After an agonizingly long and well-publicized 18-month wait to return to racing, Juan Manuel Correa’s first season back has flown by.
He has just driven at Spa for the first time since the 2019 crash that tragically claimed the life of fellow racer Anthoine Hubert and left Correa with serious injuries. The majority of the season has been business as normal for the American, but naturally, Spa felt different.
“It was intense,” he summarises. “I guess that’s the best way of describing it. On top of having the normal race weekend pressures and stress, there was the comeback story looming over the whole weekend.
“The first race start was the toughest. The races weren’t difficult, but I definitely thought about it. In Race 2, I almost crashed there (Eau Rouge), when (Calan Williams and Amaury Cordeel) collided in front of me, and the first thing that I thought about was the accident. I guess that’s part of the process of being there again.
“That’s normal, but it was just one more thing that I had to manage and think about. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but by the end of the weekend, I felt relieved to have gotten through the races and to have done a weekend there. Overall, I’d say that it was positive.”
On his first racing return to the track, Correa’s media duties in Spa were purposefully limited. That emotional chapter has now been closed, though, and with two rounds of the season to go, it feels like a good time to take stock.
The past four months may have made up just a small part of his journey to recovery, but they’re perhaps the most significant in terms of his career.
“I want more, but I always want more,” he asserts. The 22-year-old has nine points so far, with points finishes coming in Barcelona, Le Castellet and Spielberg. “There are still two rounds to go, so I don’t want to conclude my season now and tell you how I feel just yet, but overall, I feel like I’ve accomplished some good things.
“I’ve managed to do the whole season and I’ve managed to get myself back on track at a competitive level. I really feel that the results we’ve been getting don’t do justice to the progress that we’ve made, but I’m mature enough to not really care about that.”
Correa scraped the wall in Qualifying and was unable to set a time during the second run of flying laps, which robbed him of the chance to score points. Given the circumstances, you’d not have blamed Correa for feeling frustrated, but the 22-year-old is pragmatic and remained positive.
“The results were bad in Spa, but I see what’s going on behind the scenes and can still be positive because of that,” he continues. “I was disappointed, yes - I wanted to do well because of the story and because Spa is special, but I’m not too disappointed.
“This year, I’m not looking for results in particular. I know why I’m here and what I have to do. To be honest, I felt pretty good after the weekend. Sometimes I get lost in the process and I forget what I’m coming from, so I think that this was a good weekend to open up the perspective and look back at what I’ve achieved.”
Although minor, Correa’s wrestle with the wall was a reminder of the risks he takes whenever he steps into the car. It’s something that the American says he’s more aware of now.
Since the accident, I’m more aware of the risks that we take. I still take them, but I’m more aware of them.
And torrential rain throughout the weekend ensured these thoughts were never far from his mind.
“The conditions were a bit dangerous, they were sketchy, so you do think about it,” he says. “But that’s something that I think about in general, not just at Spa. Since the accident, I’m more aware of the risks that we take. I still take them, but I’m more aware of them.
“I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but this year I’ve noticed that I’m thinking more in some cases about what could happen. So far this season, it hasn’t hindered my performance.
“My family were with me in Spa. They normally watch every race on the TV, but my mum and dad really wanted to be in Spa. It isn’t easy for them, especially for my mum. My comeback has been challenging for her, but she’s handling it well.
“She is supportive, so I don’t feel guilty in that sense. When you have an accident like I did, it doesn’t only impact the person, or people, involved, it impacts the family. We have all had to recover from this in a way.”
Correa already has one eye on next year. This season was about getting back up to speed, whereas the next will be focused on making up for lost time.
The American chose Formula 3 as it suited his recovery, with his rehabilitation programme far from finished, but after making significant progress with ART Grand Prix, he’s unlikely to stick around for another season.
“I think that even with everything that has been going on, I’ve become a more complete driver and that’s because of ART,” he says. “They’ve helped me to grow and get back to where I need to be.
"I’ve also learned new things that I didn't know before, which I maybe wasn't expecting to do this year. ART know how to teach their drivers out on track, and they know where to look for performance - I’ve learned things that I didn’t know in F2.
I’m really excited for next year because I feel like I’m getting back to 100%, I feel like the old me.
“I’m looking forward now. I’m really excited for next year because I feel like I’m getting back to 100%, I feel like the old me. We started the season chasing something that was really big and really far away and we've really been chasing our tail each weekend, but we have shortened that gap.
“I’m starting to feel really comfortable in the car each race weekend. I’m being more and more efficient each race weekend. I think I can really turn it up again next year, starting from an even playing field at the beginning.”