MON: Yours Trulli

Jarno Trulli went from 'nearly man' to the man at Monaco, fending off a late charge by Jenson Button in a race peppered with crashes and controversy. By Mark Hughes

MON: Yours Trulli

A strut? At a Paul Ricard test last week Trulli discovered the car the Renault R24 had always threatened, but until then had refused, to be. The data had always said that it had maybe half a second locked within it that the drivers simply couldn't access - because it lacked feel, gave no messages. To get any sort of confidence in it at all, he and Fernando Alonso had so far had to set it up to understeer - thereby destroying one of its most outstanding inherent strengths. It had been almost painful to watch through the slower corners in Spain.

But at Ricard, suddenly it was transformed. "We've discovered something we didn't know before about last year's car," said Pat Symonds. The link with last year's beautiful-handling R23 is very significant, for at Ricard the R24 had been fitted with the R23's engine-to-monocoque struts. They'd been fitted to the 23 to ease the vibration issues from that car's wide vee angle and had been discarded on the 24 given that car's smoother-running 72-degree engine. But it seems those struts had unknowingly been doing more than dampening out vibrations. They had been a critical part of the feedback loop, helping give the rear of the car very high lateral stiffness and thereby a feeling of security for the drivers.

Trulli now had all the feedback he needed to weave his magic around Monaco. No longer needing understeer to get a feel for it, he could set it up to use that great front end - a quality enhanced by a dynamite Michelin Monaco compound - and attack the track with fantastic precision and awesome entry speed.

It translated into a lap over 0.3 seconds quicker than Schumacher - Ralf Schumacher, that is, who had to surrender 10 grid places for changing his engine during Thursday practice. Michael Schumacher was actually 0.6sec slower than the flying Renault, separated by the Williams, Jenson Button's BAR and Alonso's Renault. Had not Takuma Sato almost repeated Button's Monaco '03 accident, then he too would have been quicker than the Ferrari.

Schuey's victory in Spain, in conspiracy with a suddenly shy sun on the eve of pre-qualifying, badly compromised his qualifying chances here. On a track sensitive to rubbering in, being first on the track hurt, especially with many Michelin cars hovering around his pace. "Suddenly the track was really slippery," reported Michael; "much worse than I was expecting." Where in the morning practice he had been in the low 1m14s - fastest by a matter of thousandths from a Renault and a BAR - suddenly he was in the very high 1m15s and in trouble. By the time the pre-qualifying session was over, 13 cars had gone quicker on a now scorching and rubbered-in track that perfectly suited Michelin. That placed him seventh in the qualifying running order, with 13 cars getting the benefit of a track quicker than the one he qualified on.

"If there's any track on the calendar with a layout that works against the strength of our car/tyre combination," said Ross Brawn, "it's here. It's no secret that we fare better in faster corners and less well on slow/high braking corners."

On Thursday evening, Brawn was still struggling to make his tyre choice. Among Bridgestone's cargo here was an aggressively soft compound. "It's significantly quicker than our other option," he said, "but it is not consistent." The thinking had been that consistency doesn't really matter if you can run at the front on a track where passing is impossible and that the first lap performance of the soft tyre would ensure Schuey started from pole. But there was a two-pronged spanner thrown into those works. The Renaults were fast right from the word go and that, in combination with Rubens Barrichello off Michael's pace, meant that even if Schuey did use the softs to take pole, there was every chance of a Renault starting alongside him on the front row and every chance, therefore, of losing the start to the blue car's explosive getaway. If that happened, Schuey was history and the Renault would be long-gone.

Thereby forced into the harder tyre option, it made sense to load the car with a bit of fuel. Not so much that Michael would hurt, but enough to accept probably losing pole and hope to recoup with a longer first stint on Sunday. That created the performance gap that Button et al were able to fill. So there it was: a humble strut had levered open Ferrari's stranglehold on the season.

As he held his arms aloft on the slowing down lap at Monaco, Jarno Trulli tilted his head back and closed his eyes. You could almost see the seven years of tension released from his shoulders into the late afternoon sky.

"I've been waiting so long," said Trulli of his first grand prix win. "I've been through a lot of bad moments. You always have to believe you can do it, and I knew I had a good car. When things go wrong it's tough and you have to be strong and stubborn, to believe and trust in yourself."

From stunning qualifying lap to faultless race consistency, it was a perfect, controlling drive as the Renault man effortlessly absorbed pressure from three different pursuers at various stages of a dramatic GP to take victory. He couldn't have done it in better style had he imagined it in his head - which he had done.

"Last night, I was thinking about it," he said, "and in my mind, I was thinking I would just pull away from the beginning and have the race in my own hands, and I did exactly that."

It would be easy to read Trulli's words as arrogance, but nothing could be further from the truth. They were the words of a man convincing himself he could do it. He's always been a driver apparently on the cusp of a confidence crisis, and a little more arrogance in the past might have been a positive thing for his performances.

