After spending some time with Jarno Trulli, it’s not hard to be reminded why he was one of the most popular drivers in the Formula 1 paddock during his career; a career in which he won the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix and scored Toyota’s first F1 podium and its maiden pole position during its winless eight-season tenure in the sport.
Now aged 48, the Italian remains as affable as ever. He still wears his heart on his sleeve - a character attribute that endeared him to a legion of fans around the world - and remains keen to cut through the façade that comes with the world of motorsport.
“It’s just the same old story - even when I was a Formula 1 driver, everyone thought they had a chance of being competitive!”
Come to think of it, throughout Trulli’s career, he always gave the impression that he was a normal bloke. Speaking to him, you can’t help shake the feeling that he’d be just as happy pottering about his vineyards in his hometown of Pescara on Italy’s east coast or talking about his love for restoring classic cars as he would be hurling a Formula 1 car around Spa Francorchamps at 200mph.
It’s that normality that Trulli conveys to Dyler.com one week ahead of the 2023 F1 season. At the time of writing, each of the 11 teams have launched their 2023 challengers, the class of 2023 have trotted out their non-committal, PR-friendly “yes, for sure we hope to be competitive but it will take a lot of hard work to be at the front,” lines, and Autosport has predicted its annual Williams revival.
“I think Red Bull are still the favourites because they won both titles last year.”
“It’s just the same old story,” Trulli chuckles when asked what he thinks F1 2023 will bring. “Even back when I was a driver, everyone thought they had a chance of being competitive and would talk this game, but the reality is that you never know what kind of car you have until you head out on track for the first race of the year.
“Having said that, I think Red Bull are still the favourites because they won both titles last year, there are no changes with their drivers, the technical regulations remain stable, and Mercedes will still be playing catch-up.”
Just like his driving style, Trulli’s prognosis for the year is precise and undramatic. And whilst he’s simply “not interested in ifs and buts” he pinpoints Ferrari’s performance as a particular talking point - if not THE biggest talking point - of 2023.
He’s not wrong. The Scuderia’s 2022 season started promisingly. Charles Leclerc won the opening round of the season in Bahrain with teammate Carlos Sainz in second. Leclerc also went on to win in Australia two races later.
The early run of success begged the question: “would 2022 be the season in which driver’s championship glory returned to Maranello for the first time since Kimi Räikkönen managed it in 2007?”
No. Far from it. What followed was a litany of strategic mistakes from the pit wall, reliability problems, and driver errors from both Leclerc and Sainz.
“Ferrari needs to understand that Mattia is a very talented individual who was put in a position that wasn’t right for him. I don’t think getting rid of him will cure Ferrari’s problems”
Whilst Ferrari and Leclerc managed to rank second to Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen in the both championship standings, 2022 was - arguably - one of the worst performances in the team’s history given how promising the year had started.
At the end of the season, Ferrari scored 554 points to Red Bull’s 759 in constructor’s terms, and Leclerc’s P2 in the championship was secured by a whisker - the Monegasque taking the runner’s up position from Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez by just three points.
In true Ferrari style, team principal Mattia Binotto was moved aside at the end of the year to make way for Fred Vasseur who’d been poached from Alfa Romeo Sauber; a statistic which makes him the fifth Ferrari team boss since 2008. To put things into perspective, Red Bull Racing has had just one team principal - that’s Christian Horner - since its foundation in 2005, whilst Mercedes has had Ross Brawn and then Toto Wolff run its F1 operation since its return to the sport in 2010.
“I think Mattia [Binotto] is a great engineer, but it’s hard for me to judge because I never worked with him,” says Trulli. “However, sometimes the wrong people are put in the wrong places, and Ferrari needs to understand that Mattia is a very talented individual who was put in a position that wasn’t right for him. I don’t think getting rid of him will cure Ferrari’s problems.”
It’s compelling to listen to Trulli in free flow about Ferrari. After all, he’s still an Italian who still resides in his home country and here he is making ground beef out of one of the most sacred, if not the most sacred, of all Italian cows. What’ll he do next? Describe lasagna as “shit”?
“The biggest question mark for me - and I think everyone else - this season will be seeing what Ferrari will do this year”
“Ferrari at the start of 2022 were extraordinary,” he says with a sigh. “I found myself like everyone else thinking about a Ferrari-dominated season, and I couldn’t have predicted what happened afterwards. I don’t think anybody could have.
“Come the end of the year, I was sitting at home watching races thinking “what the hell is going on here?” and I really started to understand why people were making jokes and sharing memes about “what will Ferrari get wrong this time?”
