By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - When John Surtees was a boy, his motorcycle dealer father came home one evening with news that would change his life.
"It was just after the war and he said: ‘Lad, I’ve sorted out those spanners for you. That’s your set. And there’s a tea chest and if you can put together what's inside it you can ride it," the 1964 Formula One champion recalled in an interview with Reuters.
Inside the crate was a motorcycle waiting to be assembled and the youngster, who remains the only man to win world championships on two wheels and four, needed no more encouragement.
"Before that I’d been playing lots of football and doing sports at school, but I’m afraid my evenings rather got taken up by putting that together," grinned the 80-year-old as he surveyed a room full of school children engaged in their own technical challenge.
Surtees may have been a born racer but he was also fascinated by the engineering side and managed his own Formula One team after retirement.
'F1 in Schools', a global competition whose London and south-east England regional finals Surtees was attending at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge soccer ground, puts a gleam in his eyes.
"The technology they are having to use in developing these cars, and the knowledge they are gaining, is something which will stand them in good stead throughout their lives," said the Briton.
"Formula One bridges out into so many areas. The technology is not just purely Formula One technology... so the opportunities there are immense. Engineering provides a fantastic challenge."
Now in its 12th season and featuring 42 countries, F1 in Schools offers budding boffins a genuine taste of the sport as well as the practical application of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related subjects.
The teams must raise sponsorship, draw up a business plan, design and make the tiny model cars and hold presentations before going racing on a 24-metre two-laned straight.
The stress, sleepless nights and euphoria that Lewis Hamilton felt when he won the Formula One title in Abu Dhabi last November were also familiar to the British 'Colossus' team who won the schools' title there.
"For nerves it was an absolute nightmare," recalled 17-year-old Charlie Flynn. "Going to sleep in the early hours because we were working so hard, not knowing what is going to happen the next day... it's horrendous for nerves.
"With F1 in schools you are always being judged. It is relentless," he added as the next crop of would-be finalists competed around him.
The championship (www.f1inschools.com), whose 2015 finals will be at the Singapore Grand Prix, is aimed at school children from nine to 19 and past winners have found placements with teams such as champions Mercedes, Red Bull, Lotus and McLaren.
Adrian Newey, designer of title-winning cars for McLaren, Williams and Red Bull, is a patron as is former Ferrari technical director and ex-Mercedes principal Ross Brawn. Former Jordan designer Gary Anderson is the top judge.
"We are the miniature version of F1," founder Andrew Denford told Reuters as teams put their cars through a speed test.
"Where there’s 600 in a factory, there’s six in a (Formula One in Schools) team and you’ve got every area in that factory covered by the six different people -- from the business and sponsorship and marketing plan to aerodynamics and manufacturing, wheel design, CFD and team management."
While the cars are cut from a block of balsa wood and powered by a gas canister, the technology applied to them is sophisticated.
In 2013 the winning car had a coating of vaporized metal while Colossus used front and rear aerofoils of laser sintered nylon and acetal resin wheels accurate to one micron.
There have also been controversies on a par with those in Formula One, with Flynn coming up with an aerodynamic device that nobody else had thought of in 11 years of competition.
The resulting record times had rivals scrambling to make something similar with 3D printers before the team from Robert May's school in Hampshire, southern England, made a sporting gesture and withdrew it.
"I think we had eight teams appealing against our little device," said team member Emma Baldry, 16. "A lot of people didn’t like it, especially as we were able to break the world record.
"But we still won without it because the whole competition takes in lots of aspects, it’s not just the racing. You have presentations and portfolios, and pressure challenges. So it all comes together."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)