Home Featured What Juri Vips has to say on his racing return, and why RLLR wants him

What Juri Vips has to say on his racing return, and why RLLR wants him

by Ida Wood

Photo: James Black

Juri Vips’ hopes of racing in F1 ended last summer when the Red Bull reserve driver used a racial slur, and was homophobic, on a livestream. But now he’s got a seat in IndyCar, and there are questions to be answered

When Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing boss Bobby Rahal, and journalists, talk of Juri Vips’ upcoming IndyCar debut being “a second chance”, it can be interpreted that by being back on track he has a chance to redeem his career and that showing he can perform at the top level of single-seaters will in some way atone for his use of a racial slur on a livestream last summer.

The other interpretation is that he has already “atoned for” his “huge mistake” by enrolling in diversity training programmes both in England and the United States. But Vips has kept a low profile since the end of the 2022 Formula 2 season, so the wider world has not actually seen the impact of such programmes on his use of language and behaviour, and nor has Vips – who at the time of writing has a following of 93,117 people on Instagram alone – used his profile to promote inclusivity or in any way support the demographics he referred to in offensive terms last year since his apology the day after the incident.

You could say that Vips does need to prove himself on track anyway, given he went from finishing sixth in the F2 standings in 2021 to being 11th last year and with less points despite five more races. There were bad pitstops, and the FIA had to apologise to Vips after the feature race at Monza due to stewards erroneously handing him a 10-second stop-go penalty which dropped him to the back of the field rather than a 10s penalty to be added to his race time, but there was no arguing that he was not performing at his best through the second half of the campaign.

In a press conference organised after the announcement that Vips will make his racing return at Portland this weekend, he and his new team boss Rahal were quizzed on if Vips deserved to get the drive and what their expectations were for the final two races of the IndyCar season. After that, and one insightful admission from Vips, this writer asked if there was a financial motivation for RLLR to put him in their #30 car and what Vips would actually be doing going forward to prove he has grown and learned from last year’s error.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

“Well, I think Juri is just a very nice young guy. We were introduced to him a couple of years ago. It’s no secret that he made a mistake and paid a huge price. But people in Europe who I knew were very, very complimentary about him as a driver and as a person, that this mistake was a single mistake, and unfortunate,” was Rahal’s opening statement in the press conference.

“As we all know, Juri paid a huge price for that and lost his position in the Red Bull system. Which he was the pre-eminent junior driver at the time. And in fact, it’s kind of interesting that his partner, who was with him at the time [in the livestream], Liam Lawson, just drove the AlphaTauri at the Dutch Grand Prix.”

Vips tested for RLLR at Sebring in October 2022, before the F2 finale, then again at Barber Motorsports Park this March when he stood in for the injured Jack Harvey, who until a race ago was the full-time pilot of the #30 car.

The 23-year-old Estonian actually only “came up on our radar” at RLLR after his Red Bull sacking, suggesting his F2 results were not necessarily doing enough to get him noticed by IndyCar teams, and after reaching out to his F2 team Hitech GP they were reassured the incident “was not emblematic of him as a person”.

“He has really I think atoned for [his mistake] through some of the programmes like diversity training programmes he has been involved with both in England and here in the United States. In fact, the same organisation that Kyle Larson went to,” continued Rahal.

“We thought that they were very good in their field, and Juri has been going through that programme and has completed it now. And I think for many years Juri has known he made a big mistake and he paid for it, but now he’s trying to come back. So we’re pleased to give him that second chance.

“He’s shown us enough that for us to take that chance, to give him a shot. And he’s certainly worked hard to correct the mistake that he made. So we’re excited about him joining the team for these last two races. And hopefully he’ll do well.”

Photo: RLLR

Rahal added: “It’s all about our future, and we’ve asked Juri to participate in these races because we think that highly of him.”

Vips said he was “overwhelmed with emotion” to be back racing, but then said: “There is excitement, obviously, because I just haven’t been in a car for so long and I haven’t raced for so long. But nerves like almost zero at this stage because I just have so much to prepare.”

“I have already learned quite a lot. I’ve come to a couple of races, have been around the factory a bit. So I feel like pretty integrated in the team as much as I could be,” he added.

“I’m doing everything I possibly can to be as ready as I could. And I know that once I start riding out the pitlane, I’m not going to be as comfortable as I am on any other race weekend. I know it’s going to take a little bit of time to catch up and build confidence in the race car. I’m worried a little bit, just because I haven’t done it in so long.

“But to be honest, I think it’s all going to go really well. Once I get confidence, I’m not worried at all. But I just need some laps with the car, because I haven’t driven at all for a long time.”

Vips’ most notable answer was revealing that he – rather than Red Bull or Hitech – had instigated his admission into the diversity training programme last year, and then again once he headed to the USA.