Yet despite his criticisms, Trulli is quick to reinforce Sebastian Vettel’s famous line of “everyone is a Ferrari fan, even if they say they’re not, they are Ferrari fans,” as he hopes that the Scuderia will be competitive once again in 2023 - albeit without the drama and errors that cost it so dearly last season.
“In my opinion, Ferrari can do very well this year because they have a good package in their hands in terms of the car and their drivers,” Trulli explains. “The biggest question mark for me - and I think everyone else - this season will be seeing what Ferrari will do this year, and if they can get it right and not let things slip away like they did last year.”
“These days I watch Formula 1 on the TV, and from the outside looking in, it’s very easy to judge from the sofa,” he adds empathetically. “But I can tell you from my time in F1, there are lots of things that happen inside a team we don’t know about at home that are difficult to accept and understand.”
It’s the idea of not understanding the internal mechanics of a team that proves a valuable segue into the next topic - Trulli’s time with Toyota. Despite scoring his only Grand Prix victory with Renault, it’s arguably his five-and-a-bit seasons with the Japanese manufacturer that were the most successful of his 15 seasons in Formula 1.
“I can tell you from my time in F1, there are lots of things that happen inside a team we don’t know about at home that are difficult to accept and understand”
His years in Panasonic Toyota Racing red and white would also prove some of the most frustrating. Despite scoring the team’s first F1 podium and pole position, neither Trulli nor any of his teammates would manage to win that elusive first race for Toyota during its eight-year F1 venture.
To understand why Trulli left Renault - a team clearly in the ascendancy - for Toyota - a team that had yet to score a podium since its arrival in F1 in 2002 - it’s worth understanding the context and politics behind his decision making.
Mid-way through 2004, Trulli spectacularly fell out with Renault then-team principal Flavio Briatore. The deterioration in the relationship between the two Italians - which Trulli is keen to stress has since been repaired - was so severe, that Trulli left Renault early to join Toyota for the final two races of the season before becoming a full-time driver for them in 2005.
“Honestly, I joined Toyota because they had all the ingredients to be a fantastic team and I’m still certain that it was the right thing to do,” recalls Trulli as he winds back the clock some 17 years. “There were some fantastic engineers there such as Mike Gascoyne who I’d known from my years at Renault and Jordan, and they were in the process of putting together a strong, talented team. Toyota had the drive to succeed and had everything - on paper at least - to be amongst the top runners.”
Come the start of the 2005 season, his decision appeared vindicated.
“The TF105 was a fantastic car, because it had a strong aero package, and the 3.0-litre V10 produced about 950bhp. It was really powerful…”
With the all-new, Gascoyne-designed Toyota TF105, Trulli scored back-to-back second places on merit behind Fernando Alonso’s Renault in Malaysia and Bahrain to take the Toyota’s first ever F1 podiums. Two races later in Spain he finished third, and at the infamous 2005 US Grand Prix, he registered Toyota’s first pole position as a Formula 1 team.
So, despite having a “fantastic car,” how did victory manage to elude Toyota and Trulli in 2005?
Referring back to Mattia Binotto being in the wrong place at Ferrari despite the team producing a competitive car in the SF-75, Trulli draws a parallel with his first season at Toyota.
“You have to remember that when I came to Toyota in 2005, the team was just three years old,” he explains. “The TF105 was a fantastic car, because it had a strong aero package, and the 3.0-litre V10 produced about 950bhp. It was really powerful, and I honestly feel that it was the second best car at the start of that season.
“We lost our way a little bit with development and reliability later in the year, but I don’t think those two things were the main problem, because our experience - or inexperience together! - really counted for a lot.”
“If I look back, we may not have been ready to win as a team, but the TF105 definitely wasn’t far away from being a race-winning car under the right circumstances”
Trulli points to the 2005 Belgian Grand Prix as an example; a race where he qualified third - just 0.205 seconds from Kimi Räikkönen’s pole-sitting McLaren Mercedes - and almost a second ahead of his Toyota teammate, Ralf Schumacher, a driver who was no slouch on his day.
“When talking about inexperience, Belgium 2005 really sticks in my mind because I was very competitive that weekend,” Trulli continues. “The team made some really strange decisions that weekend, because it was about to rain or was already raining a little during the race, and I asked them to put me on intermediates during the pit stops. Instead, they fitted dry tyres - it was an absolute disaster!
“I couldn’t drive the car at all and I spent three or four laps behind the Safety Car because there had been an accident and was just trying to keep it on the road. When the race restarted, I had to pit again so I’d managed to drop from third to last. Then I ended up crashing the car! A nightmare…
“If I have to be honest, though, I’m happy with what we achieved in 2005, because if I look back, we may not have been ready to win as a team, but the TF105 definitely wasn’t far away from being a race-winning car under the right circumstances.”
