As Juan Manuel Correa begins his preparations for 2022, one thing is certain in his mind: he wants silverware. After a rehabilitative rookie year in Formula 3, he now feels he’ll be starting on a level playing field with his peers, and he doesn’t want to spend it in the midfield.
Appearing in two out of three days of post-season testing in Valencia, the 22-year-old is seriously considering a second year of F3, with the pathway into a top Formula 2 team proving tricky and a full-time move away from European racing almost certainly off the cards.
“I don’t think many people know that I am actually thinking about staying another year in F3 and fighting for the title,” he says. “At the moment, that looks like probably my best option. There is nothing confirmed at the moment, and I have nothing on paper, but my two options are a top F2 team or a top F3 team.”
Relaxed and in good spirits after an up-and-down rookie season that ultimately didn’t meet the high standards he sets himself, the positives still far outweighed the negatives for the Sauber junior, who has already switched his attention to 2022.
I have nothing on paper, but my two options are a top F2 team or a top F3 team.
The American’s progress is several steps ahead of where he projected following the earlier than expected end to the season in Sochi. He was able to bring forward surgery and recover in time to take part in testing, having a nail removed from his right leg that had been supporting the bone but was no longer required.
“I don’t want to say that it was a good thing because I wanted to drive in Austin, but I think that it was good because it meant that we didn’t have to wait long,” says Correa. “And now I am able to have this conversation with you with a clear idea of what I am doing next year, which wouldn't have been the case if we had done Austin.
“I have at least a couple more surgeries. I need to have the same surgery on my left leg as I had on my right, and then I will have surgery to flatten the big lump on my right leg, but that is more aesthetic.
“I am looking at possible treatments and surgeries to keep on improving my leg and ankle mobility, mainly to reduce my pain. I really do not enjoy having pain on a daily basis. It becomes really annoying and makes you tired, so I will be looking into what we can do.”
After spending the year living in Barcelona, Correa is looking to potentially move to London where he could work closely with specialists in England to that aim.
Due to the pain, everything requires that much more effort, so any reduction would be greatly welcomed, even if the American believes his mentality means he’s well equipped to deal with that particular hurdle.
“It would be very easy to think why am doing this?” he continues. “I feel pain pretty much every step I take. Sometimes it is very manageable, and it doesn't bother me, but many other times it is very painful and very annoying. I am not able to have a fully normal life. I have to manage. It feels like I have a certain number of steps that I can take per day.
“I could just lay in bed and play video games all day, but I think, in that case, I am one of the best people to have this issue because I have never been one to lie down in a challenge. The way I have approached this has kind of been like a game. It sounds weird because it is not a game, it is my leg, it is my life, but I see it as a challenge. If someone says I cannot do something, then I will do it.
The way I have approached this has kind of been like a game...I see it as a challenge. If someone says I cannot do something, then I will do it.
“The doctors said I could not go back to racing, I did it. If someone says I am not going to be able to ride my bike for 60km, I will do it for 65km. I will have fun with it, even if there is pain. It takes a bit more energy to do normal things and to train, but I have always had more than enough energy to do the things that I wanted, so it isn't a problem.”
Things are definitely getting easier, though. The American laughs that he’s now able to “take a pee standing up,” a task most people take for granted, but for Correa, a year ago it was impossible. He also enjoyed a summer break in Ibiza and walked during the entire vacation.
No step is too small, no improvement is taken for granted, each and every one is a victory.
“Looking at all of the things that could have gone wrong for me this season, and where I could be right now, I have to be thankful that I finished the season without any big issues,” he continues. “The thing that I am most pleased about is how I feel right now. I feel that I will be able to start next season on a more level playing field and that is good.”
After a promising start to the season that saw him score four top 10 finishes in the opening three rounds, Correa then went three without scoring a point, only getting back into the top 10 in the final event at Russia.
Having targeted at least a podium, it’s not where Correa wanted to be from a performance point of view, with his return to the cockpit proving trickier than he initially anticipated.
"At the beginning, I was thinking I have been off for a year and a half, but I know that I am mega quick. I know that I am talented, and I have been able to drive these cars before and be fast in all of them, so I thought that it wasn't going to be a problem and that as soon as I got my physical issues sorted, I would be back to where I was, but no. I was very, very wrong about that.
“I am not going to say that I started from scratch because of course that is not the case. One cannot start from scratch and end up qualifying P5 at the end of the year in F3, but it was really shocking in the beginning how many things I had to get used to and learn again.
“It really took a long time to get the feeling and the taste for driving a car again. How to be fast, how to drive in a primitive way and how to use my instincts again. Honestly, after so long not driving, I kind of forgot how to use my instincts. I had to get that back again. It was tough, I can tell you. The driver that I was, not even in January, but in February, March, April, there is no comparison between him and me right now.”
Results may not have shown it, but Correa’s progress both in and out of the car followed an upward curve all season and he’s confident that if he does remain in F3, then he can show that.
Having initially eyed promotion into F2, Correa’s had to shift his expectations with the driver market looking increasingly crowded.
The driver that I was, not even in January, but in February, March, April, there is no comparison between him and me right now.
“Nobody knows who is going to win the championship, so no one knows who is staying and who is leaving and that makes it very difficult for people from F3 to go up to F2, like in my case, I am the perfect example.
“There might be a chance in a month or two months that a good spot in F2 opens up and I’m asked if I want it, but I cannot risk that because if it doesn't happen, then I’ll end up without a good spot in F3 either, so I have to kind of make a decision right now. I would rather be fighting for wins and podiums in F3, than be P-nowhere in F2. That has been the dilemma.
“If I do end up staying in F3, then I will do a few races in another championship as well because the schedule is pretty light, and right now, I feel like I still need more mileage than most people. Maybe some endurance, some LMP2, I definitely want a fast car.”
Racing isn’t the only thing on his list of priorities, however. After giving two and a half years of his life to his recovery and return to competitive action, he’s ready for a touch of normality.
For the sake of his mental health, Correa recognises the need to start living life outside of racing once again and he feels that his rehabilitation is now at a stage that will allow that.
“As well as my training, there will still be rehab going on at the same time too,” he says. “I need to keep maintaining my legs, or else the pain and the inflammation get worse, so I cannot just let the rehab go because then I’ll end up needing a crutch again. I need to find the balance between training and how much rehab I need to stay in a good window with my leg.
“In my personal life, I would like to have more of a life next year. I feel like the last two and a half years I have been living in a jail of my own choosing, because all I do is rehab, train, sleep, work, drive. Everything revolves around this, and I am starting to feel the mental toll that is taking. I am a bit tired, and I feel like I am in a bit of a cage, so I need to find a bit of a balance next year, that is one of my goals.”