This morning came the news that Jarno Trulli will be replaced by Karun Chandhok for Lotus Racing at this weekend’s German Grand Prix. The arrangement has been put forward as a temporary one, but with the Italian in the autumn of his career, the question cannot be avoided: is it time for him to retire to his vineyards? Hugh Podmore examines the arguments for and against Jarno Trulli calling it a day.
It may convincingly be argued that Trulli should take the hint and retire now. Firstly, there is the question of age – he is 37 now, only exceeded on the grid by Rubens Barrichello (39) and Michael Schumacher (42). 37 is old for any athlete, and performance decrease is an inevitable consequence of an ageing body in sport. Barrichello may be regarded as the odd one out here, because Schumacher’s comeback performances have been a shadow of his previous ones. Even if Trulli is still at the height of his powers, there surely cannot be much life left in the engine.
Let us disregard years and turn instead to his ambient performance levels. Here we find perhaps more evidence that Trulli should hang up the hat. He has only outqualified team-mate Heikki Kovalainen once this year from nine opportunities, and for a man renowned for his speed over one lap, this does not make happy reading. The days when he could dispose of a team mate’s reputation by smashing him on the Saturday appear to be over.
Although last season Trulli did finish on top in the qualifying battle with the Finn, race performance statistics were no better. Kovalainen beat him every time they both finished except in Britain, whilst in 2011 Trulli has beaten the man across the garage only twice. The man from Pescara may complain about the power steering issues he has, but maybe he is just not at the level any more. Rarely are drivers dropped for reasons other than performance.
Then there is Karun Chandhok. Chandhok positively made the HRT look good last year and it seemed a travesty that a talent such as his should be put to the sword in austerity-era F1, when pay drivers once again hold sway. Lotus Racing, it seemed, was a lifeline for a man already ripening in F1 years. His Australia outing which ended in the wall was unfortunate, but there can be no doubt that this man deserves a chance.
Meanwhile, if you were Jarno Trulli, you would also have to ask yourself what you plan to achieve in the context of the above. The career glittered at Minardi, Prost and Jordan, and it positively shone for a time at Renault; but then it was outshone by Alonso, it stagnated at the flatulent Toyota and it has no real hope of returning to the front at Lotus in the foreseeable future. So is the twilight of that life in F1 to be spent pootling around at the back, watching mirrors for faster cars and beating the HRTs and Virgins? For the glory of taking a point or two, or beating a Williams? Or is it better to bow out, to accept that the tally of the one win will not be added to, to go with your head held high?
No, argue the Trulli camp up to now, no it is not. In fact, the very opposite. “I’m looking forward to working with Karun this weekend and doing whatever I can to help him get the most out of his opportunity in Germany,” said Trulli when the announcement that Chandhok would replace him was made. “It’s great that the team is true to its word of helping develop young talent, particularly from parts of the word where it is even harder to break through into the top rung of motorsport, so I’ll be there to give him guidance and assistance, in and out of the car.”
This appears to suggest that there is more at Lotus Racing for Jarno Trulli than just driving the car. The team, as drivers parrot week-in week-out, does a great job – and they are paramount. But under scrutiny Trulli would doubtless say that he honestly wants to take the green-and-yellow to competitive levels and if that involves getting out of the car and letting someone else have a go, while he stands and coaches, he is very happy to oblige.
Moreover, there has been no suggestion from any quarter as yet that this means the end for Trulli. The inferral from his remarks is that he is content with competition for the second seat. Supporters might argue that once he gets the steering issue sorted, and consequently the reaction sensitivity he needs from the chassis, he will be back to his very best. If Barrichello can then Trulli can, they add. And what better man to provide years of practical experience of developing a competitive F1 car?
The case for the defence continues. Kovalainen is no slouch, we are reminded, and you can read statistics any way you wish: Trulli has scored two 13th place finishes for Lotus this season, better than the Finn, and has beaten him twice in races in which they both saw the chequered flag – ie, four. He has more to bring and it would be unwise to put an inexperienced guy in the seat at this crucial juncture in the team’s gestation.
For Trulli himself, it will ultimately come down to why he is in the sport. Is it ok that the glory of winning is a memory? And does it not matter that, like Schumacher, a career fallen low has an element of sadness about it? Maybe not. And maybe the team is supportive and they welcome his input and his car development skills, if the pace is there or thereabouts. But for the sake of the tremendously talented Chandhok, at least, perhaps the Italian gentleman should move over and vacate his seat. No one would think worse of him if he did.