Opportunity out of adversity on the steep road to recovery

| Photographer Credit: Bruce Jenkins

While the global pandemic has side lined drivers all over the world and left motor sport at a standstill over the last few months, it goes without saying that there’s not to many uplifting stories out there.

Yet two well known drivers are using the lock-down to reintroduce themselves to the public as they make the long road to recovery from horrific injury. Canada’s Robert Wickens and the USA’s Juan Manuel Correa (main picture from the 2018 Toyota Racing Series) are racing in their sims as they reset their dream in real life of making it to the top of single seater motor sport.

In 2018 Wickens was racing at Pocono Raceway in IndyCar when his car launched over Ryan Hunter-Reay at turn two of the oval.  While the catch fence did its job, Wickens was spun like a centrifuge at over 200 miles an hour and a full force of 200gs This left him with a fractured spine and neck, broken bones in his legs, hand ,forearm and ribs. Ten-days in an induced coma and no feeling in his legs, Wickens was facing the greatest challenge of his young life and the steepest road to recovery anyone in the sport could imagine.  

The accident occurred after a sensational rookie year in IndyCar where he took pole at the first race at St Petersburg and was named rookie of the year at the Indy 500.

Despite having his success and meteoric rise in the sport it was all ripped away from him in one moment.  31 year-old Wickens refused to waiver, claiming in one of his first interviews, “I will race again, I know I will”.  

Juan Manuel Correa on his way to victory at Taupo in the 2018 Toyota Racing Series

For former 2018 Castrol Toyota Racing Series driver 20 year-old Juan Manuel Correa, he was in his rookie season with Formula 2 in 2019 after a strong year in GP 3 with Jenzer Motorsport in 2018.

Scoring two podium seconds at Baku and Paul Ricard, the Sauber Junior Team by Charouz driver was making a name for himself in Europe as the top American seeking entry into Formula One.

Then in August, at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Correa was involved in a huge accident on the exit of the very fast and infamous Eau Rouge.

JUAN MANUEL CORREA:

“It was a very big crash with three or four cars involved – and I was the last one to arrive. Unfortunately I made the biggest impact  into the crash. A car spun in front of Antoine Hubert who tried to avoid him and clipped the car going into the wall. Meanwhile I was flat out coming up Eau Rouge and some debris went under my car’s front wing as I reached the top of the hill. The  front wing went under my car and so I lost control of my front tyres and I just went straight on into a T-bone crash with Antoine Hubert’s car. Unfortunately Antoine passed away right that second and I nearly lost my  legs. My  whole tub was broken in half and my legs were fully exposed, very similar to the Zanardi incident that happened years ago.

“I had a lot of injuries, especially my legs. My right one especially, where I was very close to losing the leg. I broke the tibia, but the impact was so big  that the broken bone disintegrated so I actually lost 10 centimetres of bone.

“I’ve had 15 surgeries already and I expect to have another eight more before I can come back after another year of rehab.”

As if that wasn’t tough enough, the G-force impact injured his lungs and he was placed in an induced coma for 15 days.

When he woke up he was told that the leg was destroyed and it would take a life threatening surgery to try to save it. The operation was risky and long and there was a strong possibility he could die during the surgery. The alternative, they said, was that he  could have a simple amputation operation and have a prosthetic leg and be walking in a few months.

CORREA:

“For me, the answer was an easy decision to try to save it. I’m always like this. I’m a fighter and I said ‘let’s do it’. And it seems like it’s working out and the recovery is ahead of time. So I’m going to drive again with or without my ankle fully recovering.”

Both Wickens and Correa have a lot of laps left of intense rehab to get back to where they want to be. But racing drivers, as they often demonstrate, are a different breed to the rest of us with a determination and out right stubborn refusal to be beaten by the obvious odds stacked against them.

No surprise then that both Correa and Wickens have been an inspiration to those suffering similar injuries and are looking for a role model to succeed with their own often tortuous rehabilitation.

WICKENS :

“Anything I get my hands on, I would sign up for it just to try to get as much rehab as I could. It was exciting. It was hard work. It was exhausting. My dream is obviously to get back into a race car again, but there’s a lot that needs to happen. There’s a lot of unknowns with this injury. I’m still trying to become stable in my everyday life. I’m still trying to figure out how to live this life.”

Then, when both men were faced with ignominy of watching their opponents from a wheelchair at the start of the 2020 season, the coronavirus arrived with a vengeance.  Suddenly, on the eve of a new season of motorsport, they found themselves sat in a chair or on the couch.

The saving grace that brought a smile to faces of almost everyone in racing was that both Correa and Wickens could both return to the limelight with the emergence of sim racing onto the mainstream stage of motorsport

CORREA:

“I hate to say it, but this virus at the moment in a way is something  positive for both of us because it buys us time. For me, it would have been much harder mentally to watch all my colleagues continue their paths in racing in F2 with some of them even making it to F1, while I’m on the sidelines. So at the moment I’m just using this break from real life, which we are all going through, and just using it to push forward with the rehab and get ahead. “

WICKENS :

“Simulation was always step number one for me. Unfortunately, through one reason or another, it was very challenging to basically do it right. I didn’t want to purchase an Amazon setup, try to learn on that. Rather, I wanted to build a good foundation that you can evolve and make better.”

H now has had little help from his friends like IndyCar, Simcraft and IndyCar veteren Max Papis, who owns a company called MPI Innovations which focuses on motorsports-grade driving equipment.

Wickens now drives his sim with just his hands, thanks to a telescoping throttle lever mounted behind the wheel, along with a brake lever that’s pressure-sensitive.

WICKENS:

“I see this as a great training tool for me to make my hand control second nature, but I didn’t want to do it on a budget. That was always the challenge. Now obviously with what’s going on in the world, Esports basically took center stage and made it all a reality very quickly. I guess you could say I’m almost a beneficiary of what’s happening in the world right now. I’m excited to at last drive something”.

So as the pandemic  continues to ravage the planet, claiming life after life at an alarming rate, it is worth thinking about two men fighting to regain the life they had and a chance to be back in the sport they love. If you need inspiration in these trying times, look no further than Robert Wickens and Juan Manuel Correa.

Correa took a break from single seater sim action last weekend to try Trans AM E racing held at a virtual Catalunya circuit one in which he’s very familiar with. Taking on a full field of actual Trans Am professional drivers, he finished an excellent fourth in his first outing. Not bad for a guy on the mend driving with just his left foot.

Let’s hope both men continue on their journey and their road to recovery they continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Jonathan Green

Known in New Zealand for being the voice of the Toyota Racing Series TV coverage, Jonathan Green is also a co-host at Speed City Broadcast. Speed City is a US national radio show broadcasting F1,Indy Car and Moto GP and Jonathan is the voice of the Circuit of the Americas. Based in Austin Texas, Jonathan is one of the world’s leading motor sports broadcasters with more than 20 years at the sharp end of the sport as producer, presenter, reporter and commentator and is one of a handful in his field that he covers both two and four wheel motor sport from Formula One to Moto GP and World Superbikes.

http://jonathangreentv.com

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