S’pore schools go drag racing with F1

BY CHERYL TAY

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When people first hear of "F1 in Schools", it is not uncommon for them to think that it is a racing programme of some sort that they can sign up for and get to Formula 1.

Indeed, it is a racing programme but an educational one where students aged nine to 19 years old (spanning primary and secondary schools) compete in an annual challenge that simulates the workings of a Formula 1 team.

In brief, these youths deploy 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacture) software to collaborate, design, analyse, manufacture, test, and then race miniature compressed air-powered Formula 1 cars made of balsa wood down a 20-metre straight.

Through this challenge, students get close to Formula 1and also pick up essential learning skills such as the use of IT to learn about physics, aerodynamics, design, manufacture, branding, graphics, sponsorship, marketing, leadership, teamwork, media skills and financial strategy, before applying them. The objective is to attract more students into engineering, science and technology using the appeal of Formula 1, especially with the Formula 1 fan base getting younger and younger.

Started in 1999, the F1 in Schools programme is now in 40 countries, including Singapore since 2010. In each country, schools send out teams who will compete at the national finals before the winning secondary school team represents the country at the world finals. In 2010, the F1 in Schools World Finals was held in Singapore.

When Andrew Denford, founder and chairman of F1 in Schools was in Singapore for the Grand Prix in September, I had a conversation with him to find out more about the programme and how its educational benefit tends to get overlooked often. Most people just want to go for the drivers, the stars of the show, but there's much more to Formula 1 than just being a driver.

Q: How has F1 in Schools evolved over the years? Are the objectives still the same?
A:
The F1 in Schools programme is 12 years old now and the objectives are still the same. The initial concept was to attract young students into engineering, science, technology and mathematics, using Formula 1 as an appeal.

Formula 1 is this global shop window for students to aspire to become involved in, from a point of view of actually going into a race or going into Formula 1 events where drivers are present. The drivers are what the students are initially drawn to but when they actually get involved and see the size of the business, the scope of Formula 1, they then realise there's so much more potential for them to move into new career opportunities.

If you think about it, a Formula 1 team has on average 400 people and a big bulk of them are engineers or business people, where as only three become drivers. There are so many different avenues and so many different career opportunities in the technical arena of the Formula 1 community for the students to aspire for.

They think about Formula 1, they think that's where they want to be, they think of being the next Adrian Newey or Ross Brawn, Martin Whitmarsh or Rob Smedley. The end goal is to get to Formula 1 and be part of the team, perhaps a technical director. If they don't make it there, at least they still get engineering benefits from the programme.

Q: How did the idea of F1 in Schools come about? How long did it take to plan?
A:
In 1999, 3D software (which is the backbone of F1 in Schools) became available for schools around the world; some free, some at very low cost. Previously it was all very expensive and complicated but a lot of software came out on the market which was easy to use and freely available to schools.

All of the sudden, schools all around the UK were using software designed for 3D components like mobile phone cases, cameras, anything that you can imagine in 3D. Manufacturing components were fairly complicated, yet students were going home with a 3D component from design to manufacture. So my view was to try and make something 3D out of a piece of balsa wood for example, which would then make it more challenging and have an end result as a project. So I thought why not use a Formula 1 car?

Q: When was the first F1 in Schools challenge?
A:
We started with a little pilot project of eight schools in 2000. We set them a challenge to come up with a Formula 1 car and kids were hooked onto it. The more complex the cars became, the more the regulations changed, the more it challenged them. In the end I decided it was going to be bigger than I probably thought, so I had to get support from engineering bodies and businesses and commercial companies to help grow the challenge.

Q: Who was the first commercial partner for F1 in Schools?
A:
The first commercial partner was Jaguar and that was in 2000. Jaguar decided to go back into Formula 1 then and I knew the executive director called Mike Beasley, who is passionate about engineering and education. I showed him some model cars we produced and I said, "Look, this can be big if you support it".

Then I went to see FOM's (Formula 1 Management) Bernie Ecclestone to tell him Jaguar will support this challenge and help us grow it, so can we call it F1 in Schools? He said to call it Jaguar Team F1 in Schools instead, because it's only Jaguar out of all the F1 teams supporting it.

