Home Formula 4British F4 The single-seater star engineering Prema’s FIA F3 title bid

The single-seater star engineering Prema’s FIA F3 title bid

by Ida Wood

Pedro Matos has starred in the driving seat in some of the biggest events in Formula Ford 1600, but he’s made it all the way to GP2 as a engineer. Now he’s crucial to Prema’s FIA Formula 3 Championship efforts

Despite lacking the GP3 experience of its rivals, Prema absolutely dominated the inaugural season of FIA F3 last year, and did the same in the all-new Formula Regional European Championship too. Its 2020 aim is to at least match those FIA F3 results with Formula Renault Eurocup champion Oscar Piastri, FREC champion Frederik Vesti and Logan Sargeant.

Both Piastri and Vesti have previously worked with Portuguese engineer Pedro Matos, and they’ll be reuniting in what will likely be a formidable combination. In an alternative world it could have been Matos, now 27, who may have been racing for Prema at this level before he carved a career outside of the cockpit.

Matos’s father had raced touring cars, and he was neighbour to Formula 1 racer Tiago Monteiro at the start of his single-seater career. Unsurprisingly Matos became motorsport obsessed, especially after sampling karting.

“My father always tried to use racing as a school for life,” Matos tells Formula Scout. “Because it has so many things in common, he always tried to give us lessons to take from racing, that not all comes easy and you need to work for it.

“He told me and my brother that if we wanted to get a kart we had to raise money for it. So we decided to start this business of walking our neighbours’ dogs for two escudos, and saved money from Christmas and birthdays. I used to walk Tiago Monteiro’s dog for money, to chip in to buy our go-kart. That’s how my career started.

“We borrowed a go-kart from a good friend of ours when I was 10, and then to buy the next kart we used our earnings. I remember paying the kart dealer with a piggy bank absolutely full of coins. I’m sure my dad chipped in at the time, but I still remember the guy’s face when we were wanting to pay with the piggy bank.

“I started racing in a championship when I was about 13, the same series as Joao Barbosa. I had relatively good success. I always felt that I was a bit different than the other kids in that I wasn’t there for fun, or playing football in between sessions or making friends. I took it very seriously, and from that age I got into visualisation techniques and physical preparation to make sure that I was good when the racing bit came.

“I think that did make an impact on any success I had, with the little experience I had. I was the only one downloading my data too, I spent hours looking at it and would steal my team-mates’ data without telling them. They would think what the hell I was doing because back then no one used to do that, and that was when the engineering bit also started.”

Between 2005 and 2009, Matos took 16 wins and 30 podiums in 43 races. In his last year he was runner-up in the Iberian and Portuguese Rotax championships, and was best. As costs went up, he moved to the cheaper racing of FFord in England.

Matos competed first in ‘Heritage’-era machinery, and was a race-winner by his third 2009 appearance. His next outing was Historic FFord France at Spa-Francorchamps in 2010, and he beat a 48-car field to win. He also made a BRSCC Northern FF1600 appearance with Oldfield Motorsport before the Walter Hayes Trophy, where he made it to the semi-finals.

At this time Matos was in the UK as he was studying Motorsport Engineering at Oxford Brookes University, which had required getting top grades back home and a full grasp of English.

“With the high grades, it comes back to my parents’ way of educating me. They always wanted to make sure that education would come first, and then racing. They even had a spreadsheet with grades being equivalent to racing credit, and I could spend that credit doing races in karts. That was a way of motivating to have good grades, to keep racing.

“When I got to choose where I wanted to go to uni, I had the grades that I needed. One cool thing I did [at Oxford] was carbon fibre wheel rims for Formula Student. I think it was one of the first teams to do it, and I helped manufacture them. I learned quite a bit from that. Then as the course went on, I started doing placements, and even had a job before I finished the degree.”

His next racing venture was back in Portugal for its new single-seater series, and he also hired as test driver for the Barchetta prototype sportscar. He won Portuguese FFord races at Braga twice, and drove in the World Touring Car Championship support round on the Porto street circuit in 2013. The next year he finished fourth on his National FF1600 debut at Oulton Park, and was hunting the leader in race two before going off on a greasy track.

Given how little he raced, Matos did a great job to then finish fifth in the FFord Festival, just 0.808 seconds from the runner-up spot. His last FF1600 appearances were another National cameo and the Festival in 2016, the latter he finished 10th in.

“There is a big misconception that club racing in the UK is amateur, but there’s very good drivers, especially in FF1600. There are kids that if they raced in Europe in Formula 4 they would be top level guys, and racing against very experienced people and some racing legends made me realise what it took to do well in the sport.”