"If Jarno has had a fault," said his engineering chief, Pat Symonds, "it was maybe that he didn't have the self-esteem he should have had. I have a feeling that this is the switch he needs to really turn things around."

The Italian is not the sort of driver who will wring the neck of a car that's not quite there, but has consistently shown he can be devastating when all is right. And, suddenly, following a breakthrough test at Paul Ricard the previous week (see Qualifying), the Renault R24 chassis was very right. Finally with a stable rear end, its drivers could feel what it was doing without inducing artificially-low front-end grip. Allied to its always superb braking and traction, and a tyre compound and construction combo that Michelin had judged to perfection, and Trulli was in the driving seat, fully the master of his destiny over a race weekend for the first time since his Formula 3 days.

So good was the car last weekend that Trulli's strongest rival was always going to be team-mate Fernando Alonso. And so it proved for the first 41 laps of the race. Alonso used his car's stupendous startline performance to beat Jenson Button's BAR away from the grid and slot in right behind Trulli as they exited Ste Devote.

But the Renaults weren't the only ones making demon getaways. The start of Takuma Sato's BAR from seventh was unbelievable or illegal.

"There was no way that wasn't a jump start," said David Coulthard. "I was still stationary when he went by."

But there was no trigger from the electronic timing beam, so Sato's start can only be assumed to have been kosher. As it was, he ruthlessly sliced between Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, giving the world champion's Ferrari a hefty nudge. He then had to pussyfoot slightly so as not to hit the gearbox of team-mate Button as he took up fourth, with Raikkonen edging Schumacher down to sixth.

The Renaults were devastating over the opening three laps, putting clear air between themselves and Button. A pattern has emerged over the past couple of races, where the BAR seems slower on its first couple of laps than the Renault. Indeed, that might have been all that separated Button from Trulli in qualifying, and here it was being repeated. The BAR uses a very hard Brembo brake disc material that takes an awful lot of heating up.

"I've been struggling to get temperature in the brakes all weekend," Button said later. "The tyres are getting softer and softer, and we're getting more and more downforce, so you're using the brakes a lot more and we're having to run harder materials to cope."

On the grid, a mechanic had even taken a heat gun to the front discs. The Renault's Hitcos proved less sensitive.

Trulli and Alonso were two seconds clear of Button at the end of the third lap. By which time the second BAR had suffered an almighty engine blow up at the Swimming Pool. The cause of that went back to the aborted start triggered by Olivier Panis's clutch-troubled Toyota. With no airflow to the radiators, the engines are critically exposed at this point and, in Sato's case, this proved terminal. The smoke was getting heavier, even as the Honda telemetry was saying the temperature was coming back down. As it blew, white smoke covered the width of the track and those behind were presented with a terrifying 140mph guessing game. Inevitably someone chose wrong, and Giancarlo Fisichella hit the back of Coulthard, flipping the Sauber upside down. Cue the safety car for four laps. Coulthard pitted and retired the heavily-damaged McLaren, Ralf Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld stopped, had fuel added and changed their strategies.

Hang on. Where is Ferrari in this race? Where's the man looking to set a new record by winning the first six grands prix of a season? The safety car had changed Schuey's deficit to the leader from seven seconds to three, but he was still only fifth.

"Don't get too carried away," warned Symonds. "Monaco is a unique event. Let's keep our feet on the ground and see where we are at more conventional tracks."

The twists and turns of Monte Carlo aren't ideal territory for Ferrari and Bridgestone. The original plan to counter that with a super-soft tyre that would get the Maranello cars on the front row, and to hell with consistency, had foundered on the rocks of not being able to get Rubens Barrichello going quickly enough to ensure a front row lock-out, thereby protecting themselves from the lightning starts of the Renaults. Hence the choice of the harder, more consistent tyre, and hence Schumacher found himself fighting with Raikkonen's McLaren, while the Renaults and the remaining BAR pulled out their gap all over again as racing resumed.

In the second scarlet car, Barrichello was in much worse shape. "Something was very wrong with the car, maybe something broken in the rear suspension," he said. "It was so bad that on one lap I came round Casino Square and the car hit the ground so badly I locked the outside wheel like I had a puncture. I radioed that I was coming in, but then the car felt reasonable for the rest of the lap."

Barrichello's sixth place was easy meat for an up-and-at-'em Juan Pablo Montoya into Ste Devote, with the Brazilian then left fending off Mark Webber's heavily-fuelled Jaguar until it retired early with hydraulic failure.

Christian Klien's sister Jag hit the hairpin barriers on the first lap, losing the £140,000 diamond that had been embedded into its nose as publicity for a diamond broker sponsor!

