Jarno Trulli – the fourth-most experienced Grand Prix driver in Formula 1 history – will no doubt be knocking back a couple of glasses from the finest of his Podere Castorani winery collection, as the Italian is today celebrating his 38th birthday.
He lacked the financial support to start open-wheel racing until he was 21, when he leapt straight into the German Formula 3 championship mid-season after signing a deal with Flavio Briatore who became his manager.
Trulli was an instant sensation and was winning races before the year was out, proving quicker than established (F1-bound) racer Ralf Schumacher. In 1996, he romped to the title, beating Nick Heidfeld to the crown.
His rapid rise continued and he made his Grand Prix debut in 1997 with Minardi. He jumped ship mid-season to replace the injured Olivier Panis at the Prost team, and almost immediately was in contention to win the Austrian Grand Prix, which he led until his engine let go.
Signed on a multi-year deal with the team, his 1998 and 1999 seasons with the French outfit were thin and – save for a lucky podium finish at the rain-hit 1999 European Grand Prix – there was little to write about.
Unhappy with his treatment at Prost, he signed for the Jordan team from the 2000 season onwards, but the team’s red-hot 1999 form was now distinctly lukewarm, and he remained there until the end of 2001, frustrated at repeatedly seeing potential good results go begging with another mechanically-induced retirement.
His manager Briatore finally lured him over to the reborn Renault team in 2002 and – with his years at Jordan proving that Jarno was a great qualifying specialist – he again set about racking up great qualifying berths without quite achieving the same standard of finishing results.
It took until late 2003 before he broke his podium drought, but it was rare that his race pace matched his one-lap speed.
He won only once, with a glorious run to pole at the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix giving him a brilliant lights-to-flag win, but too often we would see Trulli slide back from his high grid slot into the lower realms of the points, or occasionally out of them.
Before the end of the year he was persona non grata at Renault, and quit the team before the end of the year to join Toyota on a long-term deal. His 2005 started strongly with successive podiums at Malaysia and Bahrain, but the following three years yielded little, and it seemed inconceivable that Toyota would retain his services for another year.
But not all of that was Jarno’s fault, as Toyota repeatedly failed to build a decent car that was consistent across all circuits. The 2009 season proved better with three more podium finishes, but Toyota’s shock eleventh-hour withdrawal from F1 at the end of the year left Jarno without a frontrunning F1 drive for the 2010 season.
He eventually landed a last-minute drive with the brand new Lotus Racing team, but it was a year beset by unreliability. He was retained for another season with the team (now known as Team Lotus), but the car wasn’t competitive and Jarno seemed unwilling – or unable – to get the car higher up the grid.
For the first time in his career, he was soundly thrashed by a team-mate in qualifying, and – despite having a contract in his pocket for the 2012 season – it was perhaps little surprise that he was quietly dropped from the team’s driver roster in favour of the better-funded Vitaly Petrov, leaving Jarno to return to Italy and tend to his award-winning vineyards.
[Original images via Flickr, LAT, Sutton Images, The Cahier Archive]
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