Alpine junior Olli Caldwell completed his first F1 test at Silverstone this week, a proud moment not just for him but for Kevin Korjus and Matt Parry, two former F1 juniors who have coached his car racing career
We were at, I think it was the Hungaroring. We’re at the side of the circuit and we were watching, and I’m pretty sure the conversation was we were discussing our careers and thinking a little bit like ‘how the hell are we here? At the side of the track watching cars go around?’
That’s Matt Parry’s recollection of the starting point of a conservation with fellow racing driver Kevin Korjus that would go on to become the incentive to set up a company now working across junior single-seaters: Peak Performance Management.
I didn’t have anyone looking after me [one-to-one when racing], which I think I was lacking. And I think for Matt a bit the same way, so we were just laughing, we were joking around that maybe we should try to help young drivers from our experience. First it was just a joke, but then a few months later we got the idea ‘maybe let’s give it a try’, and that’s how it started.
And that’s Korjus’s memory of how it all began.
Now 29, Korjus was a teenaged sensation during his racing career. Aged 17 he became the youngest ever Formula Renault Eurocup champion with Koiranen GP, won on just his second start in FR3.5 aged 18 and tested for the Renault Formula 1 team later that year, and the year after that he was Lotus’s reserve driver for the Italian Grand Prix.
He was part of the Gravity Sports Management driver development company that ran Lotus’s junior team, and Parry describes that position as being “very much on that pedestal of nearly making it”, which he was on himself.
Parry had raced in Formula Ford and won Britain’s Formula BMW-based InterSteps series, but he didn’t truly put his name on the map until he turned 18 as he became an F1 junior with Caterham then won the FR Northern European Cup and the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award. That was achieved in 2013, and his F1 test debut with McLaren came a year later
“We were in that let’s say inner circle, or bubble of these prospects that were potentially going to F1,” Parry explains.
“Obviously there was a big road still to get there, but we at least got into that bubble of winning our junior championships etc. So years later we were on the side and thinking ‘fuck, how did this happen?’ to a degree. We’d taken our different routes: he’d done some stuff in the Renault Sport Trophy [sportscar series], I’d done the GT3 stuff.
“We both had parents that were very much disinvolved with the day-to-day running of motorsport because they had businesses or other commitments. How good would it have been if we’d had managers that we’re not here commercially finding sponsorship – obviously if we today have that opportunity we can try to engage that – but we’re not particularly there [for that with PPM], we’re there as a performance base. So we were talking about that, and how good that would have been if we had someone like that. That’s what a lot of these new management groups are, they’re very performance-focused.
“Looking at the driver, looking at how their career’s going and where best to place them, so to the right team in the right year with the right championship with the right opportunity to maximise results. Results obviously being the main thing that talks. And then from that, finding their inner circle as well. What best people can we put with them, whether that’s driver coaches, physios, all these different people that we can bring together and make a really good inner circle, a really good team surrounding the driver to maximise their performance.”
Parry pays credit to the work of ADD Management (behind Lando Norris and Sacha Fenestraz’s careers) and Infinity Sports Management (George Russell, Logan Sargeant) that “basically laid the pathway” for driver management becoming more centred on performance than finances, and thinks PPM has a distinct quality from its industry rivals.
“Where we come with a uniqueness is if you look at all the guys who are doing this, me and Kevin are the only guys who have actually done that pathway [as drivers ourselves], to a degree. Who else, in terms of you look at the big guys who are doing this, have actually gone halfway through that process, or three-quarters of the way [to F1].
“[Former BMW Sauber tester] Marko Asmer looks after Juri very much and taking that one-to-one stage, but he hasn’t set up let’s call it a camp across [series]. So after I think we come in with our uniqueness if that we’ve been there, been in that position, know what it’s like when we’ve made the mistakes for the team [in this environment].
“We’ve gone through that process where we were not picking the right team and the right championship, and have the right people around us. So that’s sort of our tact and our angle and our objective when we sat there was ‘we’re going to do this, we’re hopefully going to be able to bring the experience that means that these drivers don’t make the same mistakes we did’.”