Later, BA Systems came onboard, so did Tata Corporation. Getting the main engineering community onboard was the most difficult thing though. Still, we went to engineering institutes and technology bodies. Once they saw the car and the concept, they realised it would ignite kids' interest.

Q: How has the programme progressed over the years?
A:
It began as a design-build-race-a-car programme, then we added business planning and marketing. Next we added virtual wind tunnel technology which uses computational fluid dynamics (CFD) where you analyse it by designing then testing it in a virtual wind tunnel to make sure it is aerodynamically sound before you manufacture it. Hencem it became design-analyse-manufacture-race-a-car. After that we added a physical wind tunnel so you could actually design, analyse, make, test then race.

Business planning involved the whole team of about six kids, each holding a different job title — team manager, aero dynamist, manufacturing engineer, marketing and business development planner. So the team is just like a mini version of a Formula 1 factory but in a school classroom.

It became more and more challenging as we added more and more interesting parts of the challenge, like a verbal presentation. The teams also had to present themselves well and put a pit display together.

Q: Any significant turning point for the programme?
A:
What really changed our path was when Jaguar withdrew from Formula 1 in 2005. I went to see Bernie again and said we needed to rebrand it. We have seen the scope of it for the past five years, with about 10 countries getting involved. This time he said we could brand it as F1 in Schools. That allowed us to get all the Formula 1 teams involved. Today we have all 12 teams supporting it from using their logos, arranging for garage tours and factory tours.

Q: Which was the first country outside of the UK to take up this programme?
A:
It was Australia in 2002. They had the same problems that the UK had, not many students were thinking of getting into engineering as their career.

Q: Is it difficult to secure commercial support for F1 in Schools?
A:
It is because they don't always understand the benefit. But more and more now, the bigger companies are looking at F1 in Schools and realising that we are a challenge that benefits younger people. From their perspective, we hit their CSR side of that business; they are giving back to the community. We are a not-for-profit programme.

Q: What are some of the challenges in your role?
A:
Every year we grow as more and more countries see the benefit of running F1 in Schools. Once somebody has the passion and belief that this is the right thing to do, then the biggest challenge is getting the sponsors. Every country needs sponsors to help the programme survive, to help it grow. Once you've got a programme up and running in the country, you can just leave the individuals to manage and the schools can run their own challenge but every country we encourage them to hold a national finals, which can cost a lot of money.

Raising money to hold the national finals is already a challenge, but when we have 40 countries with 40 national finals, the greater challenge is then to put on the world finals, which means the national finals multiply by how many countries. We have to find a country to host it, usually tying it to a Grand Prix, then we need to find a venue, the logistics and the costs. Every year that's our biggest problem — funding the world finals.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions?
A:
People still think F1 in Schools is about racing a car and producing the next Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton. Some people think we are a racing school. We are not producing the drivers but the teams. It is just a lack of understanding of what F1 in Schools means. Until they go to one of our events and see the kids' passion, then they will understand it.

Q: What's the ultimate goal for F1 in Schools?
A:
To keep adding more and more countries, not just by numbers but the volume of more schools. For example, Singapore has about 60 schools participating but we are looking to get into as many secondary schools as possible. The goal is to get as many schools in as many countries possible.

We want the ministries of education to wake up and realise it is not just about mathematics or engineering or science or history or geography, but something that is exciting to learn. It is actual learning. If the ministries of education realise the benefits then they need to get behind it and put the resoucres into it. Stop living in the dark ages — students don't want to learn by blackboard and chalk, they want to learn by actual learning and by travelling.

We are not there yet as Formula 1 and the commercial world doesn't look into education as much as it should do. If they all knew what we all know they would support it in a heartbeat (snaps fingers). Slowly but surely our job is to get in front of them. F1 in Schools in Singapore should be getting support from say, SingTel for example, but they probably don't know what we do.

We just have to keep on knocking on doors. There are a lot of industrial and engineering companies in Singapore — if they realise what we have here and what F1 in Schools will mean to them, I'm sure they would start writing cheques to help it grow.

Passionate about cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in prominent local, regional as well as international automotive titles. More of her at www.cheryl-tay.com.