Not so many years ago, Nicolas Hamilton could only dream of being a professional driver. A sufferer of cerebral palsy, he thought he'd never follow in the footsteps of his seven-years-senior half-brother Lewis, Formula One champion in 2008 and 2014. So he turned his desire for speed to simulations, super-detailed video game versions of what Lewis was doing for real.
"I grew up playing simulation games – that's the foundation of my racing career," Nicolas tells me. "I was into simulations before I ever did it for real. And growing up with my condition, with cerebral palsy, so I didn't think I'd ever be able to race for real.
"The first proper simulation game I got my hands on was GTR, as I got a demo through the door. I bought the proper version of that, and got really into it. I started using buttons on the steering wheel to accelerate and brake, so I didn't have to use my legs. And then I ended up buying all of [GTR developer] SimBin's games that they brought out, pretty much, and all the expansion packs and everything. I was a massive fan of those games, to start with, and massively into simulation games – I played in championships, in Britain and abroad, and saw it as my mode of motorsport while my brother was doing it for real. I thought I'd never be able to do that, so I was having a career in the virtual world."
The real world caught up. In 2011, with a number of vehicle modifications made, Nicolas was able to race in Britain's Renault Clio Cup, finishing a more than respectable 14th out of 28 drivers who began the series. He raced a second season in the same discipline, before moving to the European Touring Car Cup in 2013. Earlier this month (April 2015), he was confirmed as the first disabled driver to compete in the British Touring Car Championship, racing an AmD-tuned Audi S3.
Nicolas's long-held love of racing games and hands-on experience in the sport proper – not to mention close ties with an F1 champion, of course – made him an ideal consultant for the creation of a new video game aiming to bring unprecedented levels of realism to couch-drivers the world over: Project CARS.
Funded by a community of games players and makers, with development spearheaded by London's Slightly Mad Studios and publishing the responsibility of Bandai Namco Entertainment, this newcomer to the circuit, hoping for a podium finish, has suffered its share of release delays. But having played it for a few hours myself, it's clear that this time is being spent ensuring that every detail of the game is as perfect as it can be at release – Slightly Mad isn't going down the route of putting out an unfinished product only to patch it substantially a few weeks later.
'Project CARS', Become a Legend trailer
Unlike Nicolas, I've never had all that much time for "real life" racing games – I prefer the Sega-blue skies of the Out Run series, the frantic pace of F-Zero, and the comedy clashes that Mario Kart provides. I'd rather play a title indebted to Wipeout over anything proudly bearing an official F1 license, but, against my expectations, I very quickly became sucked into Project CARS. Being able to set up the weather for one of what feel like hundreds of courses, and choose from a roster of vehicles that stretches on forever, really gave me a tailored experience of unrivalled appeal, for a game of this ilk. I found the handling of the open-wheel cars a little difficult to get comfortable with, but switching to more modestly powered options – the Ford Focus being an early favourite – allowed me to quickly become competitive over three laps of Brands Hatch.
"There are going to be people out there who just want to jump in and drive, and for it to be really easy," Nicolas, rightly enough, observes. "And Project CARS provides that option – you can make it relatively easy. But we do want this realism, and I know from my experience from seeing friends play the game, people who don't usually like racing games can get into this. They do persevere, and keep trying, because there's more going on that just accelerating and steering occasionally. You stay on the circuit that way – but change the settings and it becomes a task to just get round the corners, as you have to think about every little detail. But if it gets too hard, you can cater the game to how you are as a driver, and how you are as a gamer."
Nicolas sees Project CARS, at its upper-level difficulty settings, as being not only an experience akin to the simulators of his youth, but also a hugely useful tool for fledgling racers looking to make the move to professional status.
"For me, this is the best off-the-shelf simulation game you're going to be able to get, when it comes out. Every car in the game, we've really worked on developing the physics, how the tyres perform – you have to approach the game like a real racing driver, and every car you drive does feel different from the last one. Whereas games like Gran Turismo have all these different cars, but they all drive in a very similar way.
"With this concept, the physics match how the car would feel in real life. So when you do go and drive a ton of laps around Le Mans, the tracks have been scanned. A load of different drivers have driven for this game, to make it as realistic as possible. (To paraphrase the game's marketing, it's "by the racers, for the racers".) So yeah, I think it's a great tool to use. It's definitely something that pro drivers can use to develop on."
I can't really comment too much on how the game replicates each and every model of car available to players, because I've never taken a supercar out for a spin. But I can say that bombing down a straight in a limits-pushing road car, and then slamming on the brakes for a turn that you only just make before hitting the accelerator to tear away for another rush to top-speed running is quite the thrill. I could have sat there and played it all day – and may well have done, had the accommodating people at Bandai Namco not needed the same code for further preview sittings. When I play the game again, at the company's Level Up showcase in early April, the same things stand out to me: the blood-surging pace, the bumper-bashing AI, the stunning weather effects. Seriously, I don't think anyone's ever made rain, both in the air and pooled on the ground, look this awesome.
"Driving in the rain, in real life, separates the men from the boys, I'd say," Nicolas tells me. "It's all about who's got the