“So basically after everything happened last year, I asked my team at the time to do some kind of a course for me to understand what’s offensive and what’s not. Because I made this huge mistake without knowing it’s like such a big mistake. I thought it was just a swear word that I was saying. And I wanted to know more about it first of all, just so nothing like this can happen again. Because I don’t know what else I don’t know. And then had a lot of time to reflect on who I disappointed.”

“Before this, I wasn’t interested in learning about anything. All I cared about was racing. So that’s, I guess, why I thought the word that I said was a swear word and not way worse than it actually is. Since that, I’ve learned a lot.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“I took two sensitivity courses. One in the UK. And we decided to do it with Rahal here that it’s good to do a refresher course as well. So that, you know, things might be a little bit different in the US, it’s a different company. And that’s definitely helped as well, just to get a different perspective on things. I’ve definitely learnt more in the Rise program that I just completed here.

“So I feel like I have grown as a person. I am really, really grateful for Bobby for the second chance and I completely understand all the outrage. Now that I understand what the word means, it’s completely justifiable. And I am very sorry for everybody that I’ve hurt.”

While these two upcoming races are the “second chance”, Vips’ hopes of retaining for the seat for 2024 lay entirely on how he performs on and off track and how he compares to the many other drivers who RLLR are considering, and already talking to.

Having enjoyed his time in America so much, Vips has “forgotten about F1 a bit” and fully intends to race in IndyCar next year. RLLR “still have some sponsors to sign, so there’s still a lot of work to do” to ready the #30 entry for 2024, and this writer asked Rahal how significant results in the next races would be for funding the car, and therefore if signing Vips was a plan to improve their performance.

In the entrants standings the #30 is currently 23rd, with the top 22 receiving ‘Leaders Circle’ payouts from IndyCar as prize money to help make sure teams then enter those cars full-time again for the next season.

“This last weekend we actually are in that top 22 group. Remember one of Chip [Ganassi]’s cars, the fourth car in owners’ point is not eligible for leaders circle. So that opened up things,” Rahal explained.

“Having said that, we’re not breathing easier because it is very close still. I mean, we’re going racing [full-time with this car] either way, but it would sure be nice to be part of the Leaders Circle Group. And that was an expectation that, frankly, I took for granted going into this year. And then clearly we’ve been struggling a little bit to get the points in order to do that.”

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

With Vips in the car the expectation is “we can now really do a good job in those two races” that finish the season.

The follow-up questions were to Vips, about when he switched focus fully to IndyCar and how he plans to use his position as an IndyCar driver to promote what he has learned.

“I never looked for a seat in F2 for this year,” he revealed. “It was looking difficult just to get any [drives], but we were looking more towards IndyCar. But, it was looking pretty difficult for that,” he said of the 2022-23 off-season.

“I ended up having a couple offers to do some like endurance racing, DTM and stuff like this full-time this year. But I’d rather take a chance with IndyCar because the thing for me is like if I look at myself long-term, that’s the series I want to be in, that’s what I want to do. I think once you commit yourself to a programme in GTs, endurance or something, you’ve kind of committed there and it’s hard then to make the transition after.”

On his 2022 F2 struggles, he added: “Once everything sort of kicked off last year, I didn’t have time to reflect [on my driving]. It was just won a race after the other. It was pretty hectic, the F2 schedule at this point. That obviously affected my performance as well. We had a couple of races still where that got away. I think Red Bull Ring we should have definitely won. In Monza it was probably a podium without that mistake from the stewards, and there was a couple of good ones still.

“Then off-season, [and] it was like a two-month gap to Abu Dhabi, had a lot of time to reflect – because at this time I was really struggling and stuff and it wasn’t a great time. But it was more I would say I had time to reflect once the season was fully over, after Abu Dhabi, that’s when I really took some time off, disconnected and just spent some time with family and friends. And that’s really helped me as well, just to sort of regroup, refocus and get serious again. I think I’m in a much better place where I was last year, and I think I’m ready for this.”

He then affirmed that, now he has his IndyCar opportunity, he will be proactive in using his platform for educating and positive messaging to help avoid others making the same mistakes he did.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

“Definitely. I haven’t made full plans of what I’m going to do exactly. Speaking when I was going through this programme, it was Andrew Mac Intosh, who helped me with this, he’s from the Rise program that I just completed. He really mentioned that I should sort of spread my knowledge of what I’ve learned and stuff, and I really do agree with them.

“I just completed the course, so I haven’t exactly thought of what I’m going to do. But I think people have learned already because they’ve seen what I’ve done, you know? But I do want to spread what I’ve learned from the sensitivity programmes, and just be a model citizen from now on. Leave the past behind me and grow. That’s my main thing.”