Nicolas Hamilton was born with cerebral palsy, but it hasn’t stopped him striving for success on the world stage in the adrenaline-packed sport of motor racing. He talks to Julie Nightingale about the thrill of the racetrack, celebrating uniqueness and tackling bullies with the help of big brother Lewis.
People who are held back or overlooked as children may grow up feeling they have a point to prove as adults, driving them to excel beyond all expectation, and Nicolas Hamilton is a classic example.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, feeling unsupported at school and periodically bullied, he has nevertheless risen to compete at senior level in motor racing, an international sport where physical fitness, endurance and mental acuity are all key.
Sibling rivalry may even have been another factor driving him on – his brother is Sir Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula One world champion, and it was seeing Lewis’s early success that inspired Nicolas’s interest in the sport.
Now 29, Nic races in the British Touring Car Championship where he was the first disabled athlete to compete in 2015 and the first to score points in 2020. Racing at speeds often pushing 150mph, he is currently part of a four-car team driving a Cupra Leon.
Growing up in Stevenage, he had struggled to come to terms with his disability, having been told he was unlikely ever to walk, and the school system seemed ill-equipped to help as he grew up.
“School was quite a difficult period of my life,” he says. “I was a kid trying to come to terms with my condition and I couldn’t really understand why I was the way I was. When I went to secondary school I made some choices, such as deciding to use a wheelchair, and though things were fine at first, when I got to 15 or so I pretty much got bullied. And that whole experience changed how I saw things. Kids who thought they were being cool would pick on me because I was an easy target. They would pull me backwards in my wheelchair, so I was pretty much helpless or try to push me over and just laugh at pretty much everything about me.”
He turned to his big brother for help and Lewis encouraged him to do wheelies and other tricks in a bid to make being in a wheelchair cooler.
“Really, though, he knew we were just trying to change me into someone else whereas you should never change yourself to fit in with anybody. And so, I just kept going. I didn’t decide to get out of the wheelchair or try to act differently. I just tried to ignore them as much as possible.”
Lack of insight
Problems like the ones he experienced arise because the needs of a disabled child extend beyond the physical aids of ramps or lowered desks, he thinks. There’s a lack of insight into the experience of a disabled child and exactly what it is like to be navigating a world and society designed for non-disabled people, which is key to the problem.
“I don’t think teachers really understand what it’s like for a child not to feel popular or included by their friends and fellow pupils or when someone doesn’t necessarily feel like they are welcome,” he says. “No teacher got behind me and said to the other children, ‘This is Nic, he has a difference, everybody has differences, so try and help him as much as possible, because he’s a valuable pupil to this school.’”
Today, overcoming barriers and developing self-belief is one of his key themes when he gives talks to organisations and he encourages young people with disabilities to celebrate their differences as strengths.
“You’ve got to be proud of who you are. I came to an understanding where, to me, [non-disabled] people all walked the same way and weren’t any different from one person to the next where I was unique. And I started to be proud of being unique and being different.”
Motor racing is where he has concentrated that motivation, following his brother into the world of a supremely competitive sport in which disaster can loom at every turn.
“You have to out-smart other people in a race and be almost cut-throat to beat them. For me, it’s also a way of proving my doctors and all the bullies wrong in terms of what I could achieve. I’m a disabled athlete racing against [non-disabled] people; I like to think of myself as a Paralympian in the Olympics.”
He chose motor racing as his goal, having seen Lewis competing around the world, but, once he’d convinced his parents to let him pursue a career in the most dangerous of sports, his application for a racing licence was initially rejected by the motorsport authorities.
“They thought I would be a danger but I’m used to being doubted before I even start so, for me, it was a natural thing just to keep fighting.”
Lewis Hamilton has established the Hamilton Commission to investigate the lack of representation of Black people in UK motorsport and Nic shares his brother’s concerns about the lack of diversity.
“I completely agree with Lewis, seeing the way motorsport is, and realising there are hardly any people of colour who are engineers, aerodynamicists or part of a team. It’s important for anyone to feel as though they belong and they deserve to be there.”
Other people’s stories
In terms of his own campaigning ambitions, Nic has backed the UK’s first racing academy for disabled drivers, is an ambassador for charities such as Speed of Sight (www.speedofsight.org) and is in demand as a motivational speaker. He aims to build on his profile to bring the stories of other people with disabilities to light.
“I feel like I’m leading a positive life for disabled people and showing what can be achieved with a disability. In the next three to five years I want to bring other disabled people to the fore to hear about their story. There are so many people in this world with a story who don’t have the ability to share it but when you share your story, it creates a feel-good factor.
“I also hope to do more on TV so that people sitting at home who don’t know anything about motorsport, suddenly see me and see that, if I can do it, your son can do it, your daughter can do it, you can do it.”
"YOU’VE GOT TO BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE. I CAME TO AN UNDERSTANDING WHERE, TO ME, [NON-DISABLED] PEOPLE ALL WALKED THE SAME WAY AND WEREN’T ANY DIFFERENT FROM ONE PERSON TO THE NEXT WHERE I WAS UNIQUE. AND I STARTED TO BE PROUD OF BEING UNIQUE AND BEING DIFFERENT.” - NICOLAS HAMILTON
ASCL ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2022
Nicolas Hamilton is speaking at the ASCL Annual Conference at the ICC Birmingham, 11-12 March 2022 – find out more and book your place at www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference
Freelance Education Writer