It’s been a difficult start to the Formula E series for the Trulli team. Jarno Trulli, team owner and driver, admits the Super Nova-run outfit is eight months behind the competition – but he says they’re catching up fast.
Italian racing driver Jarno Trulli needs no introduction to those familiar with the world of motor racing. He spent more than a decade in F1, notching up more than 250 races for teams such as Renault, Lotus and Jordan. His return to competitive single seater racing in Formula E has proved more of a challenge than might first have been expected, however.
“I was invited in March to test the car,” Trulli explains, in the short three week gap between the second race in Putrajaya and the third in Punta del Este. “I hadn’t driven at all in two years. Nothing at all – not even a go kart. Before going to the test I was a little sceptical. A new series, a new car. I wasn’t sure about it, and so I was interested in going to find out what it really was all about.”
Trulli test drove the Spark-Renault prototype, and after a morning of tinkering with the set up, came away pleasantly surprised: “I was really impressed. I felt very comfortable in the car. I thought I’d like to set up a team, not enter as a driver.”
That didn’t seem a possibility in the spring, until Drayson, the first team to have signed up, suddenly dropped out. Trulli stepped in just weeks before the first preseason test day at Donington Park. The timing meant that the curly-haired cycling fanatic found himself in the cockpit out of necessity rather than choice. “After 15 years in F1, I have nothing to prove,” he says. “But it all happened very quickly and, in such a short time, I couldn’t find the right driver to give us a good base to start with. That’s why I got behind the wheel.”
Trulli himself wasn’t to be the only headline grabber of the new team. In hiring rookie Michela Cerruti, the outfit secured the second of only two female drivers to start the Formula E season (and as of the beginning of 2015, the only one still racing in the electric series).
“We thought it would be a good decision for the new series to have female drivers,” Trulli explains. “Michela has proved to be competitive on track with Auto GP. Of course no one knew that we would have so many former F1 drivers and the level is very high, so it has been hard. We can see from the data that she is quick enough in the corners, but the real problem for Michela is that she has never driven carbon fibre brakes. That’s the reason she’s not really proving what’s she’s capable of, especially when you can’t test enough.”
Testing – or the lack thereof – has been the Trulli team’s biggest headache. There were five public preseason test days but the team was fighting technical issues for most of those, which severely limited their running time. Two private sessions were dedicated to race day simulations, which restricted the amount of useful data logging and practice that could be racked up. Through the summer of 2014, it very much looked as though the team had bought grandstand tickets rather than a pass to the paddock.
Trulli doesn’t disagree. “We are eight months behind everybody else, in terms of experience,” he says. “But, nevertheless, we managed to set up the team to run the cars and to be reasonably competitive. All the issues we have, a new team could have. We’ve showed some good performance although the results are still to come.”
Four races into the new series and the team is not quite last, but not far from it: ninth position, with a total of 12 points, is a far cry from the front of the pack, where e.dams-Renault has accrued 85 points already. Consistency seems to be where the team is struggling, with all of those points scored in the third race – none before, and none since.
“The key with the series so far is energy management,” Trulli explains. “We’re still learning. In the race, we’re in trouble. Set up wise, some things I’m certain on but I still have question marks on other things. Given that running time is very limited, it’s a problem for us. We’re getting there, we just have to find some more details.”
The nature of the circuits and the qualifying format makes things even trickier. “It’s hard to say where we expect to be,” says Trulli. “Unfortunately, with this qualifying, if you’re in the last group, you can be in the top five or six. If you’re in the first group, it’s harder. These are street circuits with no other races running on them, so the track improves through the day. In Malaysia, I started in the second group and I was the quickest in the group by far, but pole was in the last group.”
