Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has an open seat for next year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, and it will see if European driver Juri Vips is ready to take it.
Vips has been highly regarded for years, on the path to Formula One the way NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers Callum Ilott, Marcus Armstrong and Christian Lundgaard, among others, once were. Vips won three races in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, as Lundgaard did, and was a Red Bull Junior driver. F2 is one step below F1.
Vips, a 23-year-old Estonian, has twice tested with RLL, most recently in March at Barber Motorsports Park as Jack Harvey was unavailable due to not being medically cleared following an accident in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Harvey was recently released from RLL’s No. 30 Honda, and the team is using the final two races of the season, beginning with Sunday’s BITNILE.com Grand Prix of Portland, to consider its options. Those start with Vips, team co-owner Bobby Rahal said.
“Clearly, we’re running Juri because we feel – and all the reports we’ve received and opinions by people (in Europe) – we feel he can be very competitive,” he said. “Time will tell.
“I think it’s a lot to expect that he’ll be right on pace for these first two races because he hasn’t raced anything for over a year – maybe a year and a half – and it’s a different world. But we saw enough from the test that we thought we should give him a chance.”
Vips has not driven since being dropped from the Red Bull Junior program after using a racial slur while online gaming in 2022. He went through extensive diversity training and education, successfully completing programs in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Said Rahal: “It’s no secret that he made a mistake a paid a huge price, but people in Europe who I know were very, very complimentary about him as a driver and as a person.
“This mistake was a single mistake, unfortunately. Juri paid a huge price for that and lost his position in the Red Bull system, which he was the preeminent junior driver at the time.”
Vips was paired in the program with Liam Lawson, who drove in last weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix for the AlphaTauri F1 team. Lawson finished 13th.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES field features 27 car-and-driver combinations at each road race, which includes Portland International Raceway, where practice begins Friday. Vips, as Lundgaard, Armstrong and Ilott experienced, must learn this series on the fly.
“Clearly, his record in Europe was such that he was one of the top guys,” Rahal said. “No different than Callum. No different than Marcus or Christian. They’re all from the same kind of school – finishing school, which Formula 2 is to a large extent. We’ll see; we’ll just see.”
Lundgaard is already a race winner in this series, having captured the Honda Indy Toronto in July. Ilott has impressed frequently driving the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet, and Armstrong is in a strong position to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 11 Honda. Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) also had a brief stint in F2.
Vips said he has been in regular contact with Armstrong this season, and he has been to a couple of NTT INDYCAR SERIES races. Coincidentally, Armstrong was at both of Vips’ tests.
“I’ve had some chats with him about the car and about everything,” Vips said. “He is loving the life here (in INDYCAR).”
Vips said he has been too busy studying the materials provided to him by RLL to be concerned with nerves.
“Maybe once I get (to Portland) I’ll start feeling them, but at the moment there’s excitement, obviously, because I just haven’t been in a car for so long,” he said. “But nerves are almost zero at this stage because I have so much to prepare and so much to do with the media and with the engineers, simulators and stuff. It’s organizing all of that that’s on my mind now, so it’s almost like I feel like I don’t have time to be nervous at the moment.”
He said he has benefitted from integration with Lundgaard and the team’s most experienced driver, Graham Rahal.
“The cars are quite similar in downforce (and) quite similar in horsepower than F2, which I have a decent amount of experience in, but there’s so many differences,” he said. “It’s a completely different racing series.
“But I’ve already learned quite a lot. I’ve gone to a couple of races and been around the (team’s new Zionsville shop) a bit. So, I feel like I’m pretty integrated in the team as much as I could be, and definitely Christian and Graham have helped me with that transition phase.
“I’m sure I’ll learn a lot during the race weekend, but definitely having driven the car, having spent a bit of time here in the U.S. has helped me with that transition.”
Vips also should benefit from the test day Sept. 7 available to all NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in advance of the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 10.
Vips did not compete against Ilott in F2, but he placed ahead of Lundgaard (12th) and Armstrong (13th) in 2021 as he finished sixth. Last year, Vips and Armstrong were 11th and 13th, respectively. Interestingly, it was Vips who replaced O’Ward at Team Mugen in Japan’s Super Formula series late in the 2019 season.
Rahal is eager to see how Vips fares here.
“He has shown us enough for us to take that chance, to give him a shot,” he said. “So, we’re excited about him joining the team for these last two races, and hopefully he’ll do well.”
Live coverage of the BITNILE.COM Grand Prix at Portland starts at 3 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 3 on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.