Juan Manuel Correa’s voice has a notable spring to it. The Ecuadorian-American’s road to recovery has been extremely testing. It’s required unimaginable levels of patience and determination and he is the first to admit that despite his constant positivity, a return to racing always felt “so far away.” But that inspirational comeback now stands on the brink of becoming a reality.
ART Grand Prix will become Correa’s home for the 2021 season, with the French team announcing the 21-year-old in one of their Formula 3 seats. After 16 months away from a car, he’s now just a month away from his first F3 test.
Having recently returned to Europe, Correa has based himself in Barcelona and is stepping up his rehabilitation and beginning his training programme for the 2021 campaign.
“We spoke just after Spa last year and a lot has happened since then,” Correa recalled. “Since then, everything has been dedicated to trying to get back into a race car. The whole thing is an adventure, but I am feeling pretty good about it. I am super excited and super motivated to start, so I guess those are two good signs.”
The weekend Correa spent in Spa-Francorchamps last year was his only real respite in what has been an intense period, which began with the removal of the leg brace that he had been living with for the past 14 months. A metal rod was then inserted into the bone in his leg, which Correa says has sped up the process and will help him to return sooner.
“I felt kind of naked when I got that first taken off,” he laughed. “The process was not easy, I must say. I had to have surgery to have the metal put inside and it was a pretty painful and stressful month or so during that process. I am happy I did it though. And, I can wear normal clothes now, which is probably the best thing about this!
The whole thing is an adventure, but I am feeling pretty good about it.
“I am pretty free to put weight on the leg and I can basically do whatever I want, as long as the pain allows it. Since then, it has just been a lot of hard rehab. I am walking a bit already without any help and I am walking quite big distances with the help of a crutch, so I am slowly regaining a sort of normal life.”
It’s Correa’s single-mindedness that has gotten him to this point so soon. Walking back into the paddock and clambering into a car once more is the only motivation he’s needed.
Initially looking at a return to F2, Correa’s eagerness to get back has not clouded his judgement. He’s happy to play the long game and is realistic in what he can expect from himself.
“There are a few reasons why I went with F3 in the end,” he began to explain. “Number one, because of the length of the season: it starts a bit later and finishes earlier and that gives me more of a buffer in case I need any other procedures.
“Secondly, because of the teams in F2. To get a top seat was virtually impossible for me, whereas in F3 I had this amazing opportunity with ART.”
Correa has flirted with ART in the past. His relationship with Team Principal Sébastien Phillipe stretches back to before his injuries, while he also knows team owner Frédéric Vasseur through his connections with the Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team.
“They weren’t the only team who I contacted to return to racing, but they were definitely the ones who believed in me the most,” he said. “Well, Seb thought I was crazy at first! He thought I meant 2022 and he laughed when I replied ‘no, no, no… this year.’ But he took the time to meet with me and let me explain why it was possible. He believes in me and that means the world to me.
“We also cannot forget the pedigree that the team has. They were arguably the most successful team in GP3. It is a top team and the environment is amazing. I know some of the people there and in the end, it was a no brainer.
“I need to approach it with an open mind, which I always did even before the accident, but even more so now. There are a lot of unknowns and I have to be patient with myself. The team will have to be patient with me as well and they know that - we are in this adventure together now.”
The deal might be done and the ink now dry, but Correa is under no illusions as to just how much work remains. As well as the recovery and rehabilitation from his injuries, he still needs to fit in a full pre-season training programme.
Social media doesn’t always tell the full story when it comes to a drivers’ life, but Correa’s is pretty accurate. The 21-year-old has spent almost the entirety of his time training and it’s evident from the footage he posts online.
Seb thought I was crazy at first! But he let me explain why it was possible. He believes in me and that means the world to me.
He knows that so many unknowns remain and admits he isn’t sure how he will react mentally when he sets foot into the car once again. It’s that type of realism which will put him a step ahead, it’s driven him to leave no stone unturned.
“In a way, it feels kind of surreal still because of everything that has been going on,” he continued. “But I know my own body very well by now and I know what my legs can do. I am pretty confident that it will not be an issue at all to drive a race car.
“There is still some work to do physically, although I have kept up with that as much as I could do in the wheelchair. I was very dedicated and always thinking of this moment. I didn’t allow myself to just sit on the couch all day or leave it all until the last minute.
“Then there is the mental aspect, which we are working on too. We are working on the things that we can work on, both physiological and cognitive, including my reactions and everything like that. There is a big unknown though because I do not know what it will feel like to drive again after what happened, and after such a long time.”
Correa does not expect that his car will need any major adaptations or alternations, although says he may require one or two very minor adjustments to ensure his comfort, as much as anything.
ART will give Correa the time and space to develop. His immediate return will not be results driven and the team understand that, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be putting pressure on himself to perform.
“There is the challenge that I have been inactive for a year and a half, so I have got to get up to speed,” he continued. “I think that another challenge that most people wouldn’t think of, is that it is going to be the first time that I am racing for a top team in a while.
“I loved my time with Charouz and Jenzer Motorsport. I loved the people and they were amazing to work with, but ART have a history of winning races and titles at this level. So yeah, I think that will be a challenge for me. I will have to learn how to work with such a team and adapt to a new environment, but that is a positive thing. We will see, I am just super happy and super excited.”
More than anything, he just misses the adrenaline rush.
“I think the pure feeling of going fast,” he elated. “That adrenaline rush is something that I have been missing this past year and a half, yeah.
“I also miss - as I have said in previous interviews - the lifestyle. I miss the pressure building up before the season and everything that goes with it. I feel that I am back doing what I love.”