There were few grins on the grid as large as Juan Manuel Correa’s after the Baku Sprint Race on Sunday afternoon, as the American from Sauber Junior Team by Charouz was drowned in champagne by race winner Nicholas Latifi and third place finisher Jack Aitken. Eyes closed as he popped the cork of his own bottle, Correa couldn’t hide his delight when they reopened: he had just become the first rookie in this year’s group to secure a podium spot, finishing in 2nd place.
The 19-year-old stepped up to F2 from GP3 this season and scored his first points in the Championship in Saturday’s Feature Race. The 7th placed finish secured him P2 on the Sprint Race reverse grid and he more than held his own.
“Awesome,” Correa elated when asked how he was feeling. That’s not to say it was comfortable for the Alfa Romeo F1 development driver, who reflected: “It was a tough race and I had a bit of an issue with the breaks in the first few laps: I think I overheated them and that was why Nick Latifi managed to pull away so much at the beginning - it did not feel comfortable at all.
“I kind of got into a rhythm, but I still had a problem in the breaks and it took about six laps for them to be okay. I managed them okay and even without being fully comfortable in the car, I still had decent pace - decent enough to keep the guys behind me.
“When the first safety car came in, it was actually a relief for me, just to get the breaks back on track and get everything reset a little bit.”
The rookie even appeared to make a daring lunge on Latifi’s P1 position during a race restart on Sunday. The DAMS driver was forced onto the defensive and nearly kissed the tyre of Correa as he fought the position.
It was an impressive move, albeit one that he couldn’t make stick, and Latifi himself commented on the attempted overtake, saying: “I’d rather not go through another one of those restarts.”
During the post Sprint Race press conference, Correa admitted that the attack was not entirely intentional, explaining: “In the first restart I was not meaning to send him down the inside, but I saw the other guys coming down my inside and it was either that or get crashed into from behind, so it was tricky, really tricky.
“In the end, I am happy with how it turned out obviously. I think Nick had a bit more pace than me and probably most of the other people in the field today and it was quite difficult to stay with him, but my pace compared to the guys behind was fine so I am happy about that.”
Still an infant at this level, Correa knows that he lacks the experience of the weekend’s race winners, Latifi and Aitken. The duo have a combined 76 starts at this level, whereas Correa was enjoying just his fourth race in F2 and spoke of his struggle at times to get the most out of his tyres and breaks.
“It was not easy and there was a lot of pressure,” Correa continued. “Instead of outright pace, it is experience that helps quite a bit with how you manage the tyre temperatures and the break temperatures in the restarts.
“Each time in the restarts I felt like I did not have the car up to 100%, so that was why I was feeling a bit uncomfortable in the first few laps, but once we got into a rhythm I was fine, so that is the only thing and I guess I will start learning from that as I get more experience.”
Following his exploits in Baku, Correa sits sixth in the standings, on 18 points, while Sauber Junior Team by Charouz have moved up to seventh. Having lapped up the luxury taste of champagne and glory in Baku, Correa and his team will be hoping to impress further during Round 3 in Barcelona, in under two weeks’ time.