After the highs of 2005, the following two seasons proved to be slim pickings for Toyota. A tweak to the sporting regulations for 2006 saw the introduction of the 2.4L V8, an engine Toyota managed to miscalculate so much that it was some 200bhp down on its predecessor.
“The TF109 had a very strong chassis, and I remember when I first tested it at the end of 2008, I told the team that it had the potential to be very competitive and even a race winner”
A switch from Michelin to Bridgestone tyres and a change in the car’s fundamental design philosophy also failed to assist the now-wayward Japanese outfit.
Following a moderately successful 2008 in which Toyota managed to return to the top three thanks to introduction of an all-new car, the TF108, the upcoming 2009 season with its complete rewrite of the rules should have been the season in which everything came together for Trulli and the team he had by now spent five seasons with.
But again, it wasn’t to be and despite having been a firm-fixture in F1 for over a decade at that stage in his career, Trulli still feels that there were two races that got away from him with the 2009 car, the Toyota TF109.
Had he won them, would Toyota have stayed for 2010? That’s another story and something he won’t be drawn into speculating on irrespective of how the question is worded.
“The TF109 had a very strong chassis, and I remember when I first tested it at the end of 2008, I told the team that it had the potential to be very competitive and even a race winner,” Trulli says. “However, we still had the same underpowered V8 engine we’d had since 2006, so we were already on the backfoot.
“The first was Malaysia. Sepang is a track I always liked, and I was running second behind Jenson [Button] in the Brawn when a call needed to be made, because it started raining, and as you know when it rains in Malaysia, it really rains. The thing is though, is that 2009 was my 12th season in Formula 1 so I’d learned what worked and what didn’t.
“Full wets wouldn’t have worked - well, maybe for a lap or two they would have - but it’s so hot there that a dry line would have appeared on the track within three laps and we’d have burnt the tyres out in no time. I asked the pit wall multiple times for intermediates, and for some reason they put me on full wet tyres and my teammate Timo [Glock] who was ninth on the intermediates I’d been asking for.
“I definitely had that race in my pocket!”
“Timo finished second and I was fourth, but I was furious after that race. You can’t even imagine how angry I was!” he recalls animatedly with a gloriously Italian hand gesture. “I remember saying to the team afterwards “you made me lose the first F1 win for Toyota!” because of how well Timo went on the intermediates.
“It’s all in the past now and I’m not the sort of person who holds grudges, but I definitely had that race in my pocket!”
The second race win that Trulli felt got away was the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. This time there were no strategy blunders that echoed Spa 2005. In fact, from the perspectives of both team and driver, neither Trulli nor Toyota put a foot wrong.
His performance that weekend is considered to be amongst one of the finest - if not the finest - performances from Jarno Trulli behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car.
In fact, it’s widely-accepted that the only thing that separated him and Toyota from a debut F1 victory, a victory that would have occurred on home turf at Suzuka no less, was the TF109’s asthmatic RVX-09 V8 engine.
“The Red Bull though, was that whilst it was super fast, it had a lot of reliability issues during the season and I remember during those closing laps thinking to myself “please, please let us just get lucky here!”
“I put in one hell of a lap to qualify second behind Sebastian in the Red Bull and during that race, he was the only driver quicker than me,” Trulli recounts cheerfully with a broad smile. “As usual during that year, we didn’t have a great starting procedure so I fell behind Hamilton in the McLaren at the start who was third, but the team executed a perfect strategy that allowed me to pass him in the pit stops and remain second until the end of the race behind Sebastian.
“I remember there were 15 laps or so until the finish of the race, and he was just a little bit faster than me, a tenth or so here and there. The thing with the Red Bull though, was that whilst it was super fast, it had a lot of reliability issues during the season and I remember during those closing laps thinking to myself “please, please let us just get lucky here!” but as you know, it didn’t happen in the end and we finished under five seconds behind Sebastian.
“Still, second position for Toyota at Suzuka was a great result for us, and I’m still very proud of that race.”
As things wind down after almost an hour, it begs the question - does Jarno Trulli regret anything about his time with Toyota?
“I mean, some things could have been done differently and some things left a little bit of a bitter taste, but no, I don’t regret anything during my time with Toyota,” he replies. “I gave it my absolute everything during my time there - I managed to give them their first podium, their first pole position, and when it all finished, I don’t think we were all that far away from winning.
“It’s a shame Toyota left Formula 1 when they did…”
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