SUZUKA, Japan, Oct 4, 2012 (AFP) - Mercedes boss Ross Brawn, the man who guided Michael Schumacher to all seven of his drivers' world titles, dubbed the German "the driver of the century" after the 43-year-old confirmed his final retirement Thursday.
It is a massive compliment to the former Benetton and Ferrari man who announced earlier that he would be leaving Formula One for good at the end of this season after a three-year finale with Mercedes.
To many Schumacher will be remembered as a serial winner with flaws. To others he was an unforgiving, hard racer who was involved in too much controversy.
But few would argue with the results and the statistics - seven drivers' titles, more than 300 races, 91 wins, 68 poles and 77 fastest laps in a career that has been record-breaking and heart-breaking.
Even though his three-year comeback with Mercedes after initial retirement in 2006 following his final season with Ferrari has been less than the dream he hoped for, he will walk out of Formula One as a revered multiple champion.
Schumacher returned to F1 in 2010 hoping to be gunning for championship glory, but in three campaigns he has been fastest in qualifying once and only delivered a single podium finish.
Brawn, however, the man who knows him best after working closely with him virtually throughout his career, said he believed that Schumacher's contribution to the team and the sport should not be underestimated.
"I think he is the greatest racing driver of this century," explained Brawn. "I was very privileged to work with Michael from the very beginning and obviously we had some fantastic times, tough times too, but also very successful times.
"I think Michael brought a lot to the team in this second period that people don't see. There was a huge contribution behind the scenes.
"We have not achieved what we wanted to achieve together, and that is frustrating, but I think what we do achieve in the future, Michael will have made a contribution to it. So for me personally, (that is why) he is the greatest racing driver of this century."
Mercedes-Benz motorsport boss Norbert Haug was also full of praise for the way Schumacher had applied himself to the job - even though success was hard to achieve.
"He gave it everything. He never complained, and he was a constructive guy," said Haug. "I learned from this 'new' Michael in his second career evenmore than in the first, because he was successful and we were friends and we are friends."
Schumacher made an immediate impact in Formula One when he arrived as a 22-year-old prodigy from sportscar racing at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix where he raced for Jordan.
His speed and vim in qualifying earned him fifth place on the grid, but he suffered a gearbox failure at the start - having already impressed Benetton's management sufficiently to persuade him to leave Eddie Jordan's team after just one race.
He made his debut for Benetton at the next race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and went on to forge his way into the record books as a no-holds-barred driver who would take risks, drive hard and challenge the authorities.
He won the drivers title with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before leaving for Ferraribwhere, after reigniting the Italian team, he led them to an era of glory from 2000 to 2005.
His fateful crash with Canadian Jacques Villeneuve at the 1997 European Grand Prixat Jerez not only handed the Williams driver the world title, it also ensured that Schumacher's career and achievements were laced with a trace of argument and recrimination.
He was blamed and punished, as he had been in 1994 when he was suspended for an infringement of the technical rules with Benetton - but as his career went on and he blossomed it was clear that he was also mellowing.
And it was a different, more mellow Schumacher who completed it all this year, admitting he found it difficult to find the motivation to maintain his performance levels to those he had reached as the fittest and fastest man the sport had ever seen.