It’s safe to say that many drivers around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with isolating and cancelled flights leading to many of them losing race seats, sponsors and even enough funding to continue racing. But if we’re talking about any racer, you’ll have to look very hard to find one that’s been through more in the last 18 months than Red Bull Junior Juri Vips.
By Matt Jeffray
From taking four wins en route to a fourth-place championship in FIA F3 in 2019 and taking second place in the famous Macau Grand Prix, Vips was heading into 2020 in prime position to capitalise on being part of arguably the most successful driver academy in the world. But as Vips describes, 2020 was anything but straightforward for the Estonian hopeful, even if he admits that it was still a productive year regardless.
“It was a crazy year for sure, but one that wasn’t actually too bad in the end. The Super Formula thing didn’t work out and that was a real shame as I thought that maybe the Red Bull and F1 dream was over. But we did Formula Regional and we gained the super license through the rules change due to Covid. And being a reserve in F2 was a bonus really. The Red Bull test was also fantastic. I would say it was a productive year with all things considered.”
Anything can happen
So, after a chaotic 2020, Vips was heading into this season with renewed vigour and looking to bank on his Formula 2 experience from last year to make a real run at the title with Hitech Grand Prix. And at the halfway mark, sitting fifth in the championship and just 23 points behind Oscar Piastri at the summit, the highest placed Red Bull academy driver will be looking to build on some impressive performances that we’ve seen so far from the 21-year-old in 2021.
“Honestly, I think it hasn’t been too bad, even with the failure to score any points in Bahrain, we’ve still shown some good speed to score big points at every round so far, and obviously the weekend in Baku was great. I’m still less than a feature race win away from the top in terms of points, so anything can still happen as we head into the second half of the season.”
Like many drivers this year, Vips has some strong opinions on the new race weekend format used in Formula 2 and Formula 3. And it’s safe to say that he is placing his thoughts on the negative side of the spectrum, with an emphasis placed firmly on wishing for more race weekends and not having such a random feel to driver’s luck on Saturday’s races.
“I’m not really the biggest fan of the new format, because we now have much bigger breaks in between race weekends. Of course, to have 8 weekends is still not bad, but I much prefer having less races on a weekend and more events. If you have a bad Saturday, it can be tough to regain the positions. It hasn’t affected me so much, but I know it’s ruined many driver’s weekends this year.”
Red Bull Academy
From the outside, the Red Bull Academy can seem like a cold world. Many drivers over the last 15 years have come and gone in a flash, with a low tolerance for poor performance cutting short many young and promising careers. At the helm, Helmut Marko has been the man you need to impress the most, and the straight-talking Austrian has made no secret of that. Vips believes that the academy has done nothing but help him and admits that the pressure to impress Marko is more evident than it can appear.
“I think having driver academies is definitely a good thing, because you want the best drivers to make it all the way to F1, and those places push you to be the best. Of course, when you’re performing well, everything is good and the atmosphere is great, but when you have a tough weekend, Helmut will let you know about it. There is always a pressure of being in these programmes.”
Lawson & Hitech GP
It helps to have friends and a strong working relationship within your team when on the rise through the ranks. In Liam Lawson, Vips has a close friend as well as someone who’s also vying for a place in F1 through the same academy. As for Hitech, the Estonian feels like he’s racing in a completely new team to the same one that he drove for in Formula 3 in 2019.
“Working with Liam has been great so far. He only lives a few doors away from me, so the chemistry is great and he’s a good mate. As for Hitech, it’s a very different set of people to the team I was with in 2019 in F3. Only a few people came over from that squad so it’s really like working in a new environment.”
And lastly, the question on everyone’s lips as we enter the routine of ‘silly season’ is who will be driving for who as we come into 2022. Vips admits that the ultimate goal will always be Formula 1, and that his recently acquired FIA Super license should ease the pressure, but a top two finish in Formula 2 this year is the ideal outcome to help reserve a seat at the table of the pinnacle of motorsport next year.
“Of course, the goal is F1, but I haven’t heard what Red Bull will be doing with me for 2022 yet. We need to see how the season goes, but realistically I’ll need to finish in the top two of the championship to stand a chance. I already have the super license, so the pressure is off in that respect, but I still need the results in the second half of the season.”
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