If you were looking for a hatchet job on Jüri Vips, you’ll not find it here. The story about the now-23-year-old Estonian’s departure from the Red Bull Junior programme in 2022 is already well-documented.
When setting out to write this story, I wanted to give Vips a voice. After the final race of his Formula 2 career in 2022, he fell silent on his social media channels and made little-to-no appearances in the media.
Digging deeper into the background of what happened, it’s difficult to criticise Vips’ going to ground.
After all, here was a 22 year-old who - despite apologising “unreservedly” for crossing a line that should never be crossed - was still experiencing online intimidation and death threats.
He was also out of a drive for 2023.
If, then, there’s a parallel between Vips’ career and anyone’s, it’s that of Kyle Larson.
Named one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers just this year, Larson made a similar faux pas to Vips in 2020, and after a year on the sidelines, Larson returned in 2021 with Hendrick Motorsports - the most successful team in NASCAR’s long and celebrated history - to take the Cup Series title.
Fortunately for Vips - he, like Larson - is also a seriously capable driver.
Following a test with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s IndyCar team in March 2023, Vips was chosen to drive the RLL’s team’s No. 30 car for the final two rounds of this year’s IndyCar season at the Portland International Raceway and Laguna Seca.
The call from RLL co-owner Bobby Rahal would prove somewhat serendipitous for Vips given the Estonian’s personal interests.
“The Indianapolis 500 is one of the great races [...] I think it’s somewhere every single-seater driver should aspire to compete” - Jüri Vips
“I’ve always enjoyed IndyCar, but I actually got into it properly in 2019,” Vips tells Dyler.com. “The Indianapolis 500 is one of the great races, and I’ve watched it a few times now. I think that’s somewhere every driver should aspire to compete.
“I had some offers to race in enduros and DTM in 2023, but I find that once you commit to something like that, that’s where your career tends to stay and I wanted to get back into open-wheelers.
“I had the test with RLL earlier this year and ended up getting this shot at IndyCar with these last two races, so I really want to take this opportunity to get something long-term here.”
On paper, it would be easy for Vips to complain about his lot. After all, last year he was the reserve driver for both Red Bull Racing and its sister team AlphaTauri.
In 2022, he became the first Estonian in his country’s and Formula 1’s history to take part in an F1 race weekend after driving the 2022 title-winning Red Bull RB18 in the first practice session of the Spanish Grand Prix.
The Adrian Newey-designed RB18 won 17 of the 22 races it entered, and helped Max Verstappen to his second-consecutive drivers’ title at the Japanese Grand Prix with four rounds remaining.
For Vips, however, there are no sour grapes.
“I don’t have any complaints about how things have turned out,” he recalls. “Sure, 2022 was hard for me to deal with mentally and I’ve had a lot of growing up to do, but I’m happy with my lot right now in IndyCar.
“Being part of the Red Bull Junior programme, I’m very grateful for everything they did for me as I wouldn’t have a racing career without them - I ran out of funding in 2018 and they kept me going. I really have nothing bad to say about Red Bull, and I made some great friends and contacts during the four seasons I spent there.
“However, being part of something like the Red Bull family is somewhere where you feel a lot of stress and tension. You never know if the race you’re at with them will be your last, so there was always that factor.”
“Being part of something like the Red Bull family is somewhere where you feel a lot of stress and tension. You never know if the race you’re at with them will be your last” - Jüri Vips
The Red Bull part of his career dealt with, Vips is keen to talk more about his IndyCar era, and explain the biggest differences between the two disciplines.
An IndyCar makes between 550bhp and 700bhp depending on the level of boost from its twin-turbocharged V6. Meanwhile, an F1 car produces nigh-on 1000bhp from its turbocharged V6 hybrid power unit.
However, the power gap doesn’t really factor for Vips, and his insight from a driver’s perspective is a surprise.
“Throughout my career, the easiest switch was from Formula 3 to Formula 2, because you have similar Pirelli tyres” he explains. “F2 to F1 was pretty good too, because they both have 18-inch wheels. The biggest difference between these two is that there’s a lot more going on on an F1 car’s steering wheel.
“As for IndyCar, well… the downforce levels are similar to F2 on a circuit. I can’t comment on what it’s like on an oval as I haven’t done that.
The power is similar to F2, too, but the driving style is completely different. Unlike the Pirellis, you can really push the Firestones used in IndyCar, because they don’t overheat and melt in the same way.
