Feature

Nicolas Hamilton's Inspirational Shift From Gamer To Race Car Driver

by Elise Favis on Dec 25, 2016 at 10:00 AM

At seven years old, Nicolas Hamilton went to an empty parking lot with his father and hopped into a go-kart for a test run. His legs were weak because of his cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by abnormal brain development, affecting muscle and motor function. He strapped his feet tightly to the pedals to ensure they wouldn’t slip, but even with this added measure, he soon spun out of control. The go-kart flipped over, falling down a six-foot ravine with Nicolas still inside.

From then on Hamilton’s parents forbade him from any kind of racing. This didn’t stop his need for speed, though, as he resorted to the next best thing: racing games. By honing his skills and competing in eSports tournaments, his hard work began paying off in unexpected ways. Soon, he was helping with game development for Project Cars and launching into a professional racing career.

This article originally appeared in issue #282 of Game Informer magazine.

“I’ve always wanted to be in motorsports from a young age,” Hamilton says. “I was born a racer.”

Racing plays a large role in the Hamilton family’s lives. Lewis Hamilton, Nicolas’ older half-brother, is a three-time Formula One world champion. From watching his brother compete in various races each weekend, Nicolas’ love for motorsports progressed from hobby to passion. But becoming a race-car driver always seemed more like a fantasy. “I always wanted to get into it, but I never thought it would be possible due to my condition with cerebral palsy,” he says. “It wasn’t really in the cards for me to race.”

The Virtual Racer

Diagnosed at three years old, the doctors told his family he would never walk, let alone talk. When he was four, he underwent what he describes as a “life-changing” operation, which loosened up the muscles in his legs, and allowed him to regain some control. However, he was confined to a wheelchair for some of his early life.

Nowadays, he sees his condition less as an obstacle, and more as just part of his everyday grind. “It’s like anything,” he says. “Once you get used to one thing, it might start off as a challenge, but as you get used to it, it just becomes part of everyday life.”

During his late teens, Nicolas discovered the world of simulation racing, which seemed like a reasonable substitution for his unlikely dream. His interest stemmed initially from Rock n’ Roll Racing, a car-combat racing game, which he played on the Sega Genesis at the age of six. He later advanced to sim titles. “There weren’t really simulation [racing] games at that time; they were more arcade games,” he says. “I got seriously into [sim racing] when I got a demo for GTR, which was made by Simbin Studios.”

The demo left such a strong impression on him that he went out to buy the full copy of GTR, along with a steering-wheel setup. Unable to use the pedals, he instead controlled the car’s speed via button inputs. “I wasn’t able to have fast enough reactions to brake and accelerate, so I learned a technique on the buttons to be able to be quick and compete,” he says.

Following GTR, he played Race 07, a 2007 title from veterans of Simbin Studios, who formed to create Sector3. This was the game where Nicolas first delved into online competitive racing. “I got into being part of a community and started to race with the best drivers in the world in sim gaming,” he says. After spending countless hours refining his skills and learning the ins and outs of sim racing games, he entered an eSports British Championship in 2009 and won, despite using a cheap £20 steering wheel. 

“These people I was racing against had steering wheels that cost £500 to £1,000, and I had a £20 steering wheel, and I just stuck it on the end of my desk,” he says. “It was so cheap that every time after a couple of months, the buttons would start to stick because I used it so much, because I had to accelerate and brake on them.”

One night, during one of his online tournaments, his brother Lewis took the time to watch him play. Instantly impressed, Lewis suggested that he should race for real. Nicolas initially refused, telling his brother, “That’s not possible, that’s not going to happen.” But after some prodding, he relented.

Shifting Gears

Once Hamilton hit the track, he zoomed faster than even the instructors at the Jonathan Palmer driving school. In the next three months, he was fulfilling his dream of entering the professional world of race-car driving. To do so, he uses a specially modified car with widened pedals and a hand clutch.

“My first ever test in a proper race car was only three weeks before my first race,” he says.

In 2011, Hamilton competed in the Renault Clio Cup, driving for Total Control Racing. Despite coming in last, he amassed recognition from fans and followers. In 2013, he moved up to the European Touring Car Cup, and then competed in the British Touring Car Championship in 2015, making him the first disabled driver to take part.

His accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed. In 2012, he landed a job with Slightly Mad Studios, a London-based racing-game studio that was developing the game Project Cars. After coming up with a concept for a game, Hamilton contacted a friend of his at Codemasters, who suggested he reach out to Slightly Mad Studios.

“It wasn’t anything to do with a job,” he says. “He just said, ‘If you want to get involved in it, I can introduce you.’ I said yes and he gave me an introductory email, and it seemed like Slightly Mad already knew who I was. It was pretty bizarre, but it was an opportunity that I wouldn’t turn down for the world.”

Hamilton stepped in at Slightly Mad as their handling consultant, but his role became much more substantial. At the beginning, the studio asked him to play the game a few times to get a feel for it, then report back. Soon enough, however, he was directly involved with the conceptual side of development, changing aspects of the game. “Here we are, nearly four years later. I’m now working on Project Cars 2 and it’s been a pretty phenomenal journey,” he says. “Having learned that Slightly Mad actually started from SimBin Studios, which created the games that I grew up on and started my career with, it’s as if it’s almost meant to be.”

Hamilton is not the first to hone his skills in games and eventually transition to behind the wheel of a race car. In 2011, Gran Turismo player Jann Mardenborough made the same jump, and others have done so as well. “I mean, I’m not the only person who’s done it,” he says. “So many people out there have. I’m just one of the unique individuals that have gotten an opportunity, was born with a condition, and sort of created my own path and my own way.” He believes that racing games can be an impressive training tool for those that aspire to race for real.

Today, Hamilton continues to progress in the world of race-car driving, as well as develop Project Cars’ sequel with Slightly Mad Studios. But most of all, he continues to inspire others with his indomitable courage, as he zooms down the race track in spite of his challenges.