After both Korjus and Parry’s single-seater careers fizzled out following seasons in GP3 with Koiranen, the pair ended up in driver coaching in Formula 4 and then the FR Eurocup before setting up their own business venture. They’re still very busy with one-to-one coaching, but also have a pool of contacts that includes the likes of Esteban Ocon’s trainer Tom Clark and his colleagues at the Formula Performance coaching consultancy to call upon for other driver support services away from the race track or at it too when PPM’s lead pair simply can’t be at multiple race tracks at once. Travelling to all the tests and races obviously costs a lot, but PPM didn’t need any start-up finances before it started attracting clients.
“We didn’t need anything to set up, obviously the value becomes, without sounding big-headed, me and Kevin anyway. Our family, other investors, and sponsors had already invested heavily on that experience, so we didn’t need to pay any more.”
PPM therefore is a secondary return for all the years previously invested in Korjus and Parry’s own careers, with both spending time where they were reliant on the backing of F1 teams – a position earned through talent – to continue racing.
Korjus reveals “after two rounds I didn’t have any money left” during his title-winning Eurocup campaign and was able to continue it as “because I had budget for the first two rounds, and I was leading the championship after those two, and it was a new team, then they let me keep driving because they wanted promotion as well”.
It ended up being a record-breaking season, with nine wins from 16 races, and becoming champion meant Korjus got Renault backing and €500,000 for his step up to FR3.5. The contract he signed also guaranteed that Renault would pay for all of the costs of his racing for 2012 too, an unusual step. Gravity chose Korjus’s team for his rookie season, sending him to Tech 1 Racing. There was six days of pre-season testing, all paid for, and then nine race weekends.
Korjus retired from his debut race at Motorland Aragon, a “miserable” encounter in which locked up several times and got a puncture, but then the next day took victory, continuing strong form at the track after he won in the wet and dry there during his maiden Eurocup weekend. It was also where he claimed his sole RS Trophy win in 2016 in his last year of racing.
After a zero-to-hero first event in FR3.5, it was back to zero at Spa-Francorchamps with a double retirement. In race one he had a technical issue, then in race two he “I got hit at the start and my rear wing flew off in Blanchimont” he recalls.
“I saw something was wrong because the rear wing was [sloped], dropped from like seventh maybe down to 15th, but I had massive straightline speed because the wind was there – and I kind of got carried away, entered Blachimont. It’s easy flatout, but I turned in and the rear wing flew off and straight into the wall. A massive shunt.”
Korjus’s fortunes flipped again in round three at Monza as he won, despite worsening tyre vibrations, but then at the start of race two his rear-right tyre punctured in an opening lap incident with Red Bull juniors Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. It was Vergne who was at fault, and received a 10-second penalty that was later rescinded after appeal. It was a lesson learned.
“He called me actually a few weeks later, and apologised,” reveals Korjus. “I remember I was 18, I was going to the beach in Estonia, driving the car with somebody, and some French number was calling me. And it was Jean-Eric calling.”
After fourth place in Monaco, Korjus came third in the opening race at the Nurburgring and then remarkably won race two.
“I got spun on the first lap, and I was 25th and last after three corners, but good pace and good timing with the pitstop. It eventually started raining last two laps as well actually, and I managed to win from last place.”
One of Parry’s backers in his career was Sport Wales, the national development and funding body for sport in his home country. He says it was “so influential” in his career, and using its facilities and focus on the physical side of performance not only guided his vision for PPM but also led to him moving to live in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens where Sport Wales is based.
It’s outside of race weekends where Parry says most of PPM’s work is done with its clients, with FIA Formula 3 racers Nazim Azman and Oliver Rasmussen and Formula Regional European Championship rookie Joshua Dufek its focus in single-seaters with Caldwell coached through F4, FREC and FIA F3 before he ‘graduated’ to Formula 2 this year with Alpine and Infinity’s support.
“We do all the testing. The testing is actually where the most of the work is, and very much the race weekend is all about just keeping those cues up. So in a test perspective there could be a certain area you needed to work on, you worked on a cue with them in terms of whether it’s as simple as ‘this particular corner, make sure when you’re feeling the level of grip you’re turning in late enough, you’re not creeping into the corner too early’. Just this stuff.
