Dubai Autodrome

F1 isn’t just for grown-ups – in fact nine-year-olds can be world champions. We went to Dubai Autodrome to find out more


Racing an F1 car isn’t something you’d usually associate with nine-year-olds. Nor is gathering corporate sponsorship or presenting a marketing pitch to a panel of judges. That’s why we reckon F1 in Schools is the best thing since sliced bread.

The activity is fast becoming a global phenomenon (over 30 countries are signed up), and the premise is simple. Each team starts off with a block of wood about the size of a brick and, using sophisticated computer software and a very clever machine, they make it into a miniature car. Powered by a gas cylinder, they fire it down a 25m track and the speed (it must be done in less than a second) is recorded and pitted against the other teams.

When we visit the swanky F1 in Schools centre at Dubai Autodrome, a group from JESS Arabian Ranches is mid-session. Keeping an eye on the excited youngsters, Don Sankey, director of F1 in Schools Middle East, says, ‘The teams are striving to make their car that hundredth of a second faster. When you think about the fact that you’ve got 10-year-olds talking about aerodynamics, it’s amazing.’

Sitting with Team Night Rider engineer Karl, 10, we have to second that sentiment. As he nimbly changes minute details on his on-screen car, his talk of wheel types, sketch facilities and the ‘measuring devicey thingy’ has us totally lost (and convinced we’d crash and burn if we were to attempt this task). His enthusiasm, however, is contagious, and we watch him in awe for a good 15 minutes. ‘I can’t help it: I’m just totally addicted to design,’ he says matter-of-factly. (The enterprising lad has even started a ‘design a car’ club at school.)

After weeks of planning and experimenting, when it’s time to actually produce the car, the young engineers send their design to a machine in the workshop and within 40 minutes the body is ready. Then they can really go to town, painting the vehicle and making it look as original as their imaginations will allow.

But fast cars make up just a fraction of the project. Formally divided by job titles, kids assume the roles of team manager, resources manager, manufacturing engineer, design engineer and graphic designer – although with groups consisting of three to six members, there can be some crossover. While the engineering bods are working on the technical stuff, the rest of the team are busy producing a folder detailing their experiences of the project, preparing a five-minute presentation (during which every team member must speak), and creating a team identity, including a T-shirt and logo. Each of these components counts for a quarter of the final mark.

Before you groan, ‘That sounds expensive,’ rest assured that F1 in Schools is a free activity, although if schools wish to do the sessions at the Autodrome, there is a cost. All money required for the T-shirts and so on must be raised by the kids themselves. ‘Dubai provides a very easy comfort zone for most children, and this programme gives them a wake-up call that if you want to be successful, you must take financial responsibility,’ Don says. ‘By hook or by crook, the kids must raise their own funding’. This means coming up with an average of Dhs30 every week for 10 weeks, be it through obtaining sponsorship from local businesses or washing every car in the neighbourhood. (F1 in Schools is itself a not-for-profit company, funded entirely through corporate sponsorship: the Dubai branch is paid for by Union Properties.)

Some of the JESS competitors are well on their way to acing the team identity component of the competition. Team Toxic’s graphic designer, 11-year-old Luke, tells us that his crew held a cake sale and then had their (very cool-looking) T-shirts made at the Mall of the Emirates. ‘We made Dhs400,’ he grins from under his matching baseball cap.

Of course, these are kids, so not everything is decided democratically. Ameen, the nine-year-old team manager of Night Rider, says that their clothes designer was assigned that role because he was away when the decisions were made: ‘None of us wanted to be the clothes designer so we made Cameron do it,’ he explains. Pulling a sympathetic face at Cameron, we notice a pair of girls sitting quietly alone – the only females in this buzzing classroom. We make our way over and find that they are a team of two. ‘The boys didn’t want us on their teams,’ Emily and Lucy tell us mournfully. Later, though, we hear a different story from their teacher: ‘The girls didn’t want to work with the boys any more than the boys wanted to work with them,’ says Giles Dawson, head of year six at JESS Arabian Ranches and designated F1 in Schools teaching representative. ‘There are just two on the girls’ team and they’re struggling with their workload. They’ve now acknowledged they should have joined forces with the boys, so they’ve certainly learnt their lesson!’

The entrepreneurial and technical skills employed throughout the project are great in developing kids’ confidence and preparing them for the world of work – but at its core is competitive fun. ‘We want to tread that fine line between this being another school subject and being extracurricular fun; but there is a trophy to be won in the final,’ Don tells the parents at the session’s close. And that trophy isn’t the end of it: winners get the chance to compete in internal, then citywide, then national, then international competitions.

The annual world championship, hosted by a different country each year, brings together some of the most inspiring nine to 19-year-olds on the planet. Formula One CEO and all-round racing legend Bernie Ecclestone presents the trophy to the winners, and there are plenty more F1 drivers around to chat to the teams. What’s more, a scholarship to study automotive engineering at London’s prestigious City University is up for grabs.

A self-professed un-academic chap, Don says he ‘could only have dreamt of this opportunity’ when he was at school. Not only does it give the kids a tremendous sense of achievement, it also aids their development without them even knowing it. He says, ‘It might sound clichéd but the biggest thrill for me is watching children grow. I have seen kids come through that door as timid as mice, and watched their shoulders become that little bit bigger. Our current world champions started the project with no idea at all but have grown in experience, grown in skills, grown in confidence. To be able to put on your CV that you are a world champion at 15 years of age is a very powerful thing indeed.’

We couldn’t agree more.

The academic bit

It won’t come as a surprise that kids learn a lot more than how to make a car go fast during the F1 in Schools programme. Don says, ‘So many different facets of the curriculum – science, business skills, ICT, mathematics – are covered; nothing else can touch it.’

Giles Dawson, former head of year six at JESS Arabian Ranches, agrees: ‘The kids are thinking about stuff they’ve never thought about before and they’re working at a very high level for their age group. It’s been interesting because some children thought they would be born team managers but they’ve actually found it quite hard.’ The teacher, who is now based in Bahrain, plans on continuing his involvement in F1 in Schools at his new place of work, concluding, ‘As a project I can’t fault it – it’s great.’

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