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The Formula 1 dream

17 October 2011
By Ralph Adam

Formula 1 in Schools has morphed into the only worldwide multi-disciplinary challenge for pupils aged 9 to 19 and is now the largest global educational initiative promoting STEM subjects. Ralph Adam reports.

‘Real’ Formula 1

Formula 1 is a universally-recognised name – one of the strongest sporting brands: a massive television event, with millions watching each race. Not only is it claimed to be the world's most expensive sport, but it has a powerful economic impact and the sport’s financial and political battles are reported everywhere.

Average worldwide live television audiences for Formula 1 exceed 50 million; the high profile drivers and their teams’ merchandising need heavy investment from sponsors. That translates into huge budgets for the constructor teams, of whom several have gone bankrupt or been bought out in recent years. The ‘formula’ in the name refers to a set of rules with which all participants and cars must conform.

The car

And what of the F1 car itself? Few machines are as highly-stressed as the engine and transmission of a modern Formula 1 car. The chassis's main component is the monocoque, incorporating the survival cell and, within that, the cockpit. The engine and front suspension are mounted directly onto the chassis and the rules relating to the cars’ construction are extremely strict with highly-skilled technicians being needed to assemble all the parts in a set sequence.

The ‘youthful’ F1

The schools version, is understandably, rather different. Unlike ‘real’ Formula 1 cars, with their hundreds of carbon-fibre components bonded by ultra-powerful adhesives, F1 in Schools challenges pupils to use software to design, build, test and race a miniature Formula 1 car made from balsa wood and powered by a single compressed air cylinder. Each three to six-member team receives a starter kit which includes the basic materials needed to construct their car.

Apart from team size, most of the rules and regulations concern the balsa wood ‘cars’ and their dimensions and weight. It is recommended, but not compulsory, to have a back-up car when racing. The breach of any rule leads to disqualification.

F1 in Schools was founded by Andrew Denford, its current chairman. The competition was first piloted in Britain in 1999, becoming a national event the following year with regional rounds taking place throughout the UK. Since then development has been rapid: in 2002 an international franchise was created and, after a few short years, it has reached an estimated 18,000 schools in 34 countries. Another landmark was attained in 2005 when Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1’s chief executive, gave permission for the heavily-protected F1 logos to be used, as well as donating a trophy to be awarded to the world champions. The competition has an increasing number of patrons from the F1 world, among them key members of the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro and Vodafone McLaren Mercedes teams. In addition, it has two supporting organisations: the IET and City University, London.

At each stage of the competition, entrants bring their models, with supporting verbal and written presentations, to be assessed by a judging panel. The cars are raced on a specially-designed test track. Each school finds its own winning team which goes through regional, national and international stages of the competition, culminating in the glittering F1 in Schools World Finals which, this year, took place from September 19 to 21 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For the Finals every team brings a pit display, three identical cars and a portfolio, as well as their presentation. The ultimate part of the challenge is the race, with teams competing along a special 20-metre straight track. As with the real F1, speed is of the essence: the current record is just over a second, a speed barrier which is yet to be broken since Team FUGA from Northern Ireland achieved 1.020 seconds at the 2007 Finals. For younger pupils there is a linked challenge for the construction of a miniature land-speed record car, the Bloodhound SSC.

The event may be fun, but competitors put hundreds of hours’ work into creating their entries; often giving up their entire summer breaks to work on the cars, seeking advice from experts. But they also get a lot out of their participation. Learning is not, of course, the sole aim. There is the excitement of seeing new places, the chance to meet different people and opportunities for novel experiences, especially when they become involved with real F1 teams or are invited to travel to meet other competitors on their home ground.

Learning from F1

F1 in Schools is unique: a London-based non-profit organisation, with sponsors’ funding invested in administering, developing and expanding the challenge. As such, the event has morphed into the only worldwide multi-disciplinary challenge for pupils aged 9 to 19. It is now the largest global educational initiative promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Its team members are inspired to understand IT applications in a wide range of subjects, such as physics, aerodynamics, computing, finance, graphics and design. A key aim is to help change perceptions of science and technology by creating a fun and exciting learning environment for young people so that they develop informed views of eventual technical careers. Using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technology, the teams design their own Formula 1 cars before analysing their cars’ efficiency in wind and smoke tunnels.

There are other benefits, too: the young participants pick up leadership and teamwork skills, as well as gaining an understanding of issues like branding and sponsorship. In addition, they learn a range of techniques that can be applied in practical, imaginative and exciting ways: marketing, media skills and strategy, for example. A tough part of the assignment is the need for every team to write a business plan, prepare a budget and raise sponsorship in co-operation with businesses.