Montoya monstered Schumacher for a few tours before pitting on lap 13. Schuey finally got some clear air on lap 19 when Raikkonen pitted, although by this time the Ferrari was over nine seconds adrift of Trulli. This was a critical point in the race for the Ferrari driver, and, boy, did he get his head down, his true potential revealed for the first time as he reeled off a sequence of stunning laps in the high 1m14s at a time when the Renaults were in the mid-15s. It appeared the McLaren had been holding him up to the tune of 1.75 seconds per lap.

A lap before Raikkonen's stop, Button had been the first of the frontrunners in, and the pace of the Renaults was revealed as genuine, and not weight assisted. And so the contest apparently began to narrow down to a battle between the Renault drivers, with the proviso that the flying Schuey was coming on to the radar.

It would have been easy for Trulli to feel pressure at this point. Although he is good friends with Alonso, the Spaniard's more aggressive racecraft and natural leadership has certainly gone down better with the team. However Trulli, knowing he was to stop a lap earlier, stretched his legs and began easing clear, as he had to do to ensure he wasn't leapfrogged at the stops. Alonso had no answer.

"Sometimes Fernando was pushing me, but then I eventually responded," said Trulli. "I knew I was quicker."

It gave him a margin of more than four seconds when he stopped on lap 24. Symonds modified the original strategy at this point, giving Trulli fuel for an extra four laps or so.

"We were worried about Ferrari," he said. "We knew they were on a hard tyre, and I was concerned about their pace at the end of their stint. The only thing we could do was stay out long and try to match them. I decided to push Jarno out as far as we could."

Alonso's in-lap was quicker, but his stop was 0.5sec slower than Trulli's, despite receiving less fuel. He rejoined still more than three seconds adrift.

Schumacher, setting the race's fastest lap just before his in-lap, came in a tour after Alonso. He rejoined seven seconds behind the leader, having jumped Raikkonen and Button. Vintage Schuey, although he was aided hugely in getting ahead of the BAR by Button being held up for three laps after his pit visit by the long-stopping Toyota of Cristiano da Matta. It cost him about five seconds - the gap by which he trailed Schuey.

The Ferrari's pace was now on a par with the two Renaults, but no faster, and Ferrari began to think about accepting a podium rather than a win. Team-mate Barrichello continued to struggle with appalling handling, and was more than half a minute back, even though he was promoted to fifth on lap 29 when Raikkonen lost all drive with hydraulic failure.

Montoya's early stop had cost him dear, putting him in the slower traffic and he'd spent many laps trying to find a way by Nick Heidfeld's well-driven Jordan. He was now behind da Matta in seventh and soon to be lapped.

The second safety car came on lap 42, as Alonso - still within a couple of seconds of Trulli - came to lap the troubled Williams of Ralf Schumacher. Soon after its early stop, Ralf's car had begun losing gears. He'd been getting blue flags for a few corners before he pulled to the right in the tunnel, and Alonso moved to pass on the left. But as the Renault went around the outside, the Williams didn't slow and suddenly Alonso was on the marbles at 180mph and heading for the barriers. The Renault emerged from the tunnel in mid-accident and continued bouncing off solid things for quite a time afterwards. Even before it had stopped, its driver found enough time to flip Ralf the finger.

To say Alonso was angry doesn't really get it across.

"He slowed and pulled over, then accelerated again and pushed me out," he said. "He should be banned for three or four races. It's impossible to race with people like him."

Yes, Ralf was late moving out of the way and chose to do it in an awkward place, but Alonso was probably tricked by the initial lack of acceleration of the Williams, with its missing couple of gears, into thinking Ralf was backing off for him more than he was.

BAR made an instant call and pitted Button early. Renault did the same for Trulli, but critically he was just past the pitlane entry when the call was made, obliging him to do another lap. He was lucky he just passed the safety car as it made its way onto the track, otherwise the time lost behind the silver Merc would have handed the race to Button.

So Schuey now led the race. Why had Ferrari not brought him in?

"We thought staying out was worth a shot," said tech boss Ross Brawn. "We weren't going to pass anyone by doing the same thing because we weren't as quick as we'd hoped. We had plenty of fuel left, and we thought we'd give Michael some laps on a clear track to see what he could do."

It still seemed a strange decision, because Schumacher had had a clear track when he was chasing the Renaults, yet was going no quicker. Why then should he be able to do so in the 10 laps or so his fuel would have given him? By going for an almost certainly doomed attempt to pass Trulli, Ferrari had put its second place over Button in jeopardy. Besides, could Trulli have held his nerve for 30 laps with Schuey on his gearbox? It looked the flippant gamble of a team secure with its dominance over the season.

