The wheels turn full circle

Jarno Trulli’s racing career began in low-key fashion: a lad, his dad and a kart. He spoke to Motor Sport about his subsequently illustrious career… while preparing a kart for his own son
writer Rob Widdows

He is 10 years old. So young, so much to learn. He is not here to win, he is here to feel his way, to get some experience. They all start this way.

His grandfather began like this, in a kart, and went on to win many races. His father, too, started this way and went on to win world championships, a Formula 3 title and the Monaco Grand Prix.

A fresh chapter begins here at the Adria Raceway in the Veneto region of northern Italy, the latest in the history of a famous Italian racing family. Little Enzo Trulli is taking his first tentative steps. His father Jarno is chief mechanic, grandfather Enzo prepares the pasta and, a few steps away, Franco Nanni, Jarno’s former mentor and mechanic, keeps a watchful eye.

The perfect place, then, to reflect on Trulli’s career and look forward, perhaps, to a new generation. While Jarno grapples with the new technology of Formula E, Enzo learns to handle a TonyKart, equipment of choice for boy racers the world over. This is his first season in the Mini-Rok series, a fiercely competitive training ground for those who dream of bigger things.

For now, though, it’s time to talk to the chief mechanic as he sets up the kart, up to his elbows in WD40, spark plugs, spanners and sockets. We chat while he works, pausing only for trips to the toolbox. There’s no big shiny transporter, just a little tent with a cooker for the pasta, and a fridge for the Rosato Secco he’s brought from his Poderi Castorani vineyard near Pescara.

“Enzo is starting later than me,” Trulli says. “I was eight when I did my first junior races, so I cannot tell you yet if he has the talent. Sure, I can support him, show him things and, when he listens, I can see some progress. When he doesn’t listen... it drives me mad. I have told him, you don’t need to be good to make it, you need to be phenomenal. This is the truth. Some of these kids, they race 30 weekends a year, but not Enzo. He has school, he has other life and that’s very important. I’ve seen too many disappointed families, they spend all their money, the boys lose their education… It’s crazy and there is too much pressure, too much money. The costs are escalating, karting is being ruined in this way. When I was a boy my father was racing, so I was in there among the tyres, the fuel, the oil, breathing it all in. It was addictive. I used to drive his kart, sitting on his lap, and the passion for racing started there. That’s why we’re here now.”

Jarno won the world championship in 1991, moved to TonyKart in ’93 and put the Prevalle manufacturer on the radar of every boy who had the dream. He graduated to Formula 3 in 1995, won the following season’s German title and then stepped straight into Formula 1 with Minardi. Very rarely does it happen like that, but it came as no surprise to TonyKart owner Roberto Rabazzi (also present in Adria).

“To see the new generation of Trulli here is fantastic,” he says. “Jarno was the driver for us, he did so much to put TonyKart on the map. To have him with us was a dream because he was already a world champion and a very good test driver. He helped us to improve the chassis and the engine, and in ’94 we dominated, won a world championship and a European championship. Jarno never had a big budget, but we won the World Cup at Suzuka in ’95. Then he started winning in F3 and went so quickly to F1. I knew he would have a great career, he was the complete driver, racer and tester. To see Jarno come back to karting to help his boy after all his success, this is a very nice new chapter for him, for us and for Italian motor racing.”

Back in the tent Jarno is prepping the kart for the first race of the day, warming the engine, checking tyre pressures and making last-minute adjustments. His father prepares penne al pomodoro, a slab of Parmigiano Reggiano the size of a brick on the workbench, a whiff of garlic mixing with the familiar aroma of hot engines.

“We never dreamed of Formula 1,” Trulli says. “It was too far away. The only thing that mattered was racing, not the ambition. To be the number one in karting was enough. F1 was just a dream, but you never know what life can give you. It’s not simple. You have to step on the right train at the right time. Karting and F3 were just so competitive in those days, I had little time to learn the cars. In January ’96 I won my last kart race in Australia, then I won the German F3 title and in March ’97 I was in the Minardi at Melbourne for the Grand Prix. It happened so quickly.”

At this point Flavio Briatore had appeared on the stage. He wanted to take Jarno to Japan for an F3000 campaign, but at the last moment a door opened in Faenza. “I was a bit scared,” Trulli says. “It wasn’t because of the cars, but because I didn’t have enough experience. But Flavio said ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ It really helped that I’d done 12 years in karting, some of it at a very high level, so I knew how to race, how to win. I had nothing to lose. All I had to do was learn the car and go as fast as I could. You have to understand that F1 was something apart, nothing else came close to the performance, especially at that time. My first test was at Estoril and it made a big impression. I could not go flat. It was too much, a huge step from karting and F3. Of course I adapted, it was the only option I had, but the Hart V8 didn’t give me a chance
to race against the V10s. But in Brazil I set the fastest mid-sector time in that Minardi during Friday practice, and in Canada I was lying sixth when the engine blew up.”

After Enzo has qualified for his race – solid midfield, no fireworks, no mistakes – Jarno talks about his time with Prost, whom first he joined partway through the 1997 season as substitute for the injured Olivier Panis. He would stay until the end of 1999.

“Alain Prost was one of my heroes when I was young,” he says. “He asked me to test, at Magny-Cours, and that was a big call. I was tired, not very prepared, but it went well, I was faster than Emmanuel Collard who knew the car. In racing you can have a bad day, but that was a good day – and small things can change your career in a moment. You could only learn from Alain, from his experience, his way of thinking, the way he raced, so it was unbelievable. He is one of the greats and he gave me a chance. There were some good races, too – leading in Austria and running second until the engine blew up, and my first ever podium at the Nürburgring, but after two full seasons it was time to move.”

