Jüri Vips was a title contender in the 2019 Formula 3 Championship but has had to watch on from the side-lines this year as his title rivals all moved up in Formula 2. The Estonian was meant to compete in Japanese Super Formula, but the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted him from travelling to Japan.

The Red Bull junior dropped down to Formula Regional to keep his hand in but has otherwise had to sit tightly in the hope the situation would change, or a seat became available in F2.

An injury to Sean Gelael opened up a seat at DAMS for Round 7, and Vips finally stepped in the “right paddock,” as he puts it.

“I am not going to lie, it wasn’t the easiest thing to watch everybody race,” he explained. “I tried to stay positive. All I could do was control the factors that I can control, which is, every time I jump in a car, and every time I Jump in a simulator, to do the best that I can.

“It is a shame for Sean (Gelael), but I was lucky to get the opportunity. The conversations started after the incident in Barcelona – I think Francois (Sicard) must have been quite busy on the phone, but in the end, we managed to get the seat.”

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With Formula Regional his only real racing experience of 2020, Vips was jumping in cold, and right in the deep end. The Estonian had never previously tested F2 machinery and had never experienced the 18-inch Pirelli tyres.

Once the decision had been made, and the paperwork completed, DAMS swiftly brought Vips into their factory in Ruaudin, France, to get acquainted with the team, and to nail down some time on their simulator.

There was also the matter of a seat fitting, and of course, his compulsory COVID-19 test. DAMS’ chief Francois Sicard is amongst the most experienced operators in the paddock, so Vips was in extremely safe hands.

You cannot just jump in these cars and drive as fast as you can straight away.

“I did two days at Dams to try and get up to speed,” he explained. “You cannot just jump in these cars and drive as fast as you can straight away. It is so crucial to get the tyres at the right temperature, for example, and also the brakes.

“There are a lot of things that you have to do very carefully, where experience counts, and they tried to prepare me as best they could. To be honest, when I jumped in, in Free Practice, it wasn’t that difficult. I expected it to be a lot harder, but I felt at home immediately.”

Vips finished P11 in both the Feature Race and the Sprint Race on his debut weekend
Vips finished P11 in both the Feature Race and the Sprint Race on his debut weekend

Vips also had the luxury of his former Red Bull Junior teammate Dan Ticktum in the garage, with the British driver in the opposing DAMS machine. The Estonian racer paid tribute to Ticktum for the help he gave him in the lead-up to his debut.

“Let’s say, his reputation isn’t the best, but he is a really nice guy, and a nice teammate to have,” Vips continued.” He is never political, he says it as it is, and honestly, he has helped me a lot.

“He has spoken to me about the car, talked about the tyres and how high degradation can be in these races. It wasn’t that bad in Spa, but in other races, it has been pretty high, and Dan prepared me well for that.”

Vips finished just over a second off the pace in Free Practice, which wasn’t bad considering his total lack of experience in the car but Qualifying turned into a bit of a nightmare. He accidentally put the car into safety mode and was forced to retire – something he says could have been prevented with a little more experience.

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“I was really frustrated with myself,” he explained. “That could have been prevented if I had more experience and knew about it. The car went into safety mode and I didn’t know how to reset it.

“In Free Practice, on my third push lap, I was only 1.3s off, but my rear brake temperatures were about 500 degrees below the target, because I didn’t know to put the brake on the cool down lap. I was losing over a second to the previous references from last year, but only in the braking zones.

“So already in Free Practice, we would have definitely been in the top five, if I’d prepared the brakes well. The car was really, really good and I’m frustrated that I couldn't show our real pace, but it definitely surprised me how fast we were.”

In Free Practice, we would have definitely been in the top five, if I’d prepared the brakes well.

The DAMS driver was forced to start from the back of the grid in both races. On Saturday, due to the issue which ended his Qualifying, and on Sunday, after he stalled on the formation lap.

And yet, he managed to finish both races in P11, just one place off the points in the Feature Race, and only three away in the Sprint, thanks to two superb recovery drives. For those watching on TV, his pace and his quality will not have been in doubt, but Vips was irked that the classifications didn’t reflect this, as that’s where it really matters.

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“We had a very bumpy weekend, with a lot of small issues in each session, which cost us a lot,” he continued. “I could show that I was fast in a race, but I could never capitalise on it.

“If we can have a boring weekend, so I can really show what pace we have, hopefully we will, then we should be able to have very good results. There weren't really that many surprises, so I was already very prepared, and a lot of the credit go to DAMS for that.”

It’s not often you hear a driver asking for a boring weekend, but with everything that has gone on for Vips in the past two weeks, some solid points, and a little bit of calmness in Monza, could allow him to flourish.