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  • Writer's pictureEllie Mae

Juan Manuel Correa: his story in his own words

Having first set foot in a kart professionally in 2008, American-Ecuadorian racing driver Juan Manuel Correa is nothing short of a hero. Since the accident at Spa-Francorchamps in the 2019 Formula 2 feature race which sent shockwaves through the entire motorsport community, JM has been on the road to recovery both mentally and physically.


Now back on the grid in both Formula 2 with Van Amersfoort Racing and the World Endurance Championship with PREMA, JM has reclimbed the ladder to return to the sport he loves and has dedicated his life to.


Four years on since the accident that changed his life forever, this is Juan Manuel Correa’s story in his own words.


 

Saturday 31st August, 2019. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Stavelot, Belgium.


One of the dullest days in motorsport.


The loss of a friend and almost the loss of his own life.





On the second lap of the Formula 2 feature race, upon the exit of Eau Rouge and heading towards the Kemmel Straight, an accident involving Anthoine Hubert, Juan Manuel Correa and Giuliano Alesi brought out the red flag and subsequently abandoned the race.


For JM, the accident and the few days after all happened very quickly. Sustaining a broken spine, a fractured left leg and a shattered right leg, he spent four days in hospital in Belgium. However, what happened next unfolded too quickly for JM to process; his lungs began to deteriorate and he was flown into London. On arrival in the English capital, he was put into an induced coma. He had developed acute respiratory distress syndrome.


“Once I came out of the coma, it was more about understanding what had happened, accepting it and dealing with the shock and trauma it had caused,” JM says. “I had to make a lot of very important decisions on what I wanted to do next in terms of amputating my leg or not, or going for the risky surgeries.


“It was all a little bubble in the hospital of survival.”


JM’s recovery period is still ongoing and will be ongoing for the rest of his life; recovery has been both a mental and physical battle since the moment of the accident.


“The hardest thing to accept, mentally, was that this was my new life and understand that I was going to have to deal with issues for as long as I’m alive,” he says. “It’s hard to understand that one moment can impact the rest of your life.


“It was mentally draining because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”


Initially, learning that his fellow racer and his friend, Anthoine Hubert, had died in the accident, coming to terms with that news and that loss was a huge shock for JM. The loss of Anthoine reminded him just how lucky he had been to come out of the accident alive.


JM was sent back to zero – physically – and he embarked on a difficult journey to regain his previous physical state, but it was hard and he was in pain all of the time.


“I had to take really strong medication for the pain, for infections,” he says. “I couldn’t walk. I lost my independence initially and I was in a wheelchair so I was learning to live this new life.”


During this time, there was a lot of uncertainty. It took some time for JM to get used to this new life he had been given and to learn how to do things by himself. He spent his time going to rehab which was very painful and he underwent multiple surgeries of reconstruction to save his leg.


“At one point, I was in a very deep and dark hole mentally,” he says. “I was on meds, I was depressed and in a lot of pain. It was one small step [of improvement] each day.


“What fuelled that was this personality I have which is to always give 100% and I was like that before the accident, but I had to exemplify it after what happened.”


Image credit: Juan Manuel Correa


Every day, JM would have a chip on his shoulder but would wake up each day and go to the gym, go to rehab and go to see his psychologist, even though he didn’t always want to.


“I forced myself to talk to other people openly about it and just embrace the pain, the hurt and the challenge,” JM says. “I realised that I believed in myself and I could get out of it, so I embraced the struggle.


“Sometimes, when I look back, I don’t realise how far I’ve come because it was so gradual over such a long period of time.”


Now, active recovery is not something JM partakes in each day. However, he does wake up obsessed with what he is doing, which is racing in F2 and WEC, finding sponsors, speaking to the media and becoming the best driver possible.


Image credit: Juan Manuel Correa


“That’s sort of my obsession,” he says. “In terms of my recovery, it’s still improving just by itself because time heals and the body does amazing things.”


Throughout the immediate period following the accident and for the duration of his recovery onwards, JM has felt the support from fans and other drivers alike. However, it was his family and close friends who held everything together.


“My parents were with me in the hospital for two months, thank God, because I would’ve gone crazy if they weren’t there,” JM says. “That helped me get past it and it helped make the days less shitty in the shittier parts of it.


“It affected them nearly as much as it affected me.”


 

Initially, in the first few days after his accident, Juan Manuel wanted nothing to do with a race car ever again. He spent time asking himself, ‘how can you risk your life for a sport?’ and concluded that there is so much more to life, which put things into perspective for him.


“When I woke up from the coma and as I regained consciousness, I really started thinking a lot about what the rest of my life was going to look like,” he says. “That’s when I realised that I actually did want to race again.


“I love the life that I have when I’m racing and I love how hard I have to work to be good at racing.”


In the early stages of his recovery, the doctors were rebuilding JM’s leg on the go and they didn’t really have a solid plan of what to expect throughout the process.



“The doctors would go in for a surgery and not really find what they wanted to, so it wasn’t going to be three months but it was going to be six more months,” JM says. “Or, there were infections going into the bones so we had to wait before we could do the surgery to avoid risk.”


However, after a recovery season in 2020, JM returned to racing in the FIA Formula 3 World Championship with ART Grand Prix for the 2021 season.


In his first season back, JM had multiple top 10 finishes. Although, getting back in a race car and finding a spot on the grid was his biggest achievement. In 2022, he remained with ART and joined Prema in the European Le Mans Series.


“The biggest setback I had when I got back into the car was the fracture I suffered early in the year, in the Bahrain feature race, but we didn’t realise it was a full-on fracture until two months later,” he says. “I had to miss almost four months of the season but luckily, I only missed one round due to the schedule in F3, but a lot of momentum and preparation, which was a big shame.”


On his return however, JM again secured multiple top 10 finishes and took his maiden Formula 3 podium that season in the sprint race at Zandvoort.





Prior to his P2 finish in Zandvoort, JM returned to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for his first race since the accident in 2019. Although having returned prior, albeit not for racing, it was an emotional time. His thought process at the time, and the way he pushed through what was a difficult return, was to think as little as possible.


“That has been my approach to dealing with trauma from the accident but being back in a race car was ‘just don’t think about it,’” he says. “Being in Spa the first time especially was weird, and it was scary, and a lot of memories and feelings came up.”


Image credit: Juan Manuel Correa


 

This year, JM is back on the F2 grid, this time with Dutch outfit, Van Amersfoort Racing. He has competed in all 10 rounds of the season so far, with a best finish of P4 in the sprint race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.


Since his accident four years ago, JM has come a long way, probably further than he ever believed back in 2019.


“I was optimistic but I never really expected to be back racing with such a quality of life,” he says. “To be racing at this level – because I do think I am driving at a pretty high level – is pretty special.”


As well as racing in F2 this season, JM is in his second season with PREMA in the endurance racing world. In 2023, he is competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship and has raced twice so far, at the 6 Hours of Portimão and the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans.


Image credit: Juan Manuel Correa


Formula 2 and WEC aren’t the only racing categories in JM’s sight either, with the American open to heading back stateside to race in IndyCar one day, with Formula 1 also on his radar. His love for endurance is something he would like to continue exploring, too.


“I just love racing,” Juan Manuel says, proudly. “What I just hope is that I can race cars for a living.


“That’s pretty awesome enough.”


 


JM, you are a hero. Thank you <3



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