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Sports

Schumacher's Spa milestones, from zero to 300

Formula One's walking record book Michael Schumacher has been made an honorary citizen of Spa. And why not? He debuted there, won his first race there, sealed a title there, and is poised to join the 300-club - at Spa.

Michael Schumacher will become the second driver to compete in his 300th Formula One race event at the weekend. The seven-time world champion will join his long-time wingman Rubens Barrichello in the 300-club where his career began: the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.

Prior to the event, he was made an honorary citizen of Spa, one of several towns and villages near the rural circuit, which was initially formed using public roads.

Germany's Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher drives his race car during the third practice session of the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at the Hungaroring circuit outside Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 28, 2012. (AP)

Schumacher has struggled since his 2010 return, but never discount him at Spa

Spa's mayor, Joseph Houssa, said Schumacher was given the citizenship "because of his services to the image of motorsports and our region. He is the champion of champions and helped make the Spa Francorchamps circuit world-famous."

Schumacher, five times a world champion with Ferrari, is already an honorary citizen of the Italian team's Maranello home - though his home town of Kerpen has not bestowed the same honor, instead naming a street after him.

"Spa is like my living room; for me, it's clearly the number one race track in the world," Schumacher said ahead of the race. "It's uncanny how I always seem to have special moments there - my debut, my first win, a world championship victory and many great races."

Maiden race

Not only was Schumacher's first ever race at Spa, it also came thanks to the misfortune - or misdemeanor - of a Belgian driver.

Schumacher smiles for the media at his first ever F1 race in Belgium in 1991

After 21 years, the grin - and the chin - hasn't changed a bit

The Jordan team, itself in its debut season, suddenly found itself missing a driver when veteran Bertrand Gachot was arrested for attacking a London cab driver. Schumacher filled the void for the team, which boasted a competitive car but a balance sheet plastered in red ink. When team boss Eddie Jordan hired Schumacher, his eyes were as much on German sponsorship marks as on a future superstar.

"We needed somebody to pay for the engine bills, the tire bills, he was about the only one who could do that," team owner and raconteur extraordinaire Eddie Jordan said years later. "He paid, he got in the car. I'd love to claim it was all to do with talent - it's not true, I needed the money."

Schumacher may now call the track his "living room," but at the time it wasn't. His notoriously imaginative manager Willi Weber told Jordan that the German knew Spa "as if it were his home track," though in reality Schumacher had never raced there before. Still, he was a quick learner.

"The first three laps made a really big impression," the 22-year-old Schumacher said after only his second drive in an F1 car and his first at Spa. "But after that you get used to the new environment very quickly."

Schumacher retired within a minute of the start on race day, victim of a faulty clutch, but he'd already made a name for himself by qualifying eighth-fastest - three-quarters of a second faster than experienced Jordan lead driver Andrea de Cesaris.

Maiden win

"That guy's got a special talent. He could become a threat to us," reigning world champion Ayrton Senna commented after the Spa qualifying session in 1991.

German pilot Michael Schumacher in Monza on September 09, 1991, during practice and racing the Grand Prix of Italy. (AP)

A year later, Schumi won at Spa in the United Colors of Bennetton

Schumacher's sudden Spa success prompted a lightning-quick, and somewhat controversial, switch to the higher-profile Bennetton team in time for the next race at Monza.

One year later, he came back to Spa, where the Wallonian weather provided an upset in perhaps the most one-sided F1 season ever. A torrential downpour allowed Schumacher to win his first ever F1 race, outpacing the all-conquering Renault-powered Williams cars of 1992.

It was the first of a record 91 wins in the sport.

Final title

Schumacher also won at Spa in 1995, 96, 97, 2001 and 2002, and his six wins make him Spa's most successful driver. Senna is next with five wins, while joint third-place holder Kimi Raikkonen will seek his fifth Spa victory on Sunday with Lotus Renault.

The Finn Raikkonnen was the winner on Schumacher's last glorious day at Spa. Schumi finished second in the Wallonian forests in 2004, but that was enough to secure him a seventh F1 world championship, and a fifth in succession for Ferrari.

German Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher, who came second, sprays champagne towards his team mechanics during the victory ceremony of the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004. (AP)

It's likely, though still not certain, that this was the moment Schumi celebrated his last title

It was the last of a record seven Formula One world championships, though nobody would have guessed at the time after five years of utter hegemony.

Inevitable coincidence

"The fact that I will also take part in my 300th Grand Prix at Spa was somehow almost inevitable and we will have to celebrate it properly," Schumacher told reporters from the comfort of his "living room" this week. "We delivered a good performance in Spa last year; I'll be doing everything possible to drive a good race."

Last season, Schumacher celebrated twenty years since his F1 debut at Spa. By the comparatively modest standards of his "second career," he had a brilliant race - coming all the way from the back of the grid to finish fifth. In 2010, Schumacher finished fourth, the best result he scored that season. The long, fast, undulating Spa Francorchamps circuit is known as a track that requires skill and courage in equal measure, a place where a driver can make a difference.

A fairytale win on Sunday is not likely given the overall performance of Schumacher's Mercedes this season, but Spa's notoriously changeable climate has thrown the form book on its head before.

The question that remains open is whether the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix, 21 years after it all began, will be Schumacher's last at the track. The 43-year-old's contract expires at the end of the season, Schumacher has said not to expect a decision on a possible renewal before October.