Testing with ART Grand Prix for the first time, Juan Manuel Correa enjoyed both an inspirational and a successful return to the Road to F1, with the Ecuadorian-American getting up to speed more swiftly than he expected to.

Stepping into a car for just the third time since the crash in Spa-Francorchamps that tragically took the life of fellow racer Anthoine Hubert 18 months ago, Correa initially headed to Spielberg for the first official tests of the 2021 F3 season with the aim of getting miles under his belt, but he left with some valuable data and a few key modifications to the car.

Running 158 laps in total across the two-day test, Correa set the 18th fastest time overall and said that he was “closer to the pace” than he expected.

“The first feelings were really good,” said Correa after the test. “I could immediately feel that it is quite similar to how the F2 car drives. It has quite a lot of downforce. I think that throughout the two days I was actually a bit closer to the pace than I was expecting to be, so that was a positive, although there are still quite a lot of things to work on.

Throughout the two days I was actually a bit closer to the pace than I was expecting to be

“We did some tests, which we were not expecting to do because we thought that it would take a bit longer for me to get back into a rhythm with the car and learn the car. But we have already been able to make some changes to the car because my feedback was pretty good.

“ART have been great. They know this car very well. They know how it behaves, what changes do what, and that has been really good because it allowed me to focus on myself. I’m also lucky to have two very good teammates (Frederik Vesti and Alex Smolyar) who always gave me a good reference and it meant that I could compare myself with some of the quickest guys out there.”

READ MORE: How Correa has been gearing up for a return to racing

Correa ran 158 laps and set the 18th fastest time overall

Sporting an Anthoine Hubert tribute on his helmet, Correa’s recovery from the accident has received plenty of positive attention from across the world, and the 21-year-old wanted to thank both fans and the media for their support over the past 18-months.

“I have loved the media attention that I have been getting,” he said. “Usually, I am not really a big media guy, but the support from everyone has been incredible. I was looking at the messages on Friday when we released the video of my helmet and it was crazy. I feel that people are genuinely happy for me and that’s a great feeling.

“It was nice to get behind the wheel, do what I need to do, take away all of the distractions, and start finally working on the season. It has been a long time coming for me, so it was a great feeling to be out there.”

For all of the positivity surrounding his return to action and the speed in which he got to grips with F3 machinery, the 21-year-old admitted that he was left frustrated on occasion while on track.

WATCH: Your first look at the F3 grid at pre-season testing in Spielberg

Correa was stepping into a car for just the third time since the crash in Spa

Although he doesn’t require any adaptations to his car, Correa felt that his continued rehabilitation and physical limitations left some time to be desired around the Red Bull Ring, but he remained optimistic that he can recover it.

“This was always going to be a big challenge, especially with the physical limitations that I have,” he continued. “I think that it was (physically) harder than I expected, but it took me less time to get on the pace than I imagined and that’s why I’m so positive overall.

This is a small challenge compared to the other challenges that I have faced

“The main places where I was losing time were due to my physical limitations more than anything, which starts to get frustrating because there is time there, but you can’t do anything about it. That’s not easy. I was losing at least three tenths a lap due to not being able to brake properly in the big braking zones.

“I don’t think that I will be 100% for the first race, but that’s something that I’ll have to deal with and manage. It is just one more challenge and after everything that I have accomplished and done in this last year and a half, this is a small challenge compared to the other challenges that I have faced.”

READ MORE: ‘I’m already in a little family’ – Smolyar ready to reap the rewards of a second season with ART Grand Prix

Correa was sporting an Anthoine Hubert tribute on his helmet

Following a final pre-season test at Barcelona later this month, the 2021 campaign will officially kick off on 7-9 May at the same venue and Correa says he’s got plenty of training work to do after a few days rest.

“I will keep working with my rehabilitation team and my physical trainers. Overall, I think that it was very positive. I am going to have to take a few days of recovery first because my legs are very, very sore and I have to be careful not to overwork them.

“After a few days we will keep on grinding with the rehab, trying to strengthen that left leg for braking and just keep on working on the training programme that we have been doing up until now.”