Written by Archie O’Reilly
Juri Vips impressed in his two outings for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) in the No.30 car in the closing races of the 2023 IndyCar season. So it was somewhat of a surprise when Pietro Fittipaldi, who has been away from IndyCar competition since 2021 with focus on sports car racing, was announced to be driving the No.30 car in 2024.
The Brazilian has been the test and reserve driver at Haas F1 Team, where he could yet remain, for almost five years, racing twice in Romain Grosjean’s absence in late 2020. Fittipaldi has gained success in sports cars following a strong junior career, with nine IndyCar races on his resume.
When the news was announced that Fittipaldi would complete the RLL lineup for 2024, providing a contract renewal for Graham Rahal is a formality, a fair amount of questions were elicited. What does this mean for Vips? Why exactly was Fittipaldi the choice? Is this a decision with the long-term taken into account?
Both Fittipaldi and co-owner of the team, Bobby Rahal, appeared on a video conference on Monday in the wake of the announcement. Here are some of the key takeaways that could help to answer some of the lingering questions…
A multi-year deal for Fittipaldi
Rahal confirmed that it is a multi-year deal for Fittipaldi to join the team. The Brazilian has previously competed part-seasons on two occasions, most recently in three oval races in 2021 as part of Romain Grosjean’s programme. In 2018, he suffered an injury while racing at Spa in the World Endurance Championship, which limited him to only six races.
A return may seem to have come out of the blue, but this is a story that goes further back than many may know. “I knew Bobby for some years,” Fittipaldi said. “I always kept in touch with Bobby. When the opportunity was there, we worked through it. To be able to race for him now and for this whole organisation is an incredible opportunity.”
Rahal was full of praise for his new recruit, who finished a best of ninth at Portland in 2018 in his nine prior IndyCar races. “He’s had a very successful career in junior categories, multiple champion in junior categories,” Rahal said. “He did a few races here, qualified 13th at Indy in ‘21. Had some decent runs in the few races he did do.
“Obviously getting hurt in the Prototype car at Spa set him back. But I think the thing that most impressed me about Pietro was his work ethic and his focus. There's no question this is where he wants to be. I’m excited about that. I know people where he has driven, their teams - they have nothing but great things to say about him.”
Fittipaldi’s uncle, Max Papis, previously won races for Team Rahal. And that is only part of the legacy of Fittipaldi’s family, with success spearheaded by his grandfather, Emerson, who won a championship and two Indianapolis 500s. Christian Fittipaldi was also a race-winner in the series, finishing second in the Indy 500.
For Fittipaldi, who has expressed his love for oval racing having won on ovals elsewhere, it is the opportunity he has been waiting for to make the full-time switch to IndyCar. “I never gave up,” he said. “I’m the type of person that is very persistent. You have to push. You have to hustle, try to make it happen. Every year I would try.”
Vips remains part of the picture
There has to be a certain amount of sympathy for Juri Vips. The Estonian produced a really encouraging weekend at Laguna Seca after getting up to speed in Portland, out-qualifying Graham Rahal to take a seventh-place, albeit dropping back due to an engine penalty and finding himself caught up in an early-race mid-pack incident.
But this is not necessarily the end of Vips’ story with RLL. Bobby Rahal confirmed that the 23-year-old is still in the picture. “We exercised our option with Juri,” Rahal said. “I don't know when it was, several months ago. We see Juri as a long-term play as well.”
Rahal continued: “There’s one thing we did know, we wanted to keep Juri in our family. He did a great job for us in Portland and a fab job in Laguna. It’s a shame chaos caught him at the start. All in all, very impressed with Juri. We certainly wanted to keep him within our organisation.”
Vips has had a difficult time of things since being dropped from the Red Bull Junior Team after using a racial slur on a live stream, but the Rahal squad have worked hard to support Juri in his education, which the driver has, by all accounts, gone above and beyond to cooperate with.
“Juri is a good young man,” Rahal said. “I have to say he did everything we asked him to do. I think he showed that he certainly is capable of running up front in an IndyCar race… He certainly showed he belongs.”
Vips could be granted opportunities to run as part of RLL’s sports car programme until there is an opening in IndyCar, with Rahal saying he was introduced to some of the LMP2 crew at Road Atlanta earlier in the month. The team are keen to keep Vips primed and ready.
There is yet hope that Vips could dabble back into IndyCar sooner rather than later, with hopes that RLL could yet expand further after permanently adding a third car ahead of 2022 as Vips’ fellow Formula Two graduate, Christian Lundgaard, was taken onboard…
Targeting a fourth car in the near future
A major reason why Vips has been kept onboard is the desire to run a fourth car sooner rather than later. There remain improvements for RLL to make, particularly on ovals, as they bid to start firing on all cylinders after astronomic strides forward to becoming one of the series’ strongest teams on road courses, and to a growing extent street courses.
Rahal is insistent that he has “four chargers” at his disposal, including Vips, which is an indication of the intent to add a fourth entry to give Vips further run-outs in IndyCar sooner rather than later.
“We’d like to run a fourth car,” Rahal said. “We’re not making as much progress on that as we would like. That’s certainly a hope. Maybe it’s only a selected number of races, maybe one, maybe it’s none. We’re not quite sure.”
It does not seem an impossibility for Vips to be seen racing in IndyCar this year, but there are definitely other things to solve primarily before RLL do think about this. They underwent some behind-the-scenes changes last year amid some of their struggles, which reached a climax at the Indy 500, so there may still be adaptation needed there.
Rahal knows it would be misjudged to rush into running a fourth car. “You’ve got to be prepared to do that, to do it correctly, to do it so that the fourth car actually contributes going forward,” he said. “I think we certainly saw some improvements last year. Obviously our poor performance in Indianapolis still is by far outweighing every other thing we did last year.
“We’ve been committed to changing that for this coming year. I think we’re making progress on it already. The first thing, we’ve got three strong drivers in those cars. The first goal is to have them consistently run up front. We do that before we do anything else.”
An update on Graham’s new deal
Bobby Rahal also spoke about the future of his son, Graham, given there has not yet been formal confirmation of his new deal. But it does seem a matter of time, with the turnaround since being bumped from the field for the Indy 500 incredibly stark, with two poles and a second-place in the latter end of the year.
“We’re okay,” Rahal said in Monday’s video conference, with his son’s future with the team seemingly no longer in any doubt. “I think we have an agreement. Everybody’s happy with that. I mean, when you look at the kind of year he had last year, as did Christian, as Pietro said, four pole positions, Graham within an eyelash of a fifth.
“If you look at Mid-Ohio, that’s the kind of competitive level that we all want. He wants that, and we do, too, just as Christian and Pietro want. I think we’ve got a good lineup, very good lineup, of drivers for whatever the circuit may be, ovals, road courses or street courses. I’m excited about the new year.”