But we didn't get to find out. As the safety car was making its in-lap, Schuey and the lapped Montoya were warming their brakes and tyres through the tunnel. They'd almost touched at Mirabeau, and there has been a niggle between the two of them on the subject of etiquette in just this situation, following on from their near-accident in Austria last year. So as Schuey accelerated then braked, Montoya was braking then accelerating. They touched and the Ferrari spun into the barriers, emerging from the tunnel minus a wheel. Each blamed the other and it was easy to feel elements of sympathy for both. JPM was a lap down, why not give more space? On the other hand, the curve in the middle of the tunnel is not a good place to warm your brakes.

So Trulli was back in the lead and, what's more, he had a couple of lapped cars between him and Button. One of them was the latter's earlier nemesis, da Matta.

"It took a lap before they showed him any blue flags," said an irritated Button, "and then he had them for two and half laps before he finally got out the way. It's pathetic."

By the time Button passed the Toyota, Trulli was almost seven seconds in front. Da Matta was later given a drive-through, but his team was adamant he'd moved aside as soon as the blue flag message was shown on screen and was indignant at the penalty that cost its man fifth.

The shadows were getting long now, the low sun backlit the track on the run down to Mirabeau, the rubber marbles littering the edges of the racing line. The race came down to a duel between two men, chaser and chased. Either way, one of them was going to win his first GP. The rest of the field - Barrichello, Montoya, Massa, da Matta, Heidfeld and Panis - was soon a lap behind, or very nearly in the case of Barrichello. Button threw caution to the wind, admitting he felt at risk of hitting the barriers, but down the gap came. But Trulli felt no need to respond. He was secure, serene even as they lapped a Minardi on the final lap. He crossed the line half a second ahead, threw up his arms, tilted back his head and closed his eyes.

The mix of strategies muddied the picture, with the two-stopping Saubers drifting in and out, but Sato lay fourth, with Alonso closing, and soon right with him. Then came Montoya, with Ralf next, fighting a tactical battle with Giancarlo Fisichella's Sauber. They were all clear of the two McLarens of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen, which were battling for a place in the top 10, 1.5 seconds a lap off the pace and holding up Jenson Button.

The BAR driver had been unable to make any real progress from his grid position and had to wait until the first stops to get past Mark Webber's rear-tyre-struggling Jaguar. He would be stuck behind the McLarens until the second round of stops before encountering Felipe Massa. When briefly in clear air, Button was flying and his best lap was virtually on a par with Schumacher's, who, of course, was nursing an ailing car.

The second round of stops were kicked off by Trulli on lap 23, giving Barrichello a proper hold on second. A couple of laps later, Schumacher was able to stop without losing his lead, even though there was a quickly-extinguished bodywork fire from that broken exhaust. Sato lost his fourth place to Alonso at the second round of stops. The two were evenly matched on general pace, but the Renault boys got their man turned around quicker in the pits and the Spaniard followed that up with a better out-lap than the one Sato would subsequently do, both BAR drivers reporting the car to be difficult on new tyres.

Alonso now had a gap of around 15 seconds to close down on team-mate Trulli if he wanted to give his adoring home crowd a podium. It was a long shot, but he began to give it a go, the Renault visibly being pushed very aggressively, though both cars had excessive slow corner understeer despite the fitting of their predecessors' front wings for this race.

Barrichello made his second and final stop on the 43rd lap. There had been some confusion over the radio about whether it was going to be this lap or the next and his crew certainly looked unprepared when he arrived. The fuel rig went on pretty much immediately, but the tyres were not ready. Shades of Eddie Irvine in 1999.

"Yes, there is a procedure we have to prevent this sort of thing," said Brawn, "and it wasn't followed."

It lost Barrichello about three seconds. Hardly serious with Schuey out of reach and Trulli well behind.

Montoya came in from seventh on the same lap for his third stop. He pushed on his out-lap and that exertion finally finished off his brakes. He was back in a couple of laps later, unable even to stop short of his jack man, who took a gentle tumble before the car was wheeled aside. This promoted his more cautious team-mate, now concerned with seeing off Fisichella's two-stopping Sauber.

As Schuey reeled off the laps, mentally agonising about when the car was going to fail, when the bodywork was going to catch fire or a wire burn through, Alonso was bringing his countrymen to their feet as he chased down Trulli, almost on his tail with just a few laps to go. Button was doing the same to Fisichella in his chase of seventh, but then telemetry showed his brakes were marginal and he was instructed to back off.

Sixty-six laps and a relieved Schuey finally did it, with Barrichello a distant second, a significant part of the 13 seconds gap representing the time penalty of a two-stops over a three. Over half a minute behind the winner, Trulli calmly kept his team-mate at bay.

Later, in the paddock, the Ferrari team members went about their work wearing 'Michael Schumacher, 200 Grands Prix' T-shirts. As the team owners, drivers, engineers and trucks departed, one team remained deep in debrief way longer than the others - just as it always does. The debrief was held, as ever, in a scarlet truck.

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