If there is one team associated with regular eye-raising Formula 1 driver announcements over the past decade, it’s Red Bull Racing. That it has swapped one of its drivers for one from sister team Toro Rosso for the second time in three years is a shock to some, but Red Bull’s ruthless nature (and contracts) allows for rapid promotion and just as easily demotion – as Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly will be aware of in both cases.
Both teams’ 2020 line-ups are now in the air, and there is a driver in single-seater’s third tier who could be the outfit’s next star.
Hitech GP’s Juri Vips has so far been the only regular challenger to Prema’s trio of drivers in the new-for-2019 FIA Formula 3 Championship. The Estonian currently sits 12 points behind championship leader Robert Shwartzman, but with more Saturday race wins than anybody else it’s arguably Vips that has been the better performer to date, despite a sluggish start to the season at Barcelona for he and his team, at least in qualifying.
Red Bull has struggled in recent years to promote talent from within – with Gasly the only one of Toro Rosso’s four most recent drivers to be hired from the Red Bull Junior Team. Long gone are the days where the manufacturer has several drivers in junior series that are ‘F1-ready’, thanks in part to factors such as the introduction of superlicence points, a narrower junior series pyramid and the expansion of rival young driver programmes.
While Red Bull has four very talented F1 drivers contracted to the end of the year, the mid-season seat swap shows its own uncertainty about the drivers it will carry into 2020. A stable line-up is required to win titles, and Max Verstappen is locked in for at least one more year, but Albon, Gasly and Daniil Kvyat are still sat with something to prove over the rest of this season.
In the event that a seat does open up, an outfit which has been seriously short of options in recent years may be able to promote for the first time since Gasly took the Renault-bound Carlos Sainz’s seat late in 2017. Despite being in the third tier, 19-year-old Vips may be in a position to make the leap to the highest echelon for next year.
The 2017 ADAC Formula 4 champion was picked up by Red Bull late in 2018 on the back of a very strong FIA European F3 campaign – he finished fourth overall and second in the rookies’ standings, behind only Shwartzman. It should not be a surprise then that he finds himself behind only the Ferrari junior in F3 this year.
Vips is the perfect driver for the programme: very quick, doing the absolute best with the equipment provided, impressing year-on-year and still with huge room for improvement. Red Bull’s current conundrum of a lack of F1-ready talent on its books, which arose when Sainz’s departure was followed by Daniel Ricciardo’s at the end of last year, made it entirely logical to sign a driver such as Vips. It was logical too that he ended up with Hitech for his move into FIA F3.
“Helmut [Marko] rang me last October before Hockenheim and said: ‘look, we want to put Juri somewhere’,” Hitech team boss Oliver Oakes explains to Formula Scout.
“”I’ve known Juri a long time, as [Marko] Asmer looked after him. So that bit was almost quite natural. I was an ex-Red Bull driver; Helmut and I have always stayed in touch for better or worse. So, [it] was quite straightforward.”
While not having the easiest start to life as an F1 junior via a difficult Macau Grand Prix and start to the 2019 season, Vips has worked hard to become one of the most complete drivers in junior racing, building on skills that should impress Red Bull.
“The first few weekends, they weren’t really put together really well, and we were struggling a bit in qualifying, but now we’ve found the pace there,” Vips told Formula Scout after Silverstone, where he sealed a second successive race one win.
“It’s just [about] putting weekends together, because [race two] was also a shame because I could have finished on the podium if I hadn’t been taken out by [Marcus] Armstrong at the start. It’s just these little things that have been quite annoying, but we’re well in the championship hunt so I’m happy with that.”
With a smoother season, Vips could well have found himself in the summer break leading the series against the Prema juggernaut. A top three in the standings – a very realistic prospect – would elevate him beyond the magic 40 points required to qualify for the superlicence required to race in F1.
This would make him the only driver on the programme with such luxury, and allow him to bypass Formula 2 or Super Formula – reminiscent of the route taken by Kvyat, who joined Toro Rosso after winning the 2013 GP3 title as a rookie and was specifically praised for his mental strength as well as results.
At the top of the Red Bull Junior Team in theory is recent signing Patricio O’Ward, who has replaced Dan Ticktum in Super Formula after the two-time Macau GP winner had a “massively underwhelming” start to the season. However, contrary to what Red Bull believed before, the small grids O’Ward faced when winning the Indy Lights and IMSA Prototype Challenge titles meant those successes did not earn him superlicence points.
His one-off F2 appearance in Austria showed that he, understandably, requires a lot of time to learn the nuances of Pirelli tyres as well. Whether he remains in Super Formula for 2020, or returns for a full-time assault in F2, a move up to F1 anytime soon seems unworkable.
Vips, on the other hand, is learning to manage Pirelli tyres that are reportedly more F1-like than those used in the series’ predecessor GP3. He has knowledge of a decent proportion of F1 tracks, and access to Red Bull’s simulator for circuits he’s never visted. Milton Keynes will also have all the data on him required to pinpoint his strengths and areas to improve on when he inevitably sits in a F1 car for the first time.
Although Red Bull has not always made logical moves – why Albon has been given the nod over the more experienced Kvyat for one – handing Vips a F1 chance in 2020 would be one that makes sense.
Vaulting straight into the main team would be completely outrageous but would be a massive statement of intent from Red Bull. In the scenario that Albon, Gasly and Kvyat all are not in a situation to be able to provide the performances Red Bull is after, and to keep up its mantra of promoting from its own stable, Vips would be the ideal candidate to make the quantum leap straight from the junior programme into what could be a title-contending car.
The more likely option, should an opportunity arise, would be with Toro Rosso. It would require a scenario such as Gasly or Kvyat being dropped altogether or moving on, but Vips’ promotion would be the obvious answer to such a problem. He would become Estonia’s first F1 driver, and, seeing as Albon’s F1 mileage only began on the first day of pre-season testing, maybe after 12 races Vips too will be ready to make a shock promotion into the big team.
The Super Formula rookies that outperformed Ticktum
How Patricio O’Ward became Red Bull’s next F1 project
Why Helmut Marko is to blame for F1’s quite-so-silly season
Why Red Bull was the big winner in Macau (November 2018)
Estonia: The underdog that keeps on achieving (November 2018)