To Jordan, then, for two years. The team was no longer the force it had threatened to be. Although Trulli often qualified spectacularly well, not a single podium came his way.

“I liked Eddie,” he says. “He was always good to me, a good person, a big character and very fair with me. I know a lot of people say they have trouble with Eddie, but never with me. I would drive for him again if he asked.

I thought we would have good results but we had Mugen-Hondas, not the full works engine. There were some very good races, like Monaco in 2000, but the engine let go again. It was a difficult time for the team, but I never had problems with Eddie.”

His manager Briatore was by now in charge at Renault and drafted Jarno into the squad alongside Jenson Button and, latterly, Fernando Alonso. In 2004 the Italian won the Monaco Grand Prix from pole. This was a masterclass and a hugely popular victory that earned him a rare standing ovation inside the press room. Inside the team, however, things became less cordial after he lost third place to Rubens Barrichello at the final corner of the French Grand Prix.

“I have always been very direct, very honest with people. I’ve never changed, winning or not, because all I loved was the racing, to win, not to be some kind of star. I think people knew I deserved that Monaco victory when they cheered me in the press room. Maybe I deserved more wins, but it didn’t happen, so it was good when they gave me that reception. Finally, after so many sacrifices, I was back on top of the sport I loved. The first half of that season was fine for me, with some strong results, but in the end it was not so good in the team. Flavio is a very different person from me. The way we live, the way we see life, is very deeply different. At Renault it became difficult in 2004 and in the end I don’t think I was being given the best...”

Jacques Villeneuve replaced him with three races remaining and Trulli decamped to Toyota, making his debut with the team in the 2004 Japanese Grand Prix.

It’s time for Enzo to race. Still as calm as a millpond, he climbs aboard the TonyKart, receives a few words from his chief mechanic and is off into the fray of his first ever floodlit race. He finishes in the midfield.

“It’s such an early stage,” says Jarno. “He has much to learn and that’s why we are here. Karting will help him develop, not just on the sporting side but as a young person, too, away from the streets, away from the troubles that are out there. You learn to behave, to respect the rules, to challenge yourself, to communicate with people. A boy must go through this process. We are in a good place. After the races we go back to normal life. He doesn’t yet know what it takes to focus, to be a winner, but he loves it and that’s the main thing.”

Trulli’s move to Toyota promised so much, but in the end delivered little. He takes care to explain how the might of Toyota failed to crack F1. “I thought it was a big opportunity and at the start of 2005 I was second in the championship, behind Alonso, almost always on the podium. I was convinced, with everything we had, that we would blow everyone away, but it didn’t happen. Sometimes it’s like that. Many good races, many podiums, but no wins. Formula 1 is so competitive in every area and at that time it was even more so. You could not predict which team would be best. You cannot win without the right car and it’s the same today. You must beat your team-mate – he’s the only one with the same car. I was usually ahead of them, so you could say I should have achieved more – you could blame me, I could blame myself, I made some mistakes, but that’s how it is. The Japanese work in a different way. It’s down to their culture and it’s pointless to think you can ever change that. Given the speed at which F1 moves, a big company like this does not react fast enough. Toyota’s target in F1 was to succeed by imposing its own way of thinking, its culture, and that’s what killed it. Even though the team failed, everybody still believed in what they were doing. They didn’t change their ways, ever. They know they failed but, for them, they proved that they believed strongly and deeply in their own culture. It was not good for me, it ruined my career, but I have a lot of respect for them because they didn’t abandon their ship. There are so many reasons why we didn’t win the championship, despite the potential, but they had their own target, to do F1 their way, the Japanese way, and in the end they failed.”

Finally, to Lotus/Caterham. He didn’t need to do it, so why? “I didn’t have to do it and I made a big mistake. But I did it, and there’s no way back. I felt I was still at the pinnacle of my career and this led me to join the team, to show I was still at the top. There were promises made, but things turned out differently. What else can I say? I took a chance, but had nothing to gain. It was not the right thing to do, so my career ended with a bitter taste.”

But it wasn’t yet over, was it? Many were amazed when Jarno appeared in Formula E with his own team. Again, why?

“It is a new challenge, a new technology, a good opportunity to experience a new series with a very different concept. It was not an easy decision, but it was a brave decision, because I had nothing to gain and everything to lose as a driver. I have no regrets. We had a reasonable season and it was important for my team for me to be there, to drive. We were developing the technology, which is complicated, and we started late, struggled in the first year. We were not always on top of the problems, and short on budget, but we are learning all the time.”

The Formula E team continues for the all-electric series’ second season, but Jarno has chosen to stand down from driving to concentrate on his new management role. Ex-Toro Rosso F1 driver Vitantonio Liuzzi and Mexican Salvador Duran will now lead the charge.

Late at night, in torrential rain, the Mini-Rok final starts under yellow flags and is reduced to four laps in appalling conditions. For Enzo the learning curve just got steeper, but he brings the kart home and it’s now time for pasta with zucchini and a glass or two of Poderi Castorani Rosso.

“We keep it simple, like we did when my father took me racing,” says Jarno. “Enzo has done well. He is learning, having fun, and we don’t need to do any more than that. If he has the talent, we will do more for him, but for now we are karting for the right reasons, for the racing, for the passion. This is how we like to be.”

You can take the boy out of Pescara, even put him on the Monaco podium, but you can’t take Pescara out of the man. Jarno Trulli remains true to his roots.