It may be years before someone from the UAE wins a Formula One race, but at schools level, at least, the region has already taken the podium. Last weekend, two teams represented the country in the winner's circle at the international F1 In Schools Championship, held before the Singapore Grand Prix. Zero.9, a team comprised of four students from the Indian High School Dubai and three students from a school in Australia, finished second overall and won the award for Best Collaboration. Team Impulse, with six students from Dubai College, won the Best Sportsman prize.
The trophies are not all these students will take away with them. "If you look at the students that are going to Singapore this year, its clear that they have matured enormously," said Peter Hill, headmaster at Dubai College, on the eve of the team's departure. "It has been a tremendous learning experience for them," he added. "They learn here in the classroom, but I expect they will remember the skills they have developed from this for a lot longer."
For hundreds of children around the world, this competition was the culmination of many months of dedicated work. Each year, the winning team is awarded the Bernie Ecclestone Trophy - from the F1 commercial rights holder himself - and every member receives the offer of a scholarship to study automotive engineering at university. Many would have sacrificed their social agenda to find time for the project, which requires a group of students to act as a real F1 team by building a miniature car, constructing an elaborate pit display and putting together a detailed project.
"You can't go out and see your friends as much," said Naomi Leech of Team Impulse, which won the national championships in the UAE last June. Pooja Nair, a teammate from India, added: "Over the summer, we were all in different countries so it was really hard to stay on top of our project in the lead up to the final," she added. The night before they flew to Singapore last weekend was a flurry of last-minute preparations. Stickers, which bear the team logo and names of hard-won sponsors, had to be placed on the car by a specialist company - air bubbles could slow it down. The branded chocolates were ready for collection but their third set of team t-shirts still hadn't arrived. Worse, the professionally sprayed paint on the car proved five times heavier than anticipated.
"The degree of accuracy involved in the construction of these cars is frightening," said Don Sankey, manager of the F1 In Schools centre at Yas Marina Circuit. To be light, fast and aerodynamic enough to reach average finalist speeds of 50 kph, students had to consider everything from wheel-bearings to tyre material. It took months to perfect the design on computer before the car could be cut from a small block of balsa wood, and this was then just a fraction of the project.
"The business of motor sport is this giant animal, only a small part of which is racing the car," Sankey added. Students also had to conquer a range of other fields, including business and marketing to reach the final. Then they had to find a way to cover the costs themselves. The project would encourage participants "to mirror a real Formula One team," and this, Sankey pointed out, "Does not mean getting your bills footed by mum and dad." Through the Yas Marina centre, he hopes to show students that anyone can pursue a career in the sport, whatever their particular strengths.
Among the most challenging aspects of the competition, which included the Best Presentation, Fastest Car and Best Pit Display categories, was also Marketing and Sponsorship. With flights, hotels and branded merchandise to consider, teams often wracked up costs in excess of Dh100,000. A week before the championship in Singapore, Team Impulse still had around Dh20,000 to find. A sponsorship deal that they had banked their hopes on failed to materialise and they had just days to raise the requisite funds.
After a few emergency emails, presentations and meetings, the finance-savvy students managed to get the backing of a few additional companies. In total, they contacted more than 70 companies, attended numerous networking events and even held cake sales - whatever it took to get them to the final. Their immense effort was rewarded when they received the Best Sportsmen prize after they lent a rival team a laptop for their presentation.
Before the project, few of the six Team Impulse members had any interest in Formula One. Now, Dominic Palubiski says he follows it "fanatically," another insists he would like to pursue a career there, while a third has gone from loathing public speaking to being a master of it. For Yas Marina, this is all part of the plan. Ultimately, Sankey said, he wants to "bridge the gap between the UAE classroom and Yas Marina Circuit".
"If this circuit and this business wants to be run by Emirati students in the future, it has to start in schools," he added.