“Motorsport has completely changed my life for the better.”
British racing ace Nicolas Hamilton lives with cerebral palsy, and his condition has motivated him even more to realise his dreams – on the circuit and beyond. His passion, positivity and relentless campaigning for equal opportunities and diversity make him a perfect ambassador for MINI.
A cool but cosy industrial loft in East London in early July. Nicolas welcomes us with a firm handshake and a warm smile. The race car driver and brother of Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton is collaborating with MINI to celebrate the power of diversity at the upcoming European Championships 2022 in Munich. As a MINI host, the 30-year-old will represent the brand at several inspiring events. Before Nicolas hopped on his flight to Munich, he found time to tell us about his definition of diversity, his love for cars and how he realised his biggest dream despite the challenges of living with cerebral palsy.
Nicolas, MINI has invited you to the European Championships 2022 in Munich, which is one of the biggest multi-sport events since the Olympic Games in 1972 in the Bavarian state capital. Do you know the city at all?
I have been to Germany many times and always loved it. German people are a friendly bunch. They are passionate about motorsport and love a good party. But I haven’t been to Munich yet so I’m excited to go.
What comes to mind when you think of Bavaria?
Obviously the Bavarian car industry and the impact it has made; Germany is such a leader in car production. I also like the football club Bayern Munich. I don’t drink beer, I hear you have some amazing sausages out there, so I would love to try those. I’m sure it will be great fun.
Do you have a special connection to MINI?
A MINI Cooper was my brother Lewis’ first car. The car has been in the family for years and so my dad will never sell it. My dad had it restored recently and looks after it very well. I remember one night when I was 15 years old, our parents were out and Lewis and I decided to have a cooking competition. We made a shopping list, hopped into the MINI to drive to the store – but then the car didn’t start. The battery was flat. So we had to bump start it. It’s a great car, don’t get me wrong, Lewis absolutely loved it! This was really the only time this happened, he must have left the headlights on or something. Eventually we got it going, bought all the ingredients and Lewis cooked some pasta, which tasted rubbish. I cooked a steak with peppercorn sauce – so I won easily.
A MINI Cooper was my brother Lewis’ first car. The car has been in the family for years and so my dad will never sell it.
MINI celebrates all aspects of diversity. What does this term mean to you?
Diversity is very important to me. It’s about having equal opportunities in any area of life. But you have to be careful that this term is not just used as a box-ticking exercise that has no substance to it. Motorsport for instance is very hard to access. People feel that it’s run by money – which it is to some extent – and that it’s suited more to the white demographic. That’s why I think more diversity is so important, especially in the automotive industry. There are so many awesome jobs out there and opportunities for everyone regardless of their background.
Do you hope to inspire more people to break into the automotive industry?
Big car manufacturers employ thousands of people in the factory, from engineering and aerodynamics to marketing. There are always roles available but sometimes people of colour may feel they don’t deserve to be there. Or that they do not belong in the industry. It’s difficult because change has to come from the top and I think education and understanding is key. But we are making progress – the same is true when you look at disability. A lot of people have a better understanding of how to be more inclusive. But obviously there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Together with MINI you spread the message of BIG LOVE. What is your biggest love?
It’s the desire to drive a race car. Without this love of racing I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be as independent. I wouldn’t have overcome my condition. I would still be in a wheelchair. Motorsport has completely changed my life for the better. And it still keeps me going and gives me a reason to get up in the morning and improve. Because the more I improve my condition, the more competitive I can be. And the stronger I am, the more independent I can be in daily life. I don’t think that my love for motorsport will ever die.
What sparked your love for motorsport?
I got addicted at a very early stage. I was constantly following Lewis’ career, going to all the race circuits and being around motorsport. I always wanted to race cars, but I didn’t think I would ever be able to because of my cerebral palsy. So I turned my attention to gaming. I spent hours playing race car games. I learnt a lot about car setup and the basics like braking, accelerating and turning. But my dream was to sit in a real car.
Doctors said you might never be able to walk but you proved them wrong. How did you realise your dream?
