* Change made a month before first race in Melbourne
* No Italian drivers on grid for first time since 1970
* Petrov to test in Barcelona next week (Adds Petrov quotes)
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The Caterham Formula One team dropped Italian veteran Jarno Trulli on Friday and replaced him with Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.
The move, announced in a statement by the Malaysian-owned team, means the season will start in Australia next month without an Italian driver for the first time since 1970.
It also marked a quick reprieve for Russia’s first Formula One driver, who was dropped by Renault, now Lotus, at the end of last season.
“We are all delighted to welcome Vitaly into our team and are very excited about the role he will play in helping us take the next steps forward in 2012 and for many years to come,” team principal Tony Fernandes said.
”When we first met it was immediately clear that Vitaly understands and shares our vision for how we want our team to grow.
“I also want to take this opportunity to thank Jarno for the absolutely pivotal role he played in the formation and progression of our team since he joined us in December 2009,” added Fernandes, whose team started out as Lotus Racing in 2010 and then became Team Lotus.
“We have reached agreement with Jarno to bring an end to our partnership with him, but he will always be part of our family.”
Caterham have yet to score a point but have high hopes for this year after finishing 10th overall. Their other driver is Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen.
The driver change had been on the cards for some time and comes just before the second pre-season test in Barcelona next week, and a month before the first grand prix of the year in Australia on March 18.
Petrov, 27, told Reuters in a telephone interview that he had unfinished business in Formula One and had learnt good lessons in his two seasons at Renault.
”This is 100 percent, 1,000 percent sure,“ he said. ”I learnt so much, so many things together with that team that now I can use and bring to this team and hopefully it will help.
“(Caterham) bring different people to the team, they move to another factory and have a big potential in the future...we have a big future together.”
Petrov, who drove for Renault for two years, finished on the podium in Australia last year but has been lumped in with the ranks of “pay drivers” who have got seats thanks to financial backing from their home country.
The phenomenon is nothing new in the sport, and even champions such as Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher got their breaks in exchange for cash, but Petrov still bridled at the suggestion that money had done much of the talking.
“I think this is not true,” he said. “Even in 2011 they start to ask me about this money, but come on...I hope people understand this is not just a question of money.”
On Thursday, Caterham announced that Mark Smith had taken over their F1 technical department after Mike Gascoyne moved to become chief technical officer of the entire Caterham Group, including GP2.
Reports had said Gascoyne was a chief supporter of Trulli, who was philosophical about his departure and the all but certain end to his F1 career which started in 1997 but included only one race win at Monaco in 2004.
“From zero we built up and established a solid F1 team. I‘m really proud to have been part of it,” the 37-year-old said. “I understand the decision the team has made and I want to wish to the whole team the very best of luck for the season ahead.” (Editing by Mark Meadows and Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)