Few drivers can say their careers were as disrupted by COVID-19 as Jüri Vips, with the Estonian spending the majority of last year watching on from the sidelines after the pandemic restricted him from travelling to Japan to compete in Super Formula.
Signed by Team Mugen following the conclusion of his 2019 title challenge in Formula 3, the Red Bull junior was seen as the frontrunner for a seat in Formula 1 with Alpha Tauri. But that position has since been filled by Yuki Tsunoda, who enjoyed a brilliant debut season in F2 with Carlin.
Vips didn’t have that chance, and yet, whenever you saw him during 2020, he was always smiling. That doesn’t mean the situation never got to him, but that he was able to see the bigger picture.
“I don’t see last year as a negative,” says Vips. “I think that I grew a lot, despite not racing that much. And I think there was a happy ending.
“For sure, it wasn't nice to be sat at home watching everyone else racing, but I think it made me grow as a person, it made me hungrier.”
That Vips got to earn his Super Licence and drive a Formula 1 car for Red Bull despite not competing as planned says a lot about how highly the team rate him.
The 20-year-old played the role of official reserve driver at the Turkish, Bahrain, Sakhir and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix’s, before going on to run the team’s RB16 at the end of season Young Driver Test in Yas Marina. Action that came on the back of earning his Super Licence, following the completion of a 300km test for the team.
There was sympathy at Red Bull for the situation Vips found himself in. No one could have predicted the disruption when he was placed in Super Formula. And such is their faith in Vips: they were willing to give him a “second chance,” as he puts it, although that terminology seems harsh given the sequence of events.
“I spoke to Helmut Marco (Head of the Red Bull junior team) quite a lot throughout the year and I am just thankful that he kept me on,” Vips continues. “He understood the situation and the fact that it was out of my control that I couldn't enter Japan. I am thankful to him for allowing me the opportunity to test the car.
If I had a good year in Super Formula, then I could have had that shot to move up, but I couldn't compete
“If I had a good year in Super Formula, then I could have had that shot to move up, but I couldn't compete. I think he understood that, and he has given me another chance, which I am very thankful for.
“Yuki did a fantastic job last year. I was quite surprised, to be honest. I don't think anyone expected him to have such a strong first year, but he really grew a lot, especially towards the end of the year. He really came alive, and it was impressive.”
That ‘second chance’ arrived in the familiar surroundings of Hitech Grand Prix, the team that led Vips to an F3 title challenge in 2019. Lining up alongside fellow Red Bull junior Liam Lawson this season, the pair are in direct competition.
Statistically, they are similar. In 2019, Vips finished fourth in F3, with 141 points, four podiums and three wins, while Lawson finished fifth in 2020 with 143 points, but with six podiums, including three victories.
Whoever finishes the highest this season will be more likely to stand the greatest chance of securing a role in F1.
“That is the thing with the Red Bull Junior Team, if you don't do well, then you might get kicked out, but if you do well, then you get to F1,” says Vips. “They throw people out yes, but why would you want to keep and pay drivers who are not going to be worthy of F1. They want only the best talent and I think that’s the right approach. They keep the best and they give them the chance.
“I am just pleased to have this opportunity in F2 with a front-running team. I didn’t know how it was going to happen. We didn't have the money to pay for F2 ourselves, but in the end, we got a really good deal with a top team. When I signed, I was so relieved and so happy to have the opportunity. I don't think there has ever been as much fire in me.”
That fire continued burning when his plans were first disrupted more than a year ago, but it was stoked by his involvement with Red Bull as an official reserve driver.
The 20-year-old admits he perhaps wasn’t in the best of shape at times last season without a full-time seat to drive him, but he says that all changed when he was handed the chance in Turkey with Red Bull.
“To be honest, I don't think I stayed very fit last year, but my fitness improved a lot when I knew I had the chance of an F1 test, and when I knew that I was going to be a reserve,” Vips says. “The motivation just all came back all of a sudden. In the end, I was fully ready for this year. I didn't struggle at all physically in the F1 test.”
When I signed, I was so relieved and so happy to have the opportunity. I don't think there has ever been as much fire in me
His involvement with Red Bull wasn’t the only racing experience Vips got in 2020, though. A three-round stint in Euroformula yielded three podiums and got rid of a few cobwebs, before the 20-year-old made his Formula 2 debut with DAMS, substituting for the injured Sean Gelael.
Although, the four-round stint – which began in Spa - was largely frustrating. There were just two points’ finishes for Vips, with a singular podium, which came in the Mugello Sprint Race.
“It was quite a shock when I went to Spa because it was a lot different to F3,” he recalls. “Not just the tyres, but the carbon brakes too. They are quite unique and much more sensitive than people think. Everyone talks about the tyres, but the brakes are very different as well. That was a big thing coming from F3.
“I was very grateful to DAMS because they could have chosen anyone for that seat and I’m sure they had a lot of people waiting for it, but I don’t think that it went great if I am honest.”
As important as that experience was, the crux of why last year is deemed successful by Vips is the fact he’s now in possession of a Super Licence. It gives him breathing space, it eases the pressure. Ultimately, it means that he doesn’t need to focus on exactly where he finishes in the championship, but on how he actually performs.
This was especially key during the tough 2021 opener in Bahrain. The Estonian was disqualified from Qualifying after his car was found to have breached Technical Regulations.
And then, despite a brilliant charge through the field to reverse grid pole in Sprint Race 1, Vips ended Saturday without any points, losing the lead in the second Sprint Race before slowing out of contention in the latter stages with a problem.
It’s certainly not how he expected the weekend to go, especially as he saw his teammate Lawson win the first Sprint Race. But with his Super Licence already in the bag, Vips was able to focus on the positives, namely the team’s pace and the two charges through the field. It made it a lot easier to accept everything else.
“It was a horrible start to the season,” he says. “We were the fastest in all of the races and I think we could have left leading the championship without the disqualification, the gearbox failure in race 2 and the wrongly timed Safety Car in the third race.
“We calculated that we could have finished fifth or fourth without the Safety Car - most of the grid gained 20s on me during that time. It was just a very unlucky weekend, but I forgot about it and went into Monaco.
“If I’d had that weekend in Bahrain and I didn't already have a Super License, then it would have been much easier for me to lose my head. We had a very strong weekend other than that, so I just kept my head down. The Super License has made everything a lot easier this year.”
Proof of that can be seen in his form since. Monte Carlo was solid, while Baku was historic. The Red Bull junior became the first driver in the modern era of F2 to win two races in a single round, with victories in the second Sprint Race and the Feature. Performances that have lifted him to fourth in the title race.
It will also have done his future no harm. F1 remains the target, but there’s no timeline as to when he has to get there. He’s aware that a lot has to fall into place for it to happen.
“I think that it is realistic, but even if I do have a good year, you never know. Look at the example of Gasly: he won GP2 and there were just no seats available, so he did another year in Japan.”
Would he be willing to spend another year on the sidelines if the chance doesn’t arise straight away?
“What choice do I have?” replies Vips. “If there is no opening, then I will wait. I will just do my best, try not to think about it, and we will see what happens.”