Online gaming was his gateway to professional racing

Nicolas Hamilton conquered cerebral palsy to become a race car driver.

When Nicolas Hamilton was born, two months premature, his family was told he would never walk. He had a form of cerebral palsy that would cause a constant stiffness in the lower half of his body. By the age of 11 he was restricted to a wheelchair, but that didn't stop him from wanting to become a race car driver. He had direct exposure to a Formula One world champion in the family: His elder half brother, Lewis Hamilton, went from casual karting on the weekends to winning three F1 championships.

Over the years, he fought to regain motion in his legs. The odds of his ever driving a race car were stacked against him. But that started to change when he encountered the world of simulated racing. Unbeknownst to him, spending hours in the virtual world was laying the foundation for his professional career. He stayed and succeeded in the online world for years, moving through the cycles of sim-racing championships, before he got behind the wheel of a real car. He made his race debut in 2011 with Britain's Renault Clio Cup and moved on to the European Touring Car Cup two years later. Most recently, he became the first driver with a disability to compete in the British Touring Car Championship.

Hamilton's transition from a wheelchair to a race car has inspired many. While he continues to push past his physical limitations, he has also been working behind the scenes as an adviser for Project CARS since 2012. The powerful racing simulator, from London-based Slightly Mad Studios, was built on an unconventional crowdfunding model, and it got rave reviews for its handling of the cars, the accuracy of its racetrack ambience and its elaborate control options. A year after its much-anticipated launch, the independent developer recently released a Game of the Year edition, with new cars and circuits, to keep the hype alive.

For the sequel to Project CARS, which is currently in the making, the studio continues to work with Hamilton to build an authentic racing experience. I gave Hamilton and Stephen Viljoen, the game director at Slightly Mad Studios, a call to find out more about their ongoing collaboration and the ways in which simulated racing can prep a driver for the real circuits.

When did you first get interested in simulated racing?

Nicolas Hamilton: I have to say 2007-ish is when I got actively into it. GTR was the first game I tried in terms of simulation. It was cool, and it just developed from there. When I looked around on the internet, I found that there were championships for online gaming, and I got heavily into it. I decided online sim gaming could be something I could do for fun and learn about the sport at the same time.

In a recent Project CARS video, as you recap your journey beyond the sim world, you say, "Us being Hamiltons, we're all or nothing." What was it like growing up? How closely did you follow your brother's motorsport career?

Hamilton: I grew up with a condition, but I was around motorsport constantly. There's eight years between Lewis and myself. When I was growing up, he was getting into his motorsport career. It started out as a hobby at first; we went kart racing every weekend. But the better Lewis did and the more serious he got, the more serious the whole family got about it. As a family, when you're dedicated to motorsport, you eat, sleep and breathe the career. With us, we are all or nothing to the point that when we do something, we do it to the best or don't do it at all. That's [the approach] I've had throughout with my condition. If I'm going to try to achieve something, regardless of how tough it might and the obstacles I face, I grit my teeth and go for it or I don't do it at all. It's about reaching the goals you've set with the opportunities you've been given.

How did online gaming become a gateway for professional racing? At what point did you decide to move from the virtual world to the real races?

Hamilton: It wasn't really my decision. [At one point] my brother turned around and said, "You're pretty good online -- why don't you try it for real?" For me it was a big shock, because on the sim side I wasn't using pedals; I was always using buttons on a steering wheel because of my condition. I didn't know what was possible, whether it would be easy to make a transition. The biggest [concern] was the use of my legs. It was the hardest thing to overcome.

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F1 champion Lewis Hamilton (left) with brother Nicolas (right). Photo credit: Mark Baker, AP.

Tell me about your first experience driving a car on a real circuit.

Hamilton: The first car I drove was a BMW M3. I drove it around a circuit close to my house. We just wanted to go and have some fun and didn't think it was going to be competitive in terms of lap times. But I ended up being faster than the instructors that day. It was a big shock for everybody. My dad was pretty surprised that I could do it for real. Then, to make sure it wasn't a fluke, we went back a couple of weeks later to see if it was just as good as before, which it was. It turned into something more from there. We made the decision to get me into racing for real and think of a championship to go into. We chose the [Renault] Clio Cup.

What was your biggest challenge at the time?

Hamilton: I only had a couple of days' practice in the car before my first race. I was very inexperienced. There were a lot of things I had to overcome in my head. It was very daunting to start with -- I felt very uncomfortable being in that position, because I felt like I wasn't prepared enough for a race where I was [competing] with people who had been racing for 10 or 15 years. It was very nerve-racking. But once [I started driving], my nerves disappeared and it was all about learning on each lap. I focused on improving and making sure I kept pushing forward.

What kinds of modifications were made to the car you drove?

Hamilton: If I was going to race, I wanted to make sure the car wasn't heavily adapted. I didn't want to use hand controls; I wanted to use my legs. When I drove a car for real, I had to make sure I could accelerate and brake with no issues. So we changed the pedals in the car to make it easier to accommodate my legs. In a standard car, there are clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. The first thing we did was we took the clutch out and put it on the back of the steering wheel, so I had a little paddle instead of the [foot] pedal. We also adapted the accelerator and brake to make it wider so I had more area to put my feet between speeding and breaking. We raised the seat up to make sure I could see, and that was pretty much it. It was minimal, and that's what I wanted.

You've been involved with Project CARS for a while. How did the collaboration with Slightly Mad Studios come about?

