Spectacular accident underlines downturn in Trulli's fortunes

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The Independent Online

As Jarno Trulli's Renault was somersaulting through the sand trap on lap 40 of the British Grand Prix, the Italian was not thinking about his future with the Renault team. And yet accidents like the one which befell Trulli yesterday at Silverstone, can sometimes play an important role in determining how a driver's career develops.

Trulli celebrates his 30th birthday tomorrow, but despite his experience in the sport and the fact that he is fourth in the world championship, having won this year's Monaco Grand Prix, he seems to have developed the image of a man who is on the skids.

Seven weeks ago, Trulli was the hero of Renault. He won in Monte Carlo in dominant fashion, his first victory in Formula One after eight years of frustration and disappointment. It was a dramatic revival of his fortunes after the 2003 season, during which he had been pushed out of the spotlight by Fernando Alonso, a man seven years his junior. The Renault team kept faith in Trulli for this year and he suddenly started delivering. He seemed to have found the measure of Alonso and at Monaco produced a brilliant performance.

But that was seven weeks ago and since then a lot has happened. Trulli's contract with the team runs out at the end of the year and negotiations are not going well. The word in the paddock is that his financial demands have gone up dramatically after the Monaco victory. Toyota are looking seriously at hiring him as Ralf Schumacher's team-mate in 2005, a useful lever for Trulli in trying to raise his Renault salary. There was talk at the French Grand Prix, a week ago, of a screaming match between Trulli and team principal Flavio Briatore.

And then there was the race in France, a week ago, in which Alonso suddenly came alive and battled Michael Schumacher for victory. Trulli was left fighting for third. Three corners from the finish line, he made an elementary mistake and Rubens Barrichello took his Ferrari down the inside of the Renault at the penultimate corner.

"Everyone makes mistakes in life," said Pat Symonds, the wise elder statesman of the Renault team. "I guess I do have a little bit of sympathy for drivers in that their mistakes are extremely public. Having said that, we are not very tolerant of mistakes. It was a very basic mistake he made, a mistake that drivers make early in their careers and learn from."

The word in the paddock at Silverstone is that Renault have decided to let Trulli go to Toyota next year. Briatore has tried to convince Mark Webber to join Alonso rather than go to BMW Williams, but the Australian is not interested and Briatore has moved on and begun to negotiate to get Giancarlo Fisichella out of his two-year Sauber contract.

The problem is that Fisichella's first choice is to go to Williams, and his contract at Sauber allows him to leave if he gets an offer from Ferrari, Williams or McLaren - but not one from Renault.

What Trulli really wanted at Silverstone was a big result to drive home the point that he is worth every dollar he is asking. He qualified fifth on the grid and with the fast-starting Renault, a podium should have been possible, but it did not work out that way. The car was difficult to drive with a heavy load of fuel on board. His race strategy was not working out. And then something went wrong at the exit of Bridge Corner, where Trulli was travelling at 167mph.

"Everything happened very quickly," he said. "I think it was a rear suspension failure."

The Renault went backwards into the barriers, spun around and then flipped as it dug into the gravel trap.

"Jarno is fine," Symonds confirmed. "He'll be a bit sore tomorrow, but the crash is a fantastic testament to the safety of the modern Formula One car."

As the team packed up on Sunday evening, they were going home for only the second time this season without scoring any World Championship points. BAR Honda are closing in for second place in the constructors' title and Trulli's future is hanging in the balance.

The car put in front of him for 2005 may well be a Toyota.