The last time Formula 1 went racing at Paul Ricard – two years ago – the Formula 2 events delivered what is now a particularly poignant podium.
In the sprint race on Sunday morning, in front of the grand prix crowd, Anthoine Hubert won his second race of the season, his home race, and Juan Manuel Correa pushed him all the way as he finished second.
A little over two months later, the horrific accident involving the pair at Spa-Francorchamps claimed Hubert’s life, and left Correa fighting for his.
But after a long and arduous recovery fight, Correa returned to racing this year and will be on the grid once again at Paul Ricard, albeit in Formula 3 machinery, for his second race weekend of the season. However, just because he’s back racing doesn’t mean his own battle is over.
“My rehab… I think people think my rehab and my legs are actually doing much better than they are,” Correa tells RACER. “I’m still very impaired, I cannot even walk properly yet, and it has been improving a lot since April when I had the first test. I arrived at the first test with two crutches, and I still even had the wheelchair sometimes.
“So it was really a ‘jump into the ocean and see if you can swim’ kind of approach. But we took it easy, step-by-step, and it was hard. It was very hard. Not just physically and for the legs, but it was hard to just get back in the rhythm again and slowly kind of learn. It was like learning how to walk again in many ways, in the driving.
“You don’t forget, but you definitely lose the feeling a lot and you have to get back into it. That has been the process up until now. I’m still not at the level I was; not even close yet. I am getting closer and closer and I’m improving, but it’s been a process of step-by-step, with the help of the team, with the right approach, just to build it again.”
The team he references is ART Grand Prix, a frontrunner in F3 and and the one that Hubert won the title with at this level when the series was called GP3 in 2018. The team has worked with the Ecuadorian-American to help him be able to drive again while still trying to rebuild strength in his legs that were shattered in the accident.
“We have a softer brake pump and we’ve made a small adaptation to the actual brake pedal, just so it has a bigger surface area, it makes it a bit easier for me,” he says. “So it’s nothing major, it’s a car which any other driver could use.
“The brake pump is not ideal, the one we’re using, but it’s the only one I manage to do the pressure I need; so I tell people the car is normal because many people ask me if I’m still pressing the throttle with my right leg and not with my hand. And that’s not the case, but there are these little modifications. The hardest part has been dealing with a lack of brake pressure, dealing with the fatigue and just getting back into the rhythm.
“At the moment the main loss is coming from me and the fact I need to get into the rhythm; I need to gain confidence with the car. I need to rebuild everything again. It’s totally normal that I’m struggling with what I’m struggling with, but it’s mainly coming from me. And the general fatigue that I have outside of the track and the race weekends is not ideal.
“I’m doing a lot of training and rehab outside, so I haven’t really been able to prep for the season as a proper season. I’ve been trying to do two jobs at once, which is being a driver and being an athlete recovering from a big, big injury, and managing both things at once makes it tough on me. But it is what it is and the most important thing is I’m here and I’m racing, and that’s already a big win.”
Correa’s first attempts to get back into that rhythm came in Barcelona last month, where he finished 10th in Race 2 of 3 to pick up a point in his first race weekend back behind the wheel since Spa in 2019. And his team was keen to remind him that marked another victory.
“I think I was very much into a race weekend mode even from the first race, but at the same time it was all very emotional,” he says. “I was really concentrating, I felt like I did a good job in getting in the zone and being on it, I did no big mistakes throughout the weekend… I’m pretty proud of myself in that sense. For sure, I’m still lacking some pace, but I did a good job.
“But getting the first point was just like a sigh of relief, because I was pretty tired after that race, but I was happy. It felt good to be back. To get one point on my debut… there’s some guys that last year didn’t get a single point throughout the whole season, and for me to get one point on my first weekend after two years out, I was like, ‘That’s OK. that’s a good job.’ So I was happy about it.
“And the team, they were so happy! I love the team. I love the guys there. The ambience inside the team is so great, the way they work is amazing, they’re just so excited. They have this passion and you can feel it. I could tell when I got that point, for a team like ART one point is not a big deal but they were even happier than me! I got to the truck and everyone was like “Yeah!”. That just shows what kind of an environment we have inside, and it’s great.”
It’s an environment that helped Correa get through an extremely tough return to racing this year. Choosing F3 over a return to Formula 2 allowed him more time to recover and further tests in the car before the official pre-season sessions. But one thing testing can’t replicate is being bunched up in a field of 30 cars heading into Turn 1 wheel-to-wheel.
“It was a bit of a psychological unknown,” he says. “There’s the whole thing about the trauma I had – not only physically, but also mentally as well – at Spa. Saturday, before the race, I was very emotional a few hours before, because I sort of realized ‘I’m going to be racing again!’And the accident was on a Saturday, just like that Saturday in Barcelona, and there was definitely a little bit of fear maybe kicking in.
“A lot of thoughts, overthinking, I was like ‘Wow this is not like me, I’ve never felt like this before a race’. But at the same time, there was a big feeling of accomplishment and like, ‘I’m here, I’ve done the comeback’ in a way. But once I close my visor and the lights went off I was very much into race mode.
“It was also a process getting used to… one thing you can’t practice in testing is the start, being aware of the 30 cars around you, passing, covering, defending, aggressiveness, etc. So that was also a quick learning curve again, but I got into the rhythm of that quickly.
“But it did take a lot from me mentally. Race 1, on Lap 15, I kind of just shut down, because mentally it was taking so much from me. I like a chicken with no head just in the car! Mirrors, radio, tire management, I was physically tired, my legs were hurting a bit, and Lap 15, I was just shutting down. We had the safety car come out for the last five laps and I was thanking God for that safety car, because I was hanging onto the steering wheel by that point.
“But it was mainly because of the toll mentally, that first time back. Race 2, which was later that same day, should have been harder physically, but it was actually easier physically because just mentally I was a bit more prepared for it. It was very interesting.”
Correa estimates that about 90 percent of his physical work has been rehab-focused rather than building up race fitness, but he gets a little more comfortable with each lap behind the wheel. And the mental side also gets that bit easier with every bit of experience in this comeback phase of his career. Both are massively tough challenges, but ones that Correa is able to tackle with the added strength provided by the approval of Hubert’s mother, Nathalie Gabert.
“It’s been amazing to have, not only her support and her blessing, but a relationship we’ve built up,” he says. “We’re in contact here and there. They’ve been following all my progress very closely since the first weeks after the accident, so it means a lot to me.
“And after everything that happened, she’s still very connected to the racing world. I guess she has a passion for it. And I don’t want to talk on her behalf, but maybe she feels like I am carrying on Anthoine’s memory and carrying the torch in a way by following both of our dreams now. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but that’s the sense I get.
“I’m also in a French team where Anthoine used to race, and they know him very well in ART, and I get kind of emotional when I talk about those things, but it’s been great. And she’s an outstanding woman, she’s so sweet, she’s great. I really love her.”