Some progress can be seen, although anything would have been an improvement on the first race. “Beijing wasn’t good,” Trulli admits. “Before quali, I was in the top five. Then in quali I made a small mistake: I just kissed the wall – as did many other drivers, and as with many other drivers the gearbox proved to be not strong enough. Unfortunately, as I was one of the last one to crack the box, there weren’t any more. You need two cars to complete the race. When you know one car isn’t going to make it, you know you can’t make the race. There was a problem in the second car as well. Due to some problem inside the gearbox, I tried to start the race but it wasn’t working. For me, it was a disaster. For Michela, she had similar problems; even so, she would have been in the points, but she got a penalty.”
It was not a great start to the championship for Trulli, and the weight of expectation showed: we shared a flight back from Beijing, and the Italian was as quiet and unhappy as we’ve seen him.
Then came round two, another event that started off brightly but which also ended with no points scored. “The second race was looking much better, but something very silly happened,” says Trulli. “During the restart, because we were going around the hairpin with full steering wheel lock, I must have touched the power setting and so I was running with slightly higher power in the first part of the race. This cost me a penalty. And that was a shame because it was looking pretty good. We’ve learned that we should put that map in some other place, away from the steering wheel.”
That wasn’t the only incident in the race. A collision between Trulli and Nelson Piquet pushed the China Racing driver into the wall and ended his race; it was an incident that looked clumsy rather than calculating, but needless all the same.
“With Nelson, we were fighting together,” recounts Trulli. “I was on the inside, he was on the outside. Down to the braking point, we were very close. I left room, but it was probably a bit short, so Nelson hit the wall and then myself. There was no intention to block him. It was a racing incident, but I understand I could have left maybe half a metre more without a problem.”
“Even though I’ve been away from races for two years, I’m still as quick as anyone else,” Trulli says, reflecting on the series thus far and his multi-faceted role at the team. “The others race every week; most of them race in WEC and other series. It’s not exactly like riding a bike, but when you’ve driven in F1 for so long, anything else is easy. I’m not there to win at all costs. I’m the team owner too, and the rest of the job is done at home. I work with the team principal to give the team direction, and with the engineers to get better for the next race. I’m just concentrating on finding the right set up, helping Michela, and getting my team going in the right direction.”
As for the team itself, there have been costly mistakes made that have hindered the drivers, including an incident in Malaysia where Cerruti’s wheel wasn’t attached correctly – it simply rolled away from the car halfway round the track.
“The issue in Putrajaya where Michela’s wheel came off – we obviously have to cure issues like that. I wasn’t very happy. It cost Michela a lot. She lost a big part of the session. I was impressed that her lap time in quali wasn’t too bad, without the experience of driving during free practice. But we need to help her more. It’s down to the team. We want Michela to be fighting in the top ten, and I think she can do that.”
The team took step forwards in the last race of 2014, at the beachside circuit in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Trulli started from P7 on the grid and fought through a thrilling race on a tough circuit to finish in P4, notching up the first points for the team. Cerruti had a better time of it too, moving through the pack from P17 on the grid to cross the finish line in P12.
Buenos Aires undid that good work, however. A crash for Trulli in qualifying left him without a fast lap and starting at the back of the grid. It was another race with encouraging signs but no results.
Still, although race results are critical to maintaining a strong public profile, Trulli has his sights set on bigger things than adding another trophy to the cabinet. He has a mission to turn the team into a technology incubator, and is working with Drayson – among others – to that end. Drayson has already fitted the Qualcomm Halo wireless charging systems to the BMW i3 and i8 safety cars and is eager to implement the innovative technology in the Spark-Renault racing car.
“As a team, we are working on many projects which will be very impressive,” Trulli says. “We’re not just here to race. We here because we feel that we have some know how that will help electric vehicles. We are developing technologies, not just the Drayson wireless charging. We hope to show them off in the summer and we hope that we can impress people. Our aim is to get something on the market that is revolutionary. This is important for the future. We’re talking racing with cars with zero emissions. We’re talking sustainability. We will develop technologies that will one day be part of road cars. This is the peak of motorsports, applied to electric cars. It’s F1 for electric cars. That’s what it is. Nothing less.”
This article first appeared as a Current E Insights publication. Download it here: Current E Insights Trulli Jan 2015