VALENCIA, Spain - Michael Schumacher was taken by surprise on Sunday after ending up on the Formula One podium for the first time in nearly six years.
|Mercedes Formula One driver Michael Schumacher of Germany celebrates his third position after the European F1 Grand Prix at the Valencia street circuit June 24, 2012. Photo by Heino Kalis, Reuters.
The sport's most successful driver, with seven championships and 91 race wins under his belt, finished third for Mercedes in the European Grand Prix in Valencia to remind himself how it felt to spray champagne in the sunshine.
The German who retired from glamour team Ferrari in 2006 and then started a comeback in 2010, was able to savour at long last an achievement that some of his critics felt last year was frankly beyond him.
Now 43, he became the oldest driver on the podium since Australian triple champion Jack Brabham finished second in Britain in 1970 at the age of 44.
In 2010 Schumacher had talked of chasing more titles and race wins but when the podium finally came calling after 45 comeback races without a top three finish, it took him a while to realise.
"I didn't actually think about a podium at all at the end of the race," he told reporters after standing on it alongside Ferrari's race winner Fernando Alonso and former Ferrari champion Kimi Raikkonen, now with Lotus.
To make it even sweeter, Ferrari sent up Alonso's race engineer Andrea Stella to join them - the Italian having previously worked with both Raikkonen and Schumacher at the Italian team.
"It was crossing the line that I asked my guys 'Where did we finish?' I saw (Australian Mark) Webber's pit board and close to the end it showed him eighth and seventh and I knew I was one place ahead of that one," said Schumacher.
"And then the boys told me 'That's third, that's podium'. I can't believe that. It's something I didn't really expect. You sort of lose count, because I was pretty busy in the last stages of the race," said the German.
His last previous podium came in China in October 2006, which was also his last win.
There was a time, at the height of Schumacher's domination with Ferrari in the early years of the millennium, when his absence from the podium provided a talking point.
In those days he would automatically raise trophies and head for the post-race news conference, but on Sunday he seemed to have forgotten some of the old routines.
Asked to address the cameras in his own language, he spoke in English briefly before realising his mistake.
"It's just a wonderful feeling to be back after such a long time. We were a couple of times close to it," he said.
"It happened in a pretty spectacular way on a track where it is difficult to pass but due to various strategies and differences on track it was pretty exciting and that's obviously the best way.
"If you manage the way I did today to jump the podium unexpectedly makes you extra happy," he declared.
Before Valencia, Schumacher had scored a measly two points this season while team mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg had won in China.
His last three races had ended in retirement - of the mechanical sort - with five failures to finish in seven starts.
Mercedes had promised to deliver a car worthy of his talents and they did so on Sunday.
"I think this year's been frustrating because he's been in a position from his perspective to have done that (be on the podium) more than once this year and we've not given him the opportunity," said team principal Ross Brawn.
"Today we gave him the opportunity, we recovered from a strategic point of view because we weren't looking too good at the beginning of the race and he showed what he can do."
Schumacher, being Schumacher, inevitably brought a whiff of controversy to the proceedings with his third place remaining unconfirmed until hours after the race amid suggestions he had used his DRS rear wing illegally under yellow flags in the closing laps.
After examing video evidence, stewards - one of them former Ferrari driver Mika Salo of Finland - decided he was in the clear.
"The team and myself have been criticised here and there, particularly lately," Schumacher had said earlier.
"This is the best way to answer criticism, to go back and deliver as we did today, and therefore I'm proud, thankful and very excited." (Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by John Mehaffey)