In 2017 Matos had a breakthrough season in single-seaters, except this time it was outside of the cockpit and James Oldfield was a colleague at Arden in British F4 rather than his FF1600 team boss.

In between starting university and reaching that point, and part of the reason why his racing career had scaled back so heavily, Matos had zigged-zagged across the GP2 paddock and picked up a variety of jobs elsewhere.

“I did my [uni] placement in Portugal with Tiago’s GP2 team Ocean Racing Technology, and in 2012 I started there just before the team stopped. It was too late to move back to uni and finish that year, so I had to find something else. Bit of a blind shot, but I went to Germany to work for GT3 team HTP Motorsport for 2013 and that set the base for my CV.

“I went not really knowing what I was going for, but that year was successful – we took Mercedes-Benz’s first Spa 24 Hours win in 49 years. I worked with Bernd Schneider, Maxi Buhk, Maxi Gotz, really good drivers. It was my first experience of a proper professional team, and I learned a lot from that.

“Then I went back to uni to finish the degree, and before I finished I started working for Caterham in GP2. It was its last year in GP2 and, again, even with little experience I was lucky enough to work with guys like Alexander Rossi, Pierre Gasly, Tom Dillmann. I got to see what a good driver has to be like by working with these guys, as well as [top] engineers.

“I always tried to do my job as professionally as I could, and every bit of extra time I had I was listening to radio conversation or debriefs with the drivers. I thought that was what I may want to pursue [as a job], so I was trying to take as much as possible from the experienced guys around me.

“My race engineer back then is now George Russell’s engineer at Williams (James Urwin), and a very good friend is now in Formula E with BMW Andretti. It’s all contacts that you keep for life, so that was a very good time.”

Matos stayed with Status Grand Prix, which took over Caterham’s GP2 entry, for a few months before leaving for rival Arden.

The jump from FStudent to GP2 was a large one on the engineering side, and Matos’s role was usually in a data role – a hark back to the skills he’d been honing as a karter.

“I don’t know if I wasn’t ready for [the jump to GP2], but my life’s always been a bit like that. Going to England I had no idea what I was going into, same with Germany, but I had a ‘fuck it, just go and do it’ attitude. I think if I’d knew a bit more about what I was going into, I would have been afraid to do it. But looking back now, I think you need that, you need to take some [risks], and then either you sink or you’re forced to swim to make it. At Caterham especially it was something I had to do, I was like: OK, this is a bit high level, I need to keep up with this and push myself to do a better job.”

Having ending his teens with FF1600 wins in Europe, starting his 20s at work in the F1 circus was also surreal.

“You’re in a different paddock there [in GP2], you feel like it’s another world, like F1 is there and you’re just here in this small bit. But then you do your first free practice session and you see all the F1 teams and the cars driving past you, and you’re like ‘wow, I’ve made it now, I’m making my six-year-old self watching F1 on TV proud’.”

As Matos entered his third full season as a data/performance engineer in GP2, he was still more driven by the idea of being behind the wheel himself. He’d been keeping an eye on Arden’s F4 squad though, and in 2016 became a race engineer there.

“I thought I could help the F4 kids out and would have more pleasure out of my work by having a bit more responsibility, or feeling at least that I was some part of the result or helping them achieve that.”

In GP2 there hadn’t been many results of note for Matos to be happy about, with Alexander Rossi’s fifth place for Caterham in the 2014 Red Bull Ring sprint race standing as the best while he was in the paddock. Doubling up in British F4 brought a first win via Rafael Martins and a change of attitude: “That’s when I felt I really liked what I did and wanted to pursue it. Going to the race engineering side, and especially working with the young drivers. So I pushed for that inside Arden. OK it’s kind of like taking a step down, but I felt more like I belonged there than what I was doing before.”

While an F4 car has less engineering freedom than GP2, its scope for learning is far greater according to Matos. This is on the micro and macro level, and he cites understanding managing tyres and strategy across a F4 weekend as a driver and as an engineer lays the foundation for the ability to tackle lap-by-lap management in faster cars where room to explore is limited.

Matos’s 2017 was spent solely in F4, and he engineered Piastri and Arden to second in the driver and team classifications.

“I always like teaching the basics from the start, and I remember the first time Oscar came to Arden he had never driven a car.”

Piastri ended up winning six races, with team-mates Alex Quinn and Ayrton Simmons adding five more to the team’s tally.

Arden kept Matos in F4 for 2018 as chief race engineer while it had two Red Bull juniors on its books, but also made him a ‘support race engineer’ for Piastri in all non-clashing Eurocup rounds. Matos’s understanding of what made a good driver – honed by working with the likes of Schneider as well as his own experience – meant he was now a de facto driver coach too.

