weave his Mercedes through the field as Sebastian Vettel won the race from pole position -- something Schumacher himself used to do with regularity.
Schumacher's form has been patchy so far this season.
Although he finished third at the European GP in June -- his first podium spot since coming back to F1 -- he has also retired from six races.
"We have a lot to go through and a lot to improve on, a lot to understand," Schumacher said. "The team is pushing hard to go forward."