INTERVIEW

Jarno Trulli

The really quick guys in Formula 1 never take long to be competitive. Jarno Trulli had to do only one race this year before he started to outqualify his Minardi team mate Ukyo Katayama - a veteran of 80 Grands Prix.

The basic speed was there. But to win in F1 these days a driver needs more than raw talent. He needs to refine his skills and temper them with experience. He must be able to soak up information. He needs to mentally tough. As he learns his confidence rises and he becomes quicker and quicker.

The same pattern repeats itself over and over and when, just occasionally, all the pieces of the jigsaw fall in place then there emerges an Alain Prost, an Ayrton Senna or a Michael Schumacher. They are special but only because they have made themselves better than the rest.

When you look at Jarno Trulli you get the feeling that he is the route to the very top.

"He's got the look, hasn't he?" a highly-experienced F1 hand muttered the other day. "He's going places."

The rather disconcerting thing about Jarno is that when you look him in the eye, there is a startling ressemblance to the late Ayrton Senna. He has that same amused yet rather sleepy look.

The other thing about the really quick guys is that they always find their way into a fast car and, with Olivier Panis out of action with broken legs, Trulli has now taken over the number 14 Prost-Mugen Honda, a car which is capable of winning races. At Magny Cours Jarno qualified sixth - which was impressive - but he finished 10th, a result which did not really do him justice. He made a poor start and dropped to eighth place but held his own until the last quarter of the race when rain was threatening. The Prost team kept him out as long as possible in the hope that they could switch to intermediate tyres during a scheduled pit stop. In the end Jarno had to come in for fuel and Alain Prost took a risk and sent him out on intermediates in the hope that it would rain."

It could have worked but the rain held off for too many laps and Jarno slipped backwards.

It was a disappointment but it clouded what had been a very good showing from the man who has done less than 40 car races in his entire career.

His rise to stardom has been extraordinary. He started racing karts at the age of nine, his father having been "a hobby kart racer", he did not have much money but his talent was noticed when he was racing at Cadet level and he began to get support. In 1988 he won the first of three consecutive Italian national junior titles. He began taking part in international events the following year and finished third in the World Junior championship. The next year he was runner-up.

When he turned 17 he moved up to World Karting and won the 1991 title - in his first season at international level - in a race at Le Mans which involved Jos Verstappen, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jan Magnussen. He went on to win the European Super A series, the North American Championship and the 125cc World title and two "World Cup" victories as the number one driver for the TonyKart company.

"In karting I was driving for 12 years," he remembers. "I knew everything - just everything. It was really easy for me to be quick. There were no mysteries for me. I stepped straight from karts into German Formula 3 in 1995 - without driving any other single-seaters. I lost out on experience."

It did not seem to matter. In a year-old Kaufmann Motor Service Dallara he did so well that in the mid-season the team bought him an 1995 car and he went on to win the final two races of the year and finish fourth in the championship at his first attempt.

By the end of 1995 Sauber was trying to sign him to be a Formula 1 test driver. He had offers to race in the ITC from Mercedes, Opel and Alfa and he even met with Frank Williams.

"It was a very wonderful experience to meet Mr Williams personally," he said at the time. "He is a very nice guy. It was just a meeting to see each other, nothing more."

Flavio Briatore offered him a deal to race in a Benetton-sponsored F3 team in 1996 and then to become the team's F1 test driver in 1997 while racing in Formula 3000. That was the theory. He won the German F3 title without drama and had a successful test with Benetton in September. It was so successful in fact that Briatore decided to put him into Minardi this year.

"I learned a lot from the first seven races with Minardi," says Trulli. "I am here in a top team because of that. I was very happy to drive for Minardi as it was very important experience."

It was not an easy drive. The Minardi M197 is not a competitive machine and does not react well to changes in set-up. It had to be driven hard.

"I was pushing, pushing, pushing but it was very difficult to get results. We were doing well in Canada and it looked like I was going to get a point until my engine broke. When that happened Shinji Nakano was behind me and he scored a point so I lost out on the chance."

And then came the call from Alain Prost.

"I was really very proud when he chose me but I could not believe it. It is really great. When I was really young my idol was Niki Lauda but then when I was growing up and a young go-kart racer I was always looking at the best F1 drivers and trying to learn the important things from them. Prost was the best driver then and I was a Prost supporter.

"I was really surprised to be up with the people at the front in qualifying in Magny-Cours. "I did not know the car and I still had to find a really good feeling with it. It was running well and in the end it was quite competitive but I did not get the maximum out of it. I have to learn much more about it and about F1 to get more confidence in it. In all probability the more laps I do the more I will learn and the more confident I will become. One day when I have learned many more things I will be much quicker."

For a 22-year-old Italian Jarno is remarkably composed and down-to-earth.

"That is the only way for me," he says. "Everything I do I try to do quietly and easily so as to learn everything and to do it well. Learning things too quickly is no good. In F1 you must be very constant and you need reliability. When you are driving in qualifying, for example, you must not do too many mistakes or you will never get a good lap time.

"When I do something I try to understand what I am doing so that in the future I can use what I have learned. That is important. Right now there are so many things to learn that it is better to go step by step."

It is not a very Italian attitude.

"A lot of people say that," he admits. "I am very calm. I do not say much. That is Jarno Trulli. That is how I am. I don't like making a fuss. I drive, I work, I am growing up. I like driving. I like F1 and I especially like learning new things. I have a lot to learn and that is my job."

And how much learning does he think he has to do before we can see the complete Trulli?

"A long time," he smiles. "I am in a good team and in a good situation to learn. I think Michael Schumacher took three, four, even five years to become very competitive. Even when he won his first World Championship he was still making mistakes. If you look at Jacques Villeneuve he was driving single seater cars a lot in F3, Formula Atlantic and Indy. When he came to F1 he was competitive but you can see sometimes he still makes mistakes. It takes a long time."

So how long is the deal with Prost?

"I have a contract with Prost until the end of the season but I am looking in the future to have Olivier Panis as my team mate. He is very experienced and was very clever this year. He is one of the best drivers. I think he was the only one who did not make a mistake. Even Schumacher made mistakes. Olivier was very clever and he has been very strong in the last few seasons. As I said before you need that kind of experience."

But is he not under a long-term contract with Benetton?

"That's true. I am but nobody knows how many years it is for. People say eight, five, three, two, four. These are only numbers. I am happy to have signed this kind of contract. The Benetton family has helped me a lot and Flavio Briatore has done - and is still doing a very good job. I hope to thank the Benettons and Briatore by winning for them.

"But," he adds with a grin, "at the moment I am satisfied with where I am."

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