Grenoble, France: Fans of Michael Schumacher Friday gathered to pay tribute on the Formula One legend's 45th birthday as he lay in a coma in a French hospital after a skiing accident last weekend.
Ferrari, which bussed in the fans from Italy and France to the hospital in the Alpine city of Grenoble, put a special message on its website, saying "Forza Michael," or "Go Michael" in Italian.
"He is tackling the most important fight of his life and therefore we want to send him very special wishes," said Schumacher's old team, as similar messages poured in from around the world.
German former tennis ace Boris Becker wished his compatriot "Happy Birthday" on Twitter, adding "Fight Schumi" in a German hashtag.
Ferrari had said it would provide 20 buses to ferry fans from Italy, but only two coaches finally arrived and the number of journalists outstripped the fans.
The fans ranged from children as young as four to elderly admirers, some of whom openly wept.
The retired seven-time world champion slammed his head against a rock on Sunday while skiing in the French Alps. After falling into a coma and being hospitalised, he has had two operations to remove bleeding and pressure on his brain.
The accident shocked legions of fans used to seeing Schumacher cheat death on the race track.
He is being kept in an induced coma. In the latest health update given by his manager on Wednesday, his condition was described as stable but still critical.
His family is at his side, including his wife Corinna, his two teenage children, his father Rolf and brother Ralph, who is also a racing driver.
"The incredible sympathies shown today by the Ferrari fans outside the hospital has utterly overwhelmed us and moved us all to tears," the family said in a statement Friday.
"We are deeply grateful for it and also for all the heartwarming and heartfelt wishes for Michael to get well soon, which have reached us from all over the world."
'We want him to return to us'
Stefano Pini, a 47-year-old accountant from Milan who arrived to pay tribute, said: "Schumi has given us a lot in the past. The least we could do is to come here and support him and his family on his birthday."
"He is one of my greatest idols. We want him to fight and to return to us," said French fan Gabriel Klose, who turned up with his 12-year-old son.
However, the Ferrari tribute created controversy, with some accusing the Italian racing giant -- which asked fans to sport its trademark colour red and its insignia -- of exceeding the limits of good taste.
Roberto Luongo, president of the Roma-Colesseo Ferrari club -- one of the 130 clubs the Italian carmaker has in Europe -- said he did not want to be associated with an event linked to "a man who is suffering".
"It's very delicate and if I was among those who are close to Michael, such an initiative would not have pleased me," he said.
Schumacher's fan club in his childhood town of Kerpen said any celebration of the birthday would be in bad taste.
There have been conflicting statements about the speed Schumacher was going when he crashed in the upmarket Meribel ski resort, where he has a property.
The impact as he hit a rock split his helmet in two, according to a source close to the investigation.
The hospital and Schumacher's manager had briefed the press daily since the accident but on Thursday they said they would communicate only if there was something new to report.
The hospital has faced frenzied media and public interest in its famous patient. A vacant lot nearby has been turned into an impromptu parking area for television satellite vans.
Questions have emerged over exactly how the accident happened on a small, seemingly innocuous off-piste section of Meribel located between two ski slopes -- one classed as easy and the other as intermediate.
Prosecutors are looking at whether the limits of the pistes next to the accident site were correctly marked, and whether the safety releases on Schumacher's skis operated properly.
Schumacher, who made his debut in 1991, dominated Formula One during his career, winning more world titles and races than any other driver.
He first retired aged 37 but was unable to resist the lure of the track. In 2010, he came out of retirement but was unable to recover his previous performance and quit for good in 2012.
Story first published on: Saturday, 04 January 2014 00:52 IST