Team manager

The enthusiasm of the youngsters, and the amount of effort they are willing to put into winning, can be gauged from the views of Steffan Jones, manager of a Welsh team called Fflam when he explains:

“The project has taken over our lives and we’ve spent most of our summer working on it. Since the UK National Finals we’ve made lots of improvements to our car and our aim is to do well in Malaysia. Winning is important, but I think the whole week of the World Finals will be amazing...it will be an experience we’ll never forget. The pressure of the competition will be intense, but we’ll also meet so many students from different backgrounds, in a country which we’ve never been to before and, as a bonus, we’ll go to a Formula 1 Grand Prix.”

“There is no other competition like this one, which encompasses so many different areas and skills. Some of our team are interested in engineering, but others were attracted by the creative elements and for me, as I’m looking to go into a management career, I could see the value of being the leader of the programme and learning skills which would be useful for my future.

“We’ve linked with local, regional and countrywide businesses to secure funding and also practical support, both of which have been really valuable to us. Our car was painted in the paint shop of the local RAF base, RAF Valley in Anglesey, (where Prince William is based) which is usually used to paint their planes. Axis Precision, a local CNC Milling company, gave us our wheels and axles free-of-charge, which was very helpful too, and we have linked with Bangor University who provided the resources for us to manufacture our front wing. We also have a lot of sponsors who have been very supportive; all of them are Welsh companies, as we wanted to keep our nationality very strong.”

In the past, F1 in Schools has opened doors and changed lives as well as being a gateway to new skills and employment opportunities, but those opportunities can only come if teachers show enthusiasm and support.

Meeting heroes

One of the high spots for competitors is the chance, not just to visit a real Grand Prix, but also to meet F1 drivers. When he visited the World Finals, Lewis Hamilton applauded the existence of such an exciting and engaging platform for education and the chance to see how it enthuses students to study engineering. His hope is that F1 in Schools will encourage a new generation to enter Formula 1 and continue to develop the sport as one of the most technologically advanced in the world.

Team principal of the Red Bull Racing Formula 1 Team, Christian Horner added his views, commenting: “Walking round the displays at the World Finals and seeing what is on display by the students is truly remarkable, the quality of what they come up with, out of a bit of balsa wood, the shapes and innovation that they demonstrate absolutely blew me away. They are following the same principals and guidelines that the 200-plus engineers at Red Bull follow every day to build our Formula One car.”

The overall winners are awarded the Bernie Ecclestone F1 in Schools World Champions trophy at the World Finals. Every member of the winning team also receives a four-year City University scholarship – a very worthwhile prize. But there are also the perks, those little extras that give taking part that special memory.

The final test

The judges have a tough brief with points being allocated for a wide range of features, but with an emphasis on engineering techniques, pit and portfolio design and verbal presentation skills; and, of course, the time trials. Competitors are quizzed on such things as problems encountered, design compromises, orthographic drawings, choice of team logo, sponsorship techniques and testing methods. There are three main parts to the finals of F1 in Schools: racing, judging and a presentation given by the teams. Team are given different times for each event. In the racing event teams compete against one another, getting three attempts, with the best time being the one recorded (to a thousandth of a second).

And the winner is...

2011 proved a tough Final, but PentaGliders, a team from Brooks High School, Tasmania, Australia, lifted the Ecclestone trophy as their national anthem rang out and the team was showered with glittering gold confetti. They also won the awards for Fastest Car (1.084 seconds) and the Best Engineered Car. Runner-up was Betagreen from Grootmoor Gymnasium, Hamburg. Fflam didn’t lose out completely: their hard work making contacts proved worthwhile as they took the Best Sponsorship and Marketing Award.

The three boys and a girl from PentaGliders will now cross the world to London courtesy of their Automotive and Motorsport Engineering scholarships to follow City University degrees. No doubt with the whole of Tasmania cheering them on!

The F1 dream

“When I was at school I always wanted to work in Formula 1 but ultimately I saw it as a long-term goal. I certainly never imagined working in F1 in my second year of university, let alone in one of the best teams in the paddock. It all came about in a very short period of time. If you had told me a year ago that I would be working for the world champions of Formula 1 I probably wouldn’t have believed you.”
Matt Cruickshank, a 20-year-old student from Sydney, Australia, and ex-Formula 1 in Schools team-member, on how it feels to have realised his ambition.

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