“It was a really big milestone, a tough week, very emotional, and mentally draining.” Juan Manuel Correa is feeling his way through the complex, raw emotions of his first visit to Spa-Francorchamps since that heart-breaking afternoon in August 2019 which tragically took the life of his fellow racer Anthoine Hubert and left the American driver with serious injuries.
“Like it or not, this place brings a lot of memories,” he explains. “I saw Anthoine's mother, Nathalie, which was tough. On the other hand, it was really positive to face all of these things - to face my demons. I had not been able to do it properly from long distance. Mostly importantly, I wanted to pay a proper tribute to Anthoine.”
Correa suffered severe injuries to his lungs, his spine and his legs in the accident. He was placed in an induced coma for two weeks, and has undergone a number of surgeries since, with more still to come. He has been recovering at home with his family in Miami, but he felt that it was important to return to Belgium, one year on.
By his own admission, he has enjoyed plenty of personal growth in the past 12 months. The fist-bumps, the ear-to-ear smile, and the boyish sense of humour, which were present when he first walked into the F2 paddock 18 months ago, remain. However, he now has a greater sense of perspective, a stronger purpose, and a much calmer, mature demeanour. At just 21-years-old, he has been through experiences “which most people don't get until they are much older, if at all.”
It was really positive to face all of these things - to face my demons. I had not been able to do it properly from long distance.
Correa is relaxed and cheerful, he has a friend by his side, and seems very at ease with life, quite happily opening up on the last 12 months, and everything that is still to come, including what would be an inspiring return to racing.
“I think about it every day,” he continued. “It is something that I have been thinking about every day for the past year. So for me, it is not such a big shock to have these memories come up anymore, not as much as it may be to people who don't necessarily think about it every day. For me, it is something that I have to deal with.
“As a person, I definitely think that I have changed quite a lot. I have grown quite quickly this last year, and it has definitely changed me as a person - mostly in a positive way. I feel calmer and more serene, in a way.”
For now, Correa’s leg remains bolted inside of the thick, chunky black brace which people will have seen on his social media, but he can walk and confirms that he will be having it removed shortly – the next step in his continued road to recovery. On the Thursday of Spa, Correa visited the site of the crash for the first time to pay his respects to Anthoine and to take stock of the past year.
“I came here without any expectations,” said Correa. “I thought to myself, let’s see how it feels. I wasn’t really sure how I would feel – it is difficult to predict. I have never had anything like this happen to me before, so I was not sure how hard it would be, but I think I have managed it well. Most importantly, I am just happy and glad that I came.
“I met Billy Monger, who came and visited me in Hospital, which was a big help. I was so lost at the beginning, and it was very hard to find hope in those first few weeks. Maybe I was a bit pessimistic at first? Even before I saw Billy, just to know his story, and to know that he was able to come back, it gave me a little bit of hope to tell me that I could do this. I can drive a car again - one way or another.
“We have actually kept quite a close relationship ever since he came to visit me. We have been speaking quite a bit in the last few months, and I really hope that I get to see him soon. It is a bit tough with the COVID situation, but he has been a big inspiration.
As a person, I definitely think that I have changed quite a lot. I have grown quite quickly this last year, and it has definitely changed me as a person - mostly in a positive way. I feel calmer and more serene, in a way.
“It has been a big challenge and I am still facing that challenge. I have to deal with it both physically and mentally on a daily basis. I think that when I do come back next year, I will be a much more mature driver.”
That last sentence strikes a chord. It is not if he comes back ¬¬- it is when. The American remains as strong-minded as ever – if not more so. He believes he belongs in the F2 paddock, and not simply as a spectator.
It’s that very thought which has driven him every single day – he has one goal, and that is to return to racing, and to return to the standard he was at previously.
Given his progress in recent months, Correa has even been able to set himself a target of when he feels he will finally be able to clamber back into an F2 car. Post-season testing in Bahrain in December may come too soon for the 21-year-old, but the 2021 season feels realistic to him.
He continued: “Being at home and having only one objective this whole time has helped to keep me motivated, to get me back into a car as quickly as possible. I think that we are getting close to the stage where I will be ready to get back into a car. Thankfully in our sport, your legs don't have to be 100% in order to drive at a 100%, so I am lucky in that sense. I am definitely very comfortable that it will be fine for next season.
“Definitely F2 - this is the category where I feel I belong. I don’t feel that a lot of time has passed, in the sense that I will be able to come back next season and still be quite fresh and bring the things I learned in 2019, to the table. I want to help with the experience that I have, I don't think that I would be like a rookie again. That is where I was in my career as a driver and it is where I want to start off again.”
Correa spent the weekend inside of the PREMA bubble, but he took the time to enjoy a socially distanced visit with his 2019 F2 team, Charouz Racing System. He has also caught up with his friends and rivals from the paddock – there’s not a single person who wasn’t itching to speak to him.
On the Sunday, he was surprised by a poignant moment. The extraction team who pulled Correa from the car a year ago took the time out of their weekend to come to the F2 paddock and meet him.
It was the type of moment which would normally be greeted by a large hug, but due to the COVID restrictions that are currently in place, they settled for a fist bump. It was an extremely warming and emotional reunion. They chatted and took photographs, answered questions, and Correa signed their bibs.
“It was really, really cool to see everyone,” he continued. “Including my old team and my old rivals, who are also my friends. To see it from an outside perspective as a spectator was a good experience and I am really happy that I got to see a lot of these people who are like my second family. I definitely did not feel like I was fully at home, at home in Miami. I was missing this, and I was missing the paddock.”
He’s watched every race of the season so far from Miami, but saw it from much closer quarters in Spa, watching on from the Italian team’s pitwall. It reminded him – not that he needed it – that this is where he belongs.
Being at home and having only one objective this whole time has helped to keep me motivated, to get me back into a car as quickly as possible.
“For sure, it was weird to see them racing in front of me, and not being in the car, but it is something that I’ve had to do all year long. I have been watching them from a distance and I have been keeping up with all of the races. It is something that I have come to accept - it is what it is.
“I don't feel like it stresses me out anymore to watch them, I know that I will not be driving this season. I have been trying to learn a bit if I can by watching, with full focus on next year.”
Following Spa, he travelled to France for a training camp and has more operations scheduled in the coming months. True to his fighting spirits, he will do whatever is necessary to go racing again.