Hamilton: I've always wanted to be involved in the development of games. I had this idea for a game where you start with go-karts and move through the world of motorsport. At the time, around 2012, there wasn't a game out there where you could start at the beginner level and work your way through. I called someone I knew in the gaming industry and they said, "Have you heard of Project CARS?" I hadn't. It was pretty much everything I had in terms of a concept. I got an introduction, they agreed to get me on board and I've been working with Slightly Mad Studios as a handling consultant since November that year.

Stephen Viljoen: Nic first got into simulation racing with one of our previous simulators, so it's an interesting full circle that he's now on board and working with us. His role is that of a physics adviser, if you will. We have people like him on board to help fine-tune games and make the racing experience as authentic as possible. On a very basic level, when we're ready for feedback, we put a car in the simulation. Nic takes it out and drives it and give us feedback on how the tire felt and how the handling felt, literally as if he were driving a real car. We go back, iterate and make tweaks until he says the car is pretty much at the place where the real car would be. He's also invaluable in nailing the experience of being a motorsport driver. There's so much to it when you're not on track -- how things work with contracts and promotions and sponsorships. It's information that we find very useful and try to implement as far as possible into the design of the game. To simulate what it's like to be a motorsport driver, you have to simulate what it's like in its full spectrum.

Does the immersive world of sim racing prepare drivers for the real world?

Viljoen: Some drivers that we've worked with have claimed that it has helped them improve their position in the race. For example, for the Le Mans 24-hour race, we have the simulated track and the entire light cycle in Project CARS. So you can choose to race on, say, 26th June 2016 at 8 AM and our meteorological simulation will put the sun in the exact place where it will be at that time. So you can practice how it will affect your vision. [German racer] René Rast said when he did the real race, he knew exactly how the sun was going to rise, and being prepared for that helped him. Then we have drivers who feel that their car is so accurately simulated that they can actually use it to practice for a race offline so when they get into the real car they have that familiarity.

With other sports like golf and tennis, you can pick up the clubs or a racket and go practice. With motorsports, it's very expensive to go practice, unless you're in the top level of the sport and have a team that can pay for you to do it. A proper motor simulation can add a lot to a driver's practice time, especially during off-season, when you can't get access to a track. There's no doubt that it helps.

"Originally this was my dream, and it was about me and having a goal for myself, but then I started to realize how many people I could inspire and reach out to. Now I carry them with me. It's not just about me anymore." -- Nicolas Hamilton

Hamilton: I think gaming taught me all the basics I needed to know. In the sim world, I learned how to push myself to qualify and make changes to the car, but when it comes to actually preparing a [real] car, warming up the tires, the brakes and the feeling you get when you drive is completely different. You start to see how the temperatures of the circuit really affect the car in different ways. It's not until you get to a circuit and start driving for real that you learn more than what the game can give you.

Despite the differences, do you believe your interest and success in online gaming influenced your professional career?

Hamilton: If it wasn't for computer games, consoles and gadgets, I definitely wouldn't be in the position I'm in today. I started with PC games and consoles like Playstation 1 and 2 and eventually got the Xbox. My dad always said that I wouldn't make a career out of playing games. He wanted me to focus on business or read a book. But I followed what I wanted to do, and to be honest, if it wasn't for playing games, then I wouldn't have my career. I don't know if I'm one of the lucky ones or a lot of people do this, but for me it's all about following what you want to do. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but it means you have to try harder. The number of times I've been knocked down and had to get up is crazy.

Nicolas Hamilton (center) at Slightly Mad Studios with creative director Andy Tudor (left) and CEO Ian Bell (right).

What is it about racing that keeps you going?

Hamilton: I always wanted to race and pretty much always got turned down. My dad didn't want me to do it. He didn't think it would be possible with my legs. And since it's seen as a dangerous sport, he didn't want it to be dangerous for me. Now, the fact that I can do it makes me want to do it even more. Motorsport has been my life; it's all I know. I wouldn't say it's the adrenaline, but the desire to do it as best as possible. It's the desire of wanting to stand on top of the podium. It's what makes me feel good. Originally this was my dream, and it was about me and having a goal for myself, but then I started to realize how many people I could inspire and reach out to. Now I carry them with me. It's not just about me anymore.

Outside of your motorsport career, do you still stay involved in the development of Project CARS?

Hamilton: I have my career and I'm enjoying my racing, but I'm also knuckle-down at Slightly Mad [Studios] creating the second Project Cars right now. I've always wanted to work in the game industry regardless of racing or not. I'm sort of living the dream right now.

What can be expected from the simulated sequel?

Viljoen: There will be some significant changes. We'll be taking you to new surfaces through rally and ice racing and the various aspects that go into simulating the systems and how you get to the championship. We'll have a lot of new cars, even brands that we couldn't have before. Now that we're on the map, people recognize us. They're more willing to come to the table and agree on prices that we can actually afford to pay for some of these brands.

We'll have multiplayer enhancements and more support for VR. We'll be polishing features for more authentic experiences. For instance, with the first Project CARS we had the ability to do a 24-hour light-cycle simulation; now we will also be doing season simulations. You'll see snow in the winter or different leaf colors for autumn and it will dynamically change so you can set it to go through the seasons. It has such an impact on racing. For freezing temperatures on the racetrack, you want visual cues to know the effects it has on the car. Same with rainfall: It happens in various stages, so we'll now have it sunny in one part but there might be a rain cloud a few corners away. It will have realistic puddles and how they affect the handling of the car. And it won't be pre-generated art; it will be simulated to the scenes. The slope of the track will determine where the puddles fall. This is all in addition to it sounding and looking better.