“In F2, you have to be silky smooth with the tyres because you’ll run out of grip pretty fast if you don’t look after them,” he continues. “In IndyCar, you can really give the tyres a hammering, which is why the racing is so much closer. This is something I enjoy very much.”
Alongside the on-track aspect of things, Vips is eager to highlight the differences in racing culture between the United States and Europe. It’s not the first time a driver who has crossed the Atlantic to the United States has commented on the more laid-back atmosphere stateside, with both Fernando Alonso and Mike Rockenfeller having done so after stints in the US in the past.
“In Europe, the feeling in the paddock is very tense, whilst the atmosphere here in America is way more enjoyable - for me, at least!” Vips says. “In IndyCar, the paddock is open to the fans, so they can come and have a look at the cars in the garages and almost walk through the pitlane.
“For me, that was the biggest culture shock coming from Europe as that simply wouldn’t happen over there!
“Overall, everyone’s been really super nice,” he continues with more than an element of shyness. “It’s nice being on this side of the tracks, and given how open everything is in IndyCar, you’re always getting stopped by fans for a picture or even a chat or something. I haven’t had that all year until now, and it’s nice to feel welcomed by everyone. I’ve missed this.”
IndyCar’s more laid-back atmosphere has clearly benefited Vips. On his debut at the Portland International Raceway he qualified 18th from 27 runners. In doing so, he out-qualified IndyCar long-termers David Malukas and Hélio Castroneves.
To put Vips’ impressive performance into context, it’s worth noting that Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 in 2001, 2002, 2009, and 2021.
Come the end of the 110-lap race, he would finish 18th where he started and a lap down.
However, Vips feels that a P11 finish would have been on the cards were it not for losing eight seconds in his first pitstop, and despite the setback he still finished ahead of two-time IndyCar champion Will Power, and ex-F1 man, Romain Grosjean, who joined the series in 2021.
Fast-forward to Laguna Seca, and Vips showed his mettle once again. He finished sixth in Free Practice 1, and qualified seventh. However, he would serve a six-place grid penalty for an “unapproved engine change” and start the race 13th - just two places behind his RLL teammate, Graham Rahal.
“Whatever happens next in my career, though, I’m a much happier person than I was a year ago, that’s for sure!” - Jüri Vips
After a chaotic first corner and a race earmarked by 35 laps from 95 under yellow flags, the Estonian finished 24th and 24 laps down on the eventual race winner, Scott Dixon.
Despite the seemingly unspectacular result in his second outing, Vips explains that there was a lot more to the weekend than it would appear at surface level.
“The pace we had at Laguna Seca was really, really good, but it was such a crazy weekend - I’ve never had a race like it!” he laughs. “Unfortunately, I got taken out at the first corner, but where we had so many yellows, that allowed the team to put the car back together in time and help me finish in the Leaders Circle.
“Anyway, we managed to get in the Leaders Circle on the last lap and secure the team the prize money, but it was very strange to celebrate such a terrible race where I finished 24th and damaged my wrist and thumb at the start, too!”
Looking to 2024, Vips’ IndyCar future is yet-to-be confirmed. But if he does find a seat he’ll be the Estonian to race in IndyCar and Formula 1. Whichever way you look at this, it’s a remarkable achievement for a 23 year-old from a country of just 1.3 million people.
Does Vips, then, feel he could boost IndyCar’s popularity amongst Estonian motorsport fans? Afterall, his compatriot Ott Tänak is almost single-handedly responsible for Estonia’s current love-in with the World Rally Championship.
Following his full-time WRC debut in 2015, Tänak has been a regular front-runner in the sport and claimed the WRC driver’s title in 2019. To say he is viewed as a low-flying God amongst motorsport fans in Estonia would be a huge understatement.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to boost IndyCar and circuit racing’s popularity in Estonia, and I’m obviously doing my best to make everyone back home proud,” Vips concludes with a laugh. “For a small country with just over a million people, to have an IndyCar driver, me take part in an F1 free practice session, and a World Rally Champion, I think we can be very happy with the job we’ve done so far - I’d love to achieve what Ott has done, but don’t get me wrong, I’m nowhere near his level right now!
“Whatever happens next in my career, though, I’m a much happier person than I was a year ago, that’s for sure!”
Meanwhile, to follow Jüri and his career progression, click these yellow words!