It’s been two years since Juan Manuel Correa collided with Anthoine Hubert in the Spa Formula 2 race. The accident had tragic consequences: Hubert died in the crash, Correa was seriously injured. But now he’s daring to make a comeback. At the weekend he starts in Formula 3 in Barcelona – against David Schumacher, among others. We spoke to the US boy beforehand about the accident and his return to the racetrack.
Mr. Correa, a year and a half after the terrible accident at Spa, you will return in 2021 and drive in Formula 3. How does it feel to be back in the car?
Juan Manuel Correa (21): It’s great to be able to live the racing driver’s life again. A bit surreal, because for me it always seemed such a distant goal to get back into the racing car. There were so many question marks. The biggest: Am I physically fit enough with my injuries to be able to accelerate and brake? Seeing that I can seek the limit again is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. The last year and a half has been one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever faced. To have climbed this mountain now makes me proud. But my challenge doesn’t end when I’m back in the racing car, but only when I’ve made it into Formula 1.
How much are you still affected?
I will have handicaps all my life because of irreparable damage to my legs. Above all, my right ankle is destroyed, which is why my mobility is limited – and that doesn’t get any better, but probably even worsens over time. Fortunately, I’m fit enough to be able to accelerate again. I can only move my right foot slightly, but that’s enough for the accelerator. However, I cannot yet apply the braking pressure that I would like to apply. So I’m still losing a bit of lap time. But I believe that with practice, I’ll be able to do these things.
What were the toughest moments in the rehab phase?
The first months. In the beginning my life hung by a thread. It really looked like I was going to die for a while – because of my lungs, but also because of my legs. Saving the right leg was very risky. A doctor thought it better to amputate it. Still, the toughest moment was when I got back to Miami – back to normal life. In the hospital you are in your own bladder. But when you’re thrown back into real life and have to learn to deal with your limitations, it’s tough. It took me a few months to get out of this hole and find the motivation to work on my comeback.
How many surgeries have you had?
I had two fractures of the vertebrae, T6 and T7. My organs were also damaged: my heart was full of water, my liver was broken, my lungs collapsed four days after the accident. I then fell into a coma for weeks. Of course, my legs were also badly damaged. On the left, the doctors inserted a titanium plate the day after my accident. It’s not 100 percent yet, but it’s okay. But the right leg was what got hit really hard. The bottom ten centimeters were shattered. The doctors practically formed a new ankle from the leftover bones. An amputation would have been easier, also with regard to the rehabilitation phase afterwards. But I really wanted to be able to depress the gas pedal again.
Aren’t you afraid of a new accident?
Now yes. I never had that before the accident. Of course you have heard the stories of Senna, Bianchi and Co. But you always believe that that can never happen to you. There are also new safety measures every year and you suppress the fact that you are putting your life on the line in this sport. Now, after the accident, I am more aware of the risks because I have experienced them firsthand. But amazingly, that didn’t create any fear. When I’m in the car, I feel like I’m in control. The adrenaline is like a drug.
How could racing be made even safer?
There is no such thing as one hundred percent security in our sport. But I’m not one of the drivers who complained when the halo (cockpit bar; d. Red.) Was introduced – on the grounds that the sport must remain dangerous. This is bullshit. People who say that have never had an accident like me. I am grateful for all the security measures over the past 20 years. Otherwise I would be dead.
How did the accident change your approach to life?
It changed my approach to life more than it did to my career. It is a life experience to be so close to death, to experience so much pain, to undergo so many surgeries, to be at such a low point. This will help you understand what is really important in life. Most of us let so many little things determine our everyday lives. We don’t enjoy what we have. That has changed for me. I enjoy every little detail so much more. My situation made it necessary for me to think of alternatives for my life if I can’t get back into the racing car. Before the accident, I couldn’t imagine how a lawyer could be happy in his life. It was clear to me: If you are not a Formula 1 driver, then you cannot be happy in your life. Now I understand how stupid it is to think that way. And that gives me freedom because I know that I have a lot of options in life.
Last year you were in Spa for the anniversary of the accident. How did you experience the visit?
It was very emotional. The first time I saw Nathalie, Anthoine’s mother, was very tough. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Anthoine or the accident. It’s part of my life. So when I got to Spa it wasn’t a big deal for me anymore. I faced it for a whole year. But for the people around me, it stirred up loads of memories that they hadn’t previously faced. I felt that.
Are you still in contact with Anthoine Hubert’s family?
Yes. Here and there we write to each other. I think they are happy for me. You understand why I am returning. Their son was a racing driver and they know who we are. Anthoine would do the same in my position. He was also very ambitious and a hard worker. His mum wrote to me, congratulated me. I showed her my helmet design, which will feature an Anthoine sticker on the front and back. She also knows my ART team, because Anthoine has also ridden for the team once.
Did you ever analyze the accident?
Often. I remember everything. I’ve known since the day after the accident that it wasn’t my fault. So I don’t feel guilty, which helps me a lot mentally. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time at the wrong time. The only thing that was hard for me to accept: Why did Anthoine get it and not me? What gives me the right to live and what gives him the right to live? It also led me deeper to the question of the meaning of life. I haven’t found the answer to that yet.
What memories do you have of the accident exactly?
I remember the crash, the impact. I remember trying to heave myself out of the car with my own hands. I also remember that if I had had a gun on hand at that moment, I would have shot myself – just to stop this pain. So when the paramedics came, I asked them straight away to go to sleep. I also remember their faces when they looked at my legs. That’s when I knew it didn’t look good.
When did you find out that Anthoine had died?
In the hospital. The police involved in the death told me the morning after. After that I broke down mentally. But I felt beforehand that something bad had happened because in the hospital they took down all the TV sets that were in my room.
Did you have contact with racing drivers with similar accidents – like Billy Monger?
Yes, I was in close contact with Billy Monger. He also visited me at the hospital in London. His story is closest to mine. His comeback in racing gave me a lot of hope at the beginning. My main concern was that my legs would be amputated. Seeing him living his life and racing again gave me hope because I knew that even in the worst case scenario it won’t be easy, but you can come back and be happy again. That was mentally important.
What is your goal for the 2021 Formula 3 season? You’re driving against David Schumacher, among others …
Beating David Schumacher is my only goal (laughs). No, my main goal is to get through the season without any medical problems with my legs. Getting through the season without major incidents. And slowly I want to become the driver I used to be again. But it will be a long way and I will approach it patiently.
You were also Mick Schumacher’s team-mate. How do you rate his Formula 1 career so far?
I was his team-mate in Formula 4, we know each other well. I’m happy for him. It’s great for me to see that drivers I’ve raced against and defeated are now successful in Formula 1 or elsewhere. That gives us drivers in Formula 3 and Formula 2 enormous confirmation. The level in racing is getting higher from generation to generation. I hope Mick will get a good cockpit soon because that is the key to his career. With a top team he can win the world championship. He’s very talented, he’s very focused. It’s great for Formula 1 and for Germany.