Overcoming my condition was not an easy thing to do, both physically and mentally. I was struggling to understand my purpose and the reason I was here on this planet when I was disabled and all of my friends were able-bodied. It took me going to school with able-bodied children and learning the way of living in an able-bodied world, but in a body with a disability, to really get an understanding of what is next. Initially, I could not walk very much, and I could not continue walking at school, so I started to use a wheelchair daily at the age of 12. Although the wheelchair helped my general movement day to day at school, I got bullied. By the time I was 17 and had been in a wheelchair for five years, I knew I needed to do something to help me physically. I found my passion and determination to get out of the wheelchair and prove people wrong through motorsport.
Where does your determination come from?
My parents were very strong with me. They never allowed me to take the easy route. They wanted me to try very hard to become as independent as possible whilst supporting me at the same time. They said: Look, we’re not always going to be here for you. So you’ve got to figure out what you can and what you can’t do. And if you can’t do something, you work hard until you feel you can physically do it.
What did your training involve?
My training was fully focused on leg strength. Because I had been in a wheelchair for five years or so, my leg muscles were very weak. So weak that I struggled to walk to the toilet and back again without getting tired. When I got the opportunity to race, I knew that braking was a very important part. The more force you can push on the brake pedal, the later you can brake, and the faster you can become overall. When I first started training, I could only push ten kilograms with both of my legs, and I knew that I needed to get to around 90 kilograms to be in the same place as able-bodied drivers. So I trained every day in the gym for up to three hours and eventually was able to push 130 kilograms with my left leg.
My parents were very strong with me. They never allowed me to take the easy route.
What is your inspiration?
My mum is a huge inspirational figure to me, she’s an incredible person. If I didn’t have my mum, I don’t know what I would do. She has built me through her love, care and motherly instinct. Of course, my brother and my father have been huge figures for me. Without them all, I would not be the man I am today. Outside of my family there’s Alex Zanardi, the former Formula 1 driver who lost both his legs and later won four Paralympic gold medals. That’s pretty incredible. But as time goes on and as I get older, I realise that it’s probably myself that inspires me the most. Because getting up every day is a challenge. I always seem to overcome it, despite all my mental and physical struggles.
What are your proudest achievements?
Being the first driver with a disability to compete in the British Touring Car Championship in 2015 was a big achievement. Then scoring my first points in 2020 was amazing. It was a culmination of a lot of hard work and determination. I’m the only person in the field with a disability. I like to class myself as a Paralympian competing in the Olympics.
Have you ever taken your parents for a ride in your race car?
I took my mum and dad to Snetterton Circuit (editor's note: Situated in the British county of Norfolk) last year. It was a huge moment for us, because when I was born, I wasn’t breathing, and my parents were told I might not make it. I could have been disabled for 30 years and not have a direction of where I was going in life. People were always telling my parents that life would be tough and difficult because of my condition. And then 30 years later I’m driving a British Touring Car with them in the passenger seat. To drive them and for them to put their trust in me was very special.
How do you hope to inspire people with your remarkable story?
Initially it was just about me and my motorsport. But as I’m getting older, I’m rethinking what my purpose is. I’m now trying to take myself out of the spotlight and rather shed a light on other inspiring people that I find along the way. I would also like to offer support to parents with disabled children, teenagers and adults themselves as I know how hard it is mentally to grow up with a disability and what it feels like when you get bullied at school. I hope that my story and what I continue to showcase on a daily basis inspires new generations for years to come.
Apart from motorsport, what are your life goals?
I would love to do a TV show with inspiring people as guests. I want to write a book and do even more public speaking. By sharing my story, maybe I can help people to realise that just being yourself is fine. You don’t need to fit into the world. Instead, you build your own world and create a place where you feel confident.
ABOUT NICOLAS HAMILTON.
Nicolas Hamilton, 30, is a British Touring Car Championship driver. As a child he was told he would never walk due to his cerebral palsy and would spend his life reliant on a wheelchair. But by the age of 17, he could walk unaided thanks to his determination and training. Nic is a rising star of the British motorsport scene and has become the first driver with a disability to compete in the British Touring Car Championship, achieving his first points finish in 2020.