“But then you’re utilising those things you’ve learned in the testing through the race weekend. But it’s obviously a very short snippet of information there because firstly the environment changes very quickly from qualifying to the racing, so the approach is very different because with qualifying it’s that one-lap, ultimate pace, and then the race is about managing traffic, all the cars, overtaking and track position and stuff.
“It’s a small snippet of information [we deliver to them], but those are the main things what we do attending, is the driver gains all the information from the test, then it’s all about executing that information from the test into the race weekend.
“So then our job is a lot more simpler in that sense. It’s just about keeping the driver [calm], making sure they’re managed there in terms of everything around them then. Making sure, even the simple stuff, like drinking enough water and having an effective warm-up before the race and then keeping them calm and relaxed and ultimately enjoying the racing as well; that’s always the best way to get performance out of them too.”
Both Korjus and Parry emphasise how much they wish they had equivalent one-to-one support, and over a decade on from when their car racing careers began, “the guys are ultimate professionals even at the age of 14, 15 now [at car racing’s entry level]” according to Parry and “they’re fucking on it” describes Korjus. So driver coaching companies now focus on that, without dominating the little free time young drivers have to still keep up an academic education or a paying job or anything that would be considered a more ‘traditional’ lifestyle than racing.
“The fantastic thing with motorsport is ultimately you’re learning so much as a young driver,” Parry says enthusiastically.
“Whether that’s motorsport-specific or just life in general. Look at the different people that we’ve got here, within this Argenti Motorsport tent [in the British F4 paddock]. Say Aiden Neate, he has to engage with [lots of people], at different levels of almost intelligence he is as well. You’ve got engineers who have been to university and they’re very much hanging on to your feedback to then adjust the car.
“Motorsport is an expensive learning place to be, but ultimately it’s one of the best lessons you can learn as a youngster: to engage, communicate, how to effectively use the people around you. You’ve got your mechanics, engineers, data engineers, tyre guy, you’ve got all these different people, all these different roles within it that you’ve got to kind of maximise each individual. Driver coaches, physios, managers, you’ve got everything. So you’ve got to be able to communicate with them all effectively, and it’s all different types of people. You won’t get that in a school. Ultimately maybe I’ve got a biased opinion to a degree because I love the sport.”
“You’d have everyone in the same same age, same setting [at school],” Parry adds. “It’s all about learning in that sense of everything’s on a whiteboard etc, whereas this is real life. This is very much how do you maximise the people around you. I mean it’s one of the greatest skillsets you can learn, isn’t it? How to talk and communicate effectively with various people in different roles and different capacities.”
School, at least in Britain, is usually delivered in a one-to-many format where a teacher gives out information and a group of students consume it with some relation back to assess if they have learned it. But racing has a full two-way communication flow, and as Parry says it’s the ability to maximise that – in addition to learning about driving and the car – that can make as much different to your ability to win a race. Look to F1, and it’s the drivers who have been able to maximise the people around them and help lift the team such as Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher that have gone on to find that extra level of performance when the margins are tight.
There’s a danger that drivers become mono-focused on achieving their motorsport dream, particularly when it doesn’t work out, but Parry knows the lessons of racing have enough applications outside of the driving seat for further down the line.
“I go back to that lessons learned, there’s so much that you can correlate down to everyday life. Look at me for example. Obviously I stayed within motorsport, but I’m in a completely different form of life, and still all those skillsets when I was younger put me in a position now to be able to do what I do and still be involved very heavily in motorsport on lots of different capacities as well. Whether it’s driver coach, driver manager, just life coach in general. I think it’s all been very much related.”
Aside from the obvious, his McLaren F1 test, there are two highlights for Parry in his motorsport career. The first, from his time driving, is his FR NEC title. And the second, from his time coaching, is Caldwell’s first FIA F3 win at Barcelona in 2021.
“Winning NEC with the guys at Fortec, with Alex [Ridge], he was my engineer then. Ben Salter, who was the other engineer. That team dynamic was really, really good, and that was a mega year. We had some really good standouts.
“We should have won Pau too, we had a really good working relationship and the year was mega in general. So I’d still go back to that as well as that’s a great if you wanted to look at the accumulation of the results and the season. Like that one special moment, of course the McLaren Autosport Award, but that whole build up from the whole season, winning the championship with guys that I really respected was probably still very much a standout. I learned a lot from Alex, particularly, Matt Howson as well who we had as the driver coach. It was a special team. When I look back at that, that was a key moment in terms of my learning stage on and off-track.”
