Michael Schumacher would not begrudge Fernando Alonso a third F1 world title, claiming that the Spaniard has earned the right to be competing at the very top of the sport.
Schumacher, who approaches his 300th grand prix this weekend in Belgium, had his run of seven world titles halted by a young Alonso after moving from Benetton to Ferrari. Ironically, it was the German's former team that carried his rival to back-to-back crowns, making him, at the time, the youngest champion the sport had seen. Since Alonso's second crown, in 2006, the Spaniard has competed for, but not achieved, the sport's ultimate accolade, while Schumacher has failed to add to his record-breaking tally, seeing Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and countryman Sebastian Vettel ascend to the number one spot in recent years.
While Schumacher's comeback from retirement with Mercedes has yielded just a single podium appearance, Alonso finds himself at the head of the 2012 championship standings, despite having started the year with a car that no-one rated as a contender. While the title race is far from settled, the German admits that his rival would be a fitting champion.
"Fernando is currently the strongest driver in F1," he told Bild am Sonntag
during an interview to mark his own landmark achievement, "He continues to develop and is enjoying none of those phases where everything works out. However, he has worked hard for that."
Schumacher's belief that Alonso is the most complete driver in the sport naturally ranks the Spaniard ahead of Vettel, who has filled his own shoes as Germany's number one. Despite recognising Vettel's achievements in taking over the mantle as the sport's youngest champion, Schumacher insists that the Red Bull man is finding things harder at the moment with the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus all challenging for victory.
“Sebastian is a great guy and a great driver, but he is dealing with a different situation now," the 43-year old mused, "He is in a learning process but, to be a good winner, one must also be able to lose - it is a part of your development. I know that no racer likes to lose - and I am no exception - but only when you have learned to lose can you respect and enjoy winning even more.”
The seven-time champion, who continues to rate Mike Hakkinen as his biggest rival, also enjoyed a playful dig at his young countryman, suggesting that following in his footsteps cannot have been easy.
"Sebastian has perhaps been a bit unfortunate in that he is the second German to find success in F1," he smiled, "It's a bit like Boris Becker triggering the German tennis boom with his Wimbledon victory - Michael Stich's success was quite different!"
Schumacher also gloated that no other driver would get his hands on the original FIA world championship trophy, having successfully persuaded Bernie Ecclestone to let him keep it.
"The champion gets handed the 'original' trophy, but must return it to the FIA [after the annual prize-giving ceremony]," he explained, "We only got a replica but, eventually, I got Bernie - in a moment of weakness - to promise that I could keep the original. When the time came, he was very reluctant, but I was stubborn..."