Jarno Trulli's Monaco lap of near-perfection: 74 seconds that set up his only F1 win


In 2004 Jarno Trulli outpaced Michael Schumacher to claim pole in Monaco, in what might be the second best lap we've ever seen there, then went on to win for the only time in F1. Matt Bishop recalls that sensational weekend, and his bond with a driver more thoughtful than most

Jarno Trulli celebrates victory in 2004 F1 Monaco Grand Prix

On the top step for the first and only time in F1: Trulli at the 2004 Monaco GP

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Riddle me this. Let’s imagine that you were a brilliant qualifier but only a very good racer. Let’s say that you started 252 Formula 1 grands prix and won only one of them. Which grand prix would you be mostly likely to have won? What’s your answer? OK, I’ll help you: it would surely be the grand prix where qualifying is of paramount importance because overtaking is practically impossible, right? Monaco, in other words.

So it was that Jarno Trulli, who will turn 50 this summer but in his pomp was one of the most dazzlingly effective purveyors of the super-rapid F1 qualifying lap, won the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix, almost exactly 20 years ago, principally as a result of having driven one of the most brilliant pole laps of the famously serpentine Monte-Carlo circuit that I for one have ever seen. Yes, there have been other excellent Monaco pole laps – Juan Manuel Fangio in 1957, Tony Brooks in 1958, Stirling Moss in 1960, Jim Clark in 1963, Jackie Stewart in 1971, Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972, Carlos Reutemann in 1978, Ayrton Senna in 1988, Mika Hakkinen in 1998, Michael Schumacher in 2012, and Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, and Max Verstappen in recent years – but Trulli’s Monaco 2004 pole lap stacks up against all of them except Senna’s otherworldly 1min 23.998sec in 1988, which is and may always remain the Monaco pole lap nonpareil.

The 2004 Monaco Grand Prix was the sixth race of that year’s F1 campaign, and Michael Schumacher had won the first five. It was already therefore clear that his car, the Ferrari F2004, was destined to become one of the greatest in F1 history, and so it proved, for in his and Rubens Barrichello’s hands it won 15 of the 18 F1 grands prix that made up the 2004 season. Even now, 20 years later, it still holds the outright race lap record at Monza, the fastest of all F1 circuits, as a result of a remarkable 159.91mph (257.35km/h) effort by Barrichello on his run from the pole to his eighth and penultimate F1 grand prix victory for the Scuderia. So to say that everyone expected Ferrari to win at Monaco in 2004 is an understatement: we were almost sure of it.

Renault of Jarno Trulli in qualifying for the 2004 F1 Monaco Grand Prix

Trulli in qualifying at Monaco in ’04, where he achieved ‘near perfection’

Clive Rose/Getty Images

After the first two days of practice we were even more certain. Schumacher had been quickest in FP1 and FP2 on Thursday, and in FP3 and FP4 on Saturday. In the last of those four free practice sessions, he had laid down a truly daunting marker – a lap of 1min 14.014sec – the fastest yet driven at the Principality. Qualifying would take place that afternoon.

But Michael surprised us by qualifying only fifth, unable to repeat his FP4 pace; and, even if he had matched it, it would not have been enough. Why not? Because, although the first sector of Trulli’s quali lap was good but not great, its second and third sectors were mesmerisingly impressive; “nearly perfect” was his own description; I have watched those two sectors many times since, and “perfect” would be mine, for he left no margin anywhere and made no mistakes at all. Trulli’s Renault was the only car to break the 74-second barrier, with a lap time of 1min 13.985sec, which was 0.360sec better than anyone else could manage.

Jarno Trulli jokes with Fernando Alonso after qualifying on pole for the 2004 F1 Monaco Grand Prix

Alonso jokes with polesitter Trulli after Monaco qualifying

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On the Sunday, after the glitterati in the mega-yachts had been bewildered by not one but two aborted starts, Trulli made a clean getaway and led the race once it had finally got going. But on lap three Takuma Sato (BAR), David Coulthard (McLaren), and Giancarlo Fisichella (Sauber) tangled, and out came the safety car while the track was being cleared. Once the safety car had pulled back into the pits, Trulli promptly drove three fastest laps in a row, extending his lead over his closest pursuer, his Renault team-mate, Fernando Alonso.

As the race approached half-distance there was more drama, for Alonso tried to pass Ralf Schumacher’s Williams in the tunnel – and crashed heavily. Out came the safety car again, and all the leaders dived into the pits except Michael Schumacher. So Michael now led on the road from Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams), who was a lap behind. But there was more tunnel trouble to come, for, in an effort to put heat into his brake discs and pads, Schumi locked up behind the safety car and, perhaps surprised by the suddenness of that tactic, JPM attempted to avoid the slowing Ferrari but was not quite able to do so. The Williams punted the Ferrari into the barrier and out of the race. The incident restored Trulli’s lead, and he duly won, albeit harried vigorously by Jenson Button (BAR) right to the end, the two cars just 0.497sec apart at the flag.