And an explanation of why Caldwell’s win, in the end his only one from two years in the series before stepping up to F2, also means so much.
“In a coaching perspective, winning the first round of FIA F3 last year was a pretty special moment because of all of the hard work that went into that. We had came off quite a difficult year with Trident in 2020, and he managed to really piece together – even from that off-step, straight away in the race, he actually ended up winning the race.
“It was a really solid weekend and he came away P2 in the points. It was just a combination of all of the hard work over the course of the winter. And we obviously came there better prepared than everyone else, and of course Prema are fantastic, and we all know it too. Olli did an unbelievable job that weekend, actually I don’t think got enough praise for that weekend himself, just in his driving, his positioning. There was that big accident in the race, and he managed to avoid that and calculate that well and it was a really strong race from him, mega pace. So that was probably a standout moment, all that work [amassing]. He’s on like the world stage of being like the top junior guy [that weekend], to win was special definitely.”
Korjus has already described his FR3.5 wins, which along with his Eurocup title are highlights, and unfortunately there wasn’t much to celebrate after that. In his second season he enjoyed being team-mate to the more experience Jules Bianchi at Tech 1, and pleased himself with how he was able to match his pace early on and feature highly in an ultra competitive season for the series. However, and key to what sent Korjus on to a life where he does not race any more, was how his sophomore FR3.5 campaign then unravelled.
“The level was amazing, so anyway [round three at] Spa I go to qualifying and I didn’t have any gears. So I start 24th, I go the grid and I didn’t have any clutch. Second day, again something with the car, so zero points. Monaco was still OK, I was P4, Jules was P2. And after that it was just a shocker. My car didn’t shift gears properly, there was some differential issue and until the fourth round I lost close to – I think the maximum was 9kph to Jules on the straight line. I checked the data, and I asked [Tech 1] if they could do anything about it and it went on for three, four rounds. The only way was to buy a new engine. And neither Lotus or me had the money. Like Kevin Magnussen had the problem, he bought the new engine: boom, back in business. I didn’t have the same thing.”
FR3.5 had introduced an all-new car for 2012, and while it proved popular it also had unreliability issues that influenced the career prospects of several drivers over its first two years of use.
“The first year there was a massive issue with the engine. I can’t remember what was the exact condition. But I did the last three rounds with [the Charouz Racing System-run] Lotus, and Marco Sorensen was my team-mate. Before I joined he had won a race. And first race weekend at Hungaroring he was a bit quicker than me, but then Paul Ricard and Barcelona I was quite a lot quicker than him in the dry. So we finished the Barcelona weekend, the season’s finished, then it’s Monday off and Tuesday is the post-season test. They changed the engine on my car, then I think Marlon Stockinger jumps in and he beats Marco by several tenths. First ever time in the car, and Marlon was not a fast driver. And then they’re thinking like ‘man, this guy is a superstar as Marco is normally top three in Barcelona and this guy’s just beat him’.”
Off the back of that, Stockinger was signed by Lotus to be a junior while Korjus was dropped by the team.
“They stopped the data because one car had changed the engine and one didn’t, and it was like 8kph again like the difference in the speed. So Marco stopped the test day, changed his engine, next day’s Marco P1. And on the race weekend he was P11 or P10. And it was just such an unlucky season for me with the wrong time at the wrong place.”
Korjus was able to continue racing as Koiranen moved into GP3 and called upon his services for 2013 (and wanted him for longer than that), then switched to sportscar racing with ART Grand Prix the year after but retains the links to his old team.
“That’s where I met Matt. I hadn’t driven single-seaters for one-and-a-half years, but there was one pre-season test and Koiranen was lacking one driver and asked me if I want to come driving. So I said ‘okay, why not’, I did one test day and I met Matt because he was then racing with Koiranen.”
For the pair, the target is still F1 and Caldwell’s recent test – despite him having now moved into Infinity’s driver roster – brings them one step closer to that.
“As neither of us made it to F1, our goal now as management is to get a driver into F1,” Korjus concludes.