For Juan Manuel Correa, returning to the grid this season was achievement in and of itself. Continuing his recovery from the serious injuries he sustained during the 2019 crash in Spa that tragically claimed the life of fellow racer Anthoine Hubert, the American opted to remain in Formula 3 for a second campaign.
He undoubtedly meant business in the #9 ART Grand Prix car, hungrier and more determined than ever to be in the hunt for silverware.
“My main goal was to improve quite a bit compared to the 2021 season and keep an upward trend going through the year,” Correa said.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect in terms of results because 2021 was quite up and down. At some points, I felt like maybe this year I could be fighting for the top five in the Championship. I was focusing more on just improving and feeling more comfortable within myself and I think in that sense it was a very positive year for me.”
Unfortunately, whilst his 2022 campaign began successfully in Sakhir with P9 and P4 finishes, he was forced to deal with a huge setback – fracturing his left foot during the opening weekend. As a result, he was absent from the second in-season testing event in Barcelona, alongside with missing the second round in Imola, a situation which Correa admits had a negative snowball effect on the rest of his year and halted his progression up the order.
“The opening round was very positive, and we were very strong as a team as well, so that made things easier. I think that set a good benchmark for us, but at the same time, during the Feature Race I fractured my foot. I didn’t immediately know that it was fractured, so I kind of brushed it under the carpet and hoped for it to be just some strange pain.
“It actually ended up having a huge impact on the season. I think it put us on the backfoot for the rest of the year, which was a shame because looking at how the season started it was strong.
“It was very, very challenging because in a Championship where you get to drive so little, every kilometre is important. Every set of new tyres you can put laps on raises your level, so to miss four testing days and a whole race weekend is far from ideal. Then you kind of lose that momentum and when I came back in Barcelona, the other guys were already on this upward trend.”
On his return in Barcelona, Correa instantly faced unfavourable odds. Firstly, he needed to run a soft brake pump, with its performance disadvantage, due to his injury not being fully healed and secondly, facing the prospect of relearning the car after a nearly three-month absence.
“I decided to take the risk of doing the race even if there was a small chance that the foot could refracture,” he confessed. “The round actually went better than we expected, and I managed to compensate for the fact that I didn’t test there like the rest of the grid. The lack of mileage was felt more in the rounds following Barcelona, as the momentum was not really there anymore so we had to build it up again.”
Progress seemed to come through in steady bursts, but trophies still remained elusive as the Championship approached its second half and a chance at victory slipped out of his fingers in the Spielberg Sprint Race. Getting the run in on Caio Collet, Correa snatched the lead on the opening lap before his efforts were undone five laps later, as the ART car trundled to a halt.
A second shot at victory in Spa-Francorchamps was derailed after contact early on in the Sprint Race – two experiences which he explains were hard to endure, as he found a mindset to carry him through.
It was a tough pill to swallow because I was desperate for a result by that stage.
"Even if I didn’t have a clear goal results-wise for the year, my expectations were to score a few podiums at least and hopefully a couple of wins. The fact that once three quarters of the season was done and I still didn’t have a podium put some pressure on me. There were a lot of people behind me that were counting on those results, and I knew that I had to get the job done.
“To get it taken away by a technical issue really sucked. It was a similar feeling to Spa when I had the touch with Zak O’Sullivan – it's like maybe I’m just unlucky.
“You have to process it; you cannot just block it out and act like that pressure is not there because we always have pressure from one thing on another. We need to learn to manage it and, in my case, when I’m feeling more pressure than usual and feel like it’s having an effect on me, I put all that energy into focusing on the process. That’s where you can’t go wrong, you have to shift the focus from the result to the process and let the results come as they are.”
His mature outlook paid off at the penultimate round in Zandvoort. Fighting hard throughout the Sprint Race, his efforts were rewarded with an emotional maiden podium. The moment brought tears to the eyes of many inside the paddock and to the scores of fans in the crowd who had supported him throughout the past three years and proved to be a fitting swansong for Correa’s journey in the Championship.
“It was still not an easy weekend. I felt like the podium was a long time coming, but I really had to fight for it. It felt great to get the result and to see how happy a lot of people were for me really meant a lot – I would have liked to have had more of those moments.
“It was a positive season internally, seeing the progress that I made in myself and the feeling I got throughout the season. When I compare where I was at the beginning to where I am now at the end of it, it has been a positive season. For sure, the results weren’t what I wanted, I had to fight a lot to get results.
“It didn’t really come easy for me and that has been a bit of a trend for me in F3. I don’t know exactly why that it, but I feel like I have never been super comfortable in the car and I’m always having to adjust myself to drive the car as efficiently as possible. Not feeling comfortable forces you to adapt and become more fluid and I think that has probably been one of my biggest improvements this year – making the most out of what I have and being efficient.
Perhaps Correa’s time in F3 hasn’t been the trophy-laden fairy-tale experience he was dreaming of. Yet it is no less of a success, leaving a lasting mark on the 23-year-old – a story of defiance, fearlessness and fortitude in the face of adversity and one that he intends to continue as he begins to write a new chapter in his life.
“When I see now the level that I’m at, I’m pretty pleased. I’m just a bit sad as I know my time in F3 is finished. I just wish I could have had a bigger result to finish up higher in the Championship, but it just wasn’t meant to be, I guess,” he reflected.
I started at almost ground zero after the accident and I had to reinvent myself as a driver.
"It has been a hard process, it’s not easy to restart at this stage of your career, especially at this level as it’s so unforgiving. I’ve said since last year, F3 has to be the hardest and most competitive category that I’ve ever raced in because the gaps are so small, there’s 30 cars and there’s quite a few strong teams.
“It’s a category where even to qualify inside the top 10, you really have to work for it and do the job, which makes it really intense. So, to develop and to grow as a driver, which is what I had to do, is very good but it’s very painful as well because you lose most of the time.
“It has been interesting. In many ways, I developed very quickly and got back to a very high level fast, other things took a longer time than I expected. Now after two years, I really feel as one. I’ve squeezed everything I can learn out of F3 and it’s time to take the next step.”