The first thing you notice about Nic Hamilton is his facial resemblance to brother Lewis – handsome and puppyish. The second is his arm muscles – they’re huge. And the third is his legs – often they flop around or tense up disobediently. Nic, 19, has cerebral palsy.
If you thought Lewis Hamilton’s rise to be the youngest Formula One champion was remarkable, Nic’s story is even more incredible. After spending much of his life in a wheelchair, he too is now establishing himself as a racing driver. This week’s film in the BBC’s Beyond Disability season, Racing with the Hamiltons, documents his inspirational struggle to compete with able-bodied drivers.
Isn’t there something masochistic about doing that when your brother’s Lewis Hamilton? “In some ways it’s easier,” explains Nic. “People want to be involved with you because of the name and what you can bring them. Then it gets difficult because they expect so much, and don’t understand the difference between us. The fact that Lewis has been racing since he was eight, and I only started last year.”
Nic was born two months premature, and received insufficient oxygen to the brain. His speech and upper body are fine, but his legs have caused him huge problems. At four, he had a major operation – tendons were cut in his ankles, hamstrings and groin to improve mobility. But Nic was a born fighter. The first thing he did on waking, with both legs plastered, was stand up.
“I always say my brother is an inspiration to me,” Lewis points out in the film. “The times we played football outside and the times we were doing competitive things together, he would fall over constantly and he’d just get back up and try again. He never ever gave up.”
Nic loved school, he was smart, and he got on with life. He was optimistic, sociable (“People say I’m easier to approach than Lewis”) and mad about racing. He loved going to races with Lewis, and the other drivers adored him. Meanwhile he collated every fact and figure about the sport.
We meet at the mock-Tudor family home in Tewin, Hertfordshire, where Nic still lives with his mum (Linda) and dad (Anthony). The front garden is strewn with cars – a Mercedes here, a Mini there, a Ferrari or two to the side. Nic is well spoken, polite and mature. On the lounge table is a beautiful model of the first racing Mercedes, in the corner a well-used game of Monopoly. He is dressed in Reebok T-shirt, trackies and trainers – his sponsor.
Lewis, who is eight years older than Nic, has a different mother; the boys grew up together when Lewis, aged 12, came to live with his dad’s new family. What was he like as a brother? “He always called me chicken legs. I had no muscle in my legs and he knew it was important that I did.
“The whole Hamilton family is just tough love,” Nic says with a grin. “Lewis would never say, ‘Really well done, mate.’ For him it’s always, ‘You can still improve.’ ”
Nic says they have always competed ferociously over everything – not least in racing games on their computer.
“If we were playing a game and I found something that made me better than him, I’d never ever tell him what it was.” And was Lewis like that too? “Yes, 100 per cent. If one person is better than the other, we have to find out why.”
When Nic was 14, Lewis taught him how to use manual gears and they started racing each other on simulators. “We’d have two chairs in front of my PC and race.” Who won? “Well, the majority of the time he’d win the championship, but I’d win a couple of races. And if I was winning he’d sing stupidly or hum. Psychology. It would mess me up and I’d crash or make a mistake.” Nic says that edge is what makes Lewis a champion.
In the documentary – a wonderful portrait of a loving, unsentimental family – both parents make it clear that no special allowances are made for Nic’s cerebral palsy.
One day, aged 16, he had decided not to bother with his wheelchair, and that was it. He focused on building his leg strength. He’d always wanted to race, just like Lewis, and when he was seven his father had let him drive in a car park. The inevitable happened, and he crashed. That put Nic off for years. But once he was walking, his confidence returned.
At 17, he passed his driving test after just four lessons. He became British online simulation champion and, for his 18th birthday, Lewis gave him a personalised helmet. Nic kept badgering his father to let him drive a racing car, but got nowhere. “I don’t think he believed I’d do it to a good standard. My dad will only back my career if he thinks I can make it. He’s not going to do it just for fun.”
Nic admits there have been tensions. For many years his dad spent nearly all his time working with Lewis. “We weren’t as close as we could have been. I’ve always been a bit of a mummy’s boy.” Your dad sounds a bit scary, I say. “Yeah, he’s tough and he’s scary – but only for my benefit.”
Eventually his father took him for a day’s racing on a track. “My dad was just planning to let me pootle around and get it out of my system,” he says. In fact, Nic found he was in his element – in spite of having to use his whole foot to brake because he has no mobility in his toes. What was his dad’s reaction? “He had a smile on his face. It was almost like he couldn’t believe it.”
Over the past year he has made amazing progress. In his first season driving in the Renault Clio Cup, his best performance was finishing an impressive ninth out of 19, in a field of able-bodied drivers who’d been racing most of their lives. This season he’s hoping for at least one podium finish. He is now managed by his father, and says they’re closer than they’ve ever been.
Will his dad remain in the job? (After all, Lewis sacked his dad as manager.) “Yeah, even when he’s old and wrinkly – 100 per cent.”
And if he said, “You’ve done great, son, but not good enough”?
“I’d probably say it before him,” he says.
Nic never has a day without pain (vertebrae and his pelvis pop out, his back sometimes feels as if it’s being punched), but he says he has to put it to the back of his mind if he wants to get on. I tell him he’s in danger of becoming a role model, and I’m not sure if he looks embarrassed or pleased – perhaps a bit of both.
“When I started racing, my plan wasn’t to inspire people,” he says. “Thedriving ambitionn I realised people wanted to follow me and my career, and that made me want to make them realise they could do things they never thought they’d be able to do, purely because they thought their disability would stop them. So now I do see myself as that role model.”
Racing with the Hamiltons: Nic in the Driving Seat is on Tuesday 6 March, 9pm on BBC1
This is an edited version of an article from Radio Times magazine, published 29 February 2012.