This involved going trackside and reporting on which gears or lines Piastri and his team-mates were taking at certain corners, often making supporting video too. It was not a first choice job, but he learned a lot on the sidelines and his quartet of F4 drivers claimed 11 wins. His driver coaching ability was also picked up in historic racing, which granted him a free drive.

Matos left Arden at season’s end, needing a break from motorsport, but he came back to engineer Marcus Armstrong in the Toyota Racing Series. The duo just missed out on the title to M2 Competition counterparts Marc Wood and Liam Lawson, and the intense five weekends of racing stands out to Matos for what he learned in defeat.

Working with Prema regular Armstrong also helped his arrival into a team he had “always looked up to” and was about to join.

“I managed to get my foot in the door at Prema through [former GP3 racer] Matt Parry,” reveals Matos.

“He’s Olli Caldwell’s driver coach and I knew them from F4. I pushed to get there, and I got signed just before New Zealand.”

Matos joined Prema in a rather youthful FREC set-up. He was to engineer Vesti, Parry (25y/o) focused on team-mate Caldwell but was valued by all three Prema drivers, and Ralf Aron (21y/o) forwent racing in Super Formula to be team manager.

“Big credit has to go to Prema’s people,” Matos says. “The preparation was everything for 2019, as we did a good testing programme and in such an organised way that we found out lots of things, especially in preparing the drivers and how the tyres worked.

“Being surrounded by [racers] I think is the main difference with a team like Prema. It makes you feel good because everyone is pushing in the same direction. Ralf’s experience as a driver was very good for the relationship with the drivers, and Matt was helping out as well.”

Prema won 16 of the 24 races, 13 of them by Vesti. His most memorable was in the third Hungaroring race, where a last lap suspension bracket failure meant he won on three wheels. “It was the longest 30 seconds of my life,” recalls Matos.

L-R: PPM’s Matt Parry, Olli Caldwell, Frederik Vesti and Ralf Aron

Vesti won the title with three races to go, but Matos is adamant it was not easy. “[The title’s] something you can put on your CV, but the most important thing is what you learn from the year.

“If you look at the results it can seem like it was easy, but it was not at all. We were every race, every single session, pushing 100% to make sure we would bring the results home.”

Having been involved in win-heavy seasons since leaving GP2 and changing roles, what does Matos think of his craft now?

“Every driver is different and has a different set of skills. Racing today is very different to [the past]. You have access to lots of data, the driver has a driver coach, a mental coach, a physical trainer, this and that. As a driver it can be hard to manage it all.

“It’s very important that you look at what each individual driver needs at that time, because I’m not really a big believer in talent in that ‘he has it, and he doesn’t have it’. Everyone [has it], and it’s just a question of unlocking potential. One big advantage I have is that I’ve been there, not at a professional level, but I drove at a high enough level that I understand what it takes and what it feels like to be there, when things are not going well, when things are going well, when you’re at the start of a race.

“I kind of know how they feel [at that time], and at different times, so I know what to say and what not to say. But most importantly it’s trying to read a driver and have a feel of ‘he needs to improve in this area, or that area’. It’s not just looking at the data: brake five metres here, go on throttle here, do this line instead of that line. A driver, to be fast, needs to drive intuitively. You teach them the heart of driving as a whole rather than for a particular occasion or corner.”

Matos remains with Vesti in FIA F3 this year, but he’ll also be working to get Piastri and Sargeant to the front too. His first trackside experience of the Dallara F3 2019 car came in last month’s Bahrain test, and there was encouraging signs as Vesti was fastest of all on long runs.

“I’m really looking forward to FIA F3. By joining European F3 and GP3 they made the most competitive series in the single-seater ladder. You have great teams, great drivers, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with many of them. You see the pool of talent there and it makes you happy being a part of that championship. Obviously Prema had a great 2019, so that’s the minimum standard now, which is quite high. We will do our best to try to repeat that.”

Matos sees himself remaining at Prema for several more years as he is enjoying his job, and tasting success, more than ever. He would love a FF1600 return, but his work commitment, and his competitive drive to only tackle the big FF1600 events properly with a pre-event test or race, means he’s unlikely to spend his limited free time in a car soon.

What’s been the highlight so far? Winning in or outside of the car? “I wouldn’t pick a particular moment, but I feel really proud of seeing all the progression the drivers made and I made as a person. That makes me really happy.”

Further reading
Crunching the numbers from F2 and FIA F3 pre-season testing (March 2020)
How ‘incomplete’ Vesti was the class of Formula Regional Europe (October 2019)
The junior single-seater star managing Prema as a summer job (July 2019)
Scout Report: Oscar Piastri (August 2017)