At home in Coral Gables, South Miami, 50-year-old mother Maria will clutch a rosary as her son Juan Manuel Correa returns to the track in Barcelona.
She has always been given to nerves when he races, but Maria’s jitters will be 10-fold this weekend. What is going through her mind is going through many another: why, in heaven’s name, is he climbing back into the cockpit? On August 31, 2019, Correa nearly died in the Formula Two accident in Spa that killed 22-year-old Anthoine Hubert. Correa drove through the middle of his mate’s Arden car at 160mph after it jumped off the tyre wall into his path.
The Frenchman’s death was the first fatality to blight a Formula One weekend since Ayrton Senna perished at Imola 25 years before.
Frenchman Juan Manuel Correa will make an inspirational return to racing this weekend
Correa, whose family moved from Ecuador to America when he was a child, was taken by helicopter to hospital, both legs mutilated by exposed fractures, his spine damaged and suffering life-threatening lung injuries.
This makes it a miracle he is competing for the ART team in Formula Three this season, starting with practice this morning. Ahead of that joyous moment, he is relaxed as he returns from lunch at the Italian down the road to the Barcelona apartment he shares with girlfriend Mette.
I make a request I have never before asked of an interviewee. Would he mind rolling up his trousers?
Misshapen, a scarred diagram of pain, of courage and of medical science, but, yes, both legs are certainly still there.
The 21-year-old jumps on a scooter to get about and he occasionally needs a cane
Lucidly and without emotion, Correa, 21, recalls the aftermath of a smash that happened so fast it is a blur, but throughout which he maintained consciousness.
‘After the impact I skated across the track upside down before stopping,’ he said. ‘I felt immediate pain in my legs. They were like jelly. I thought I had lost them, that they were just glued to the suit. I crawled out. I still don’t know how but using my arms. But my right leg was stuck inside and bent the wrong way like a doll.’
He points to his shin and gestures an angle of perhaps more than 45 degrees. ‘The paramedics arrived and their faces scared me even more. Normally they keep you calm. But they didn’t know how to react when they saw my leg. I asked them to sedate me and that is where my memory ends for the time being.’ He still has his race suit from that day — a ‘blood bath’. Unwashed, he will have it framed and hung on the wall.
Correa underwent several operations and lived with a brace on his leg for more than a year
In the Belgian hospital, a titanium rod was inserted into his left leg to save that. But his right leg was too badly damaged to be rescued there. A few days later, in an induced coma, he was moved to London, first to the Royal Brompton to be placed on a life-support machine that took over the work of his heart and lungs. Then, to the King Edward VII hospital in Marylebone. Plastic surgeon Jon Simmons and orthopaedic surgeon Ian Sinha led a team through 17 hours of surgery, the longest of eight operations in six weeks.
Correa, sitting on his sofa now, points to his left thigh. A block of skin and fat and a blood vessel were cut out from that area and transplanted into his right shin, where the dead bone had been removed and left a hole.
The graft lends a slightly swollen appearance to his lower leg today. Liposuction, to normalise the appearance, is planned. The medics fractured his healthy shin just below the knee. An exoskeleton — a cage — was pinned on to his leg, the deep purple marks of which still show. A titanium rod was implanted on this side, too.
This allowed Correa to turn four screws on the exoskeleton four times a day to wrench the surgically freed bone down to bridge a 10cm crack.
The gap was closed at the rate of 1mm a day for 100 days. All this while he was barely able to sleep more than an hour a night through pain and anxiety.
The Ecuadorian drove through the middle of Anthoine Hubert’s Arden car at 160mph
And, of course, while dealing with the news delivered to him the morning after the crash. A police representative casually told him what his parents, Juan Carlos and Maria, had tried to conceal from him: Hubert was dead.
‘I was in floods of tears,’ he said. ‘I didn’t feel I was responsible for it, but he was a friend. Only a few hours earlier we had been chatting together. I thought, “Why him? Why not me?”’
The Hubert family put to one side their own grief to invite the Correas to Anthoine’s funeral.
‘The doctors told me I should consider an amputation,’ continued Correa. ‘I could have been walking in a prosthetic leg in a few months. There were scenarios I was given, from A to F. The worst was that I would die in surgery because of my lungs.
‘It turned out somewhere in the middle: they had to remove dead bits of bone and I used the exoskeleton for 14 months and was on strong narcotics for five months. I got in some very dark and deep holes in the beginning, but little by little came through.
Hubert was tragically killed in the in the Formula Two accident at Spa in August 2019
‘I don’t think I would go through this process again. I would just chop my leg off. It was too much. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. This leg is very banged up. I can manage the pain level for now, but it will not last very long.
‘It wouldn’t be surprising if I ended up amputating it anyway for quality of life.’
Correa’s fortitude is extraordinary, his pace of improvement confounding doctors. Though he jumps on a scooter to get about town, he occasionally needs a cane and will use a soft brake pedal this season. He still dreams of making it into Formula One.
I ask what his mother makes of his sporting return? ‘She begged me not to do it,’ he said. ‘But I think she realises in the end that it is what I want to do. It is what kept me motivated through all this. It kept me alive.’
Put like that, racing again seems the only possible answer.