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Trulli raced in F1 for seven seasons more, scoring two second places and four third places during that time, all of them for Toyota, but he never looked like winning again. Even so, his qualifying performances continued to impress mightily – with the result that in races he often held up the drivers of faster cars whom he had outqualified, and was therefore running ahead of in the early laps. I cannot recall who first coined the term ‘Trulli train’, or when, but it certainly stuck, for, race after race, a long line of cars would be seen following Jarno’s Toyota, their drivers frustrated but unable to get past. There was no DRS in those days, remember.

In 2007 Trulli’s Toyota team-mate was Ralf Schumacher. The United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis was the seventh race of that F1 season, and, although neither driver had been enjoying the Toyota TF107, which was one of the poorer cars fielded by that lavishly funded but ultimately disappointing F1 team, there was no doubt that Jarno had had the upper hand, having outqualified Ralf six times out of six. On behalf of the magazine that I was then editing, I had arranged that a fashion photographer, Matthew Stylianou, would take some funky portrait shots of both Toyota drivers, and the team’s comms/PR guys had suggested that the photoshoot should take place on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours after qualifying, Ralf first then Jarno.

When Ralf walked into the spare pit garage that we had converted into a temporary photographic studio, having just been outqualified by his team-mate yet again, making the score between them a now embarrassing seven-nil, it was clear that he was not in a good mood. He refused to smile for Stylianou’s Hasselblad, he grimaced, he sighed, and finally he turned to me and demanded that we write positively about him in future, otherwise he would not complete the ’shoot. I am not proud of what happened next, but I was irritated by the condition that Ralf had tried to impose, and I refused it. “I’m sorry, Ralf,” I began, “but I can’t agree to that. I can’t and won’t guarantee you positive coverage simply because you stand still for one of our photographers for a few minutes.” He pressed his point. I countered it. Finally, I snapped, and I swore at him. He turned on his heel and left. Photoshoot aborted.

Grumpy looking Ralf Schumacher next to JArno Trulli in drivers parade ahead of 2007 United States Grand Prix

No smiles from Schumacher: Ralf maintains the grumpy appearance alongside Trulli during 2007 US GP drivers’ parade

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I immediately regretted my outburst, but I guess it hardly matters now, 17 years later. Nonetheless, it felt like a big deal at the time. Apart from anything else, I feared that Toyota might lodge a formal complaint, and that as a result I might get the sack. Worryingly, my next task would be to re-enter Toyota’s hospitality unit to fetch Trulli. Wearily and warily, I trudged down the paddock – where, to my astonishment, I encountered Jarno, skipping towards me, all smiles, having heard Ralf’s version of the contretemps, and eager to hear it all over again from me. I gave him chapter and verse and, not that text-message initialisms were in vogue in those days in quite the same way as they are now, he almost literally ROFL’d; he certainly LOL’d long and hard. As things panned out, no-one at Toyota complained, either. The truth was that, not only slower but also moanier than his team-mate, Schumi Jr was not popular with many in the team by that time.

He duly retired from F1 at the end of the 2007 season – but Jarno went on until 2011. Somehow he and I had bonded over the rumpus at Indy in 2007, for he asked me to repeat the story to his manager Lucio Cavuto at Magny-Cours two weeks later, and after that he and I dined together a few times in London, and once in Rome, always at Italian fine-dining restaurants, invariably sharing a bottle of good vino rosso, for he had become something of a wine buff. Indeed, he is now the co-owner of a vineyard in Abruzzo, near the Adriatic coast of Italy.

I always found him to be very polite and unusually thoughtful. He appeared to enjoy being interviewed, and even grilled, which attractive trait was not and is not shared by the vast majority of F1 drivers. If you bowled him a tricky googly of a question, he would pause, ponder, then launch into a long, softly spoken, but cleverly nuanced reply, his brow furrowed and his hands expressive. When he did that, he used to remind me of Ayrton Senna, and indeed their faces are not unalike.

I am no longer in touch with him, but I would like to be. Perhaps I will drop him a line some time soon. I think our last email exchange was in 2019, when I was communications director of W Series and he wrote to me, criticising it, on the grounds that he thought women should compete on level terms with men, not in a segregated championship. It is an interesting point. I would love to debate it with him – over a bottle or two of Jarno Trulli Rosso Colline Pescaresi perhaps.

Jarno Trulli ahead of F1 pack in 2008 Japanese GP

The Trulli train in Japan 2008 — it was often a result of his qualifying pace

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