Saturday’s Sprint Race wasn’t Juan Manuel Correa’s first time at the Baku rodeo. Having already seen all that the Azerbaijani circuit had to offer in 2019, the Van Amersfoort Racing driver said he knew the exact approach he needed to take to get through the chaos unscathed and ultimately bring home points.
Starting down in P15, the beginning of the race didn’t signal anything special for Correa, but his day flipped on its head courtesy of the final restart with three laps to go. As the leading cars tangled and six cars ahead were eliminated at Turn 1, the American driver found himself promoted to P6.
After adding three points to his Championship tally, Correa reflected how the race evolved from inside the #23 VAR car.
“Well, we could write a book about that race. It was classic Baku race I must say. We didn’t have the best start or first few laps; I was struggling with a bit of pace initially. Then the car started coming to me and the pace got good. We basically put pressure on Isack (Hadjar) and Roman (Stanek) who were in front of me, we were P15 at that stage.
“We survived through the first two Safety Cars and then Roy (Nissany) had the crash. We gained the position to be P14 and our pace was getting better, so I thought I was going to be able to make some passes towards the end of the race after the last restart.
“But I also knew I had to keep it clean at the last restart because I’ve been here before and sure enough, all chaos came out. All of a sudden, I found myself P6 coming out of the first corner, so I was pretty happy about that. Then, we just finished the race under Safety Car. I’m obviously pleased with three points; I think we need to do some work for the race tomorrow because our pace initially was not strong enough.”
Instrumental to Correa’s result was his ability to manage the risk versus reward. Having already seen his teammate Richard Verschoor, Zane Maloney and Ralph Boschung all eliminated in the opening stages, he admitted that the track’s punishing nature and no room for error led him to tread with caution.
“I think your approach has to change a bit. Otherwise, you’re basically playing with fire and it’s a matter of time until you end up in the wall. I think you see that a bit more with the rookies. They have this kind of killer mentality on the restarts and sometimes it can go really well for you, but many times you’ll end up in the wall.
“At least in my case, I know my mentality was more keep it clean, obviously be aggressive and opportunistic, but no mistakes. That will be my approach tomorrow as well, it’s an even longer race. There’s a pit stop, so strategy comes into the loop as well. I don’t see a reason why with good pace and being smart, we can’t get into the points again.”
Whilst satisfied to come away with a reward for his efforts, the opening seven races have seen Correa struggle to put together consistent results. On paper, Free Practice performances aren’t always indicative of a driver’s potential that weekend. However, the American driver believes his difficulties in the opening 45 minutes of running have been the decisive factor in hampering his performances so far.
“We’re starting the weekend on the backfoot with really poor Free Practices. We tend to make a decent step up in Qualifying, but not enough. In this Championship, with the amount of driving we have, every push lap is accounted for and if our push laps in Free Practice are a few seconds off, then the step we need to in Qualifying is too big.
“I think it’s really a matter of getting a package that I can feel comfortable with in Free Practice, that suits me better, than we’re more competitive with and then having a clean weekend from a higher baseline than where we’re starting.”
Considering his issues with pace during the opening phase of the Sprint Race, Correa’s banking on a much more straightforward affair in the Feature Race. With 29 laps and both the Pirelli supersoft and medium tyres to play with, he’s optimistic that the potential is there to carve his way back up into the points again.
“I think it has to do with the setup and how aggressive our car is on the tyres. At the moment, it takes too long for the tyres to switch on. I’m sure if it was a 100-lap race, we would be very fast at the end, but it’s not.
He added: “With the Safety Cars and restarts, everybody has a chance to cool down the tyres and that actually hinders us more than benefits us, which is not what we want. We will have to make a more aggressive car for tomorrow and then if there’s no Safety Cars, we will have a bit more deg towards the end, but I can manage that.
“I would expect it to be a bit calmer, the Sprint Race is always a bit crazier. Baku is a very particular track with long straights and low downforce, so everything tends to cool down. It’s very easy to restart and lock-up like we saw. That’s sort of the characteristic of the track and I’m sure a lot of people have learned from it today and they’ll be better tomorrow, but most likely we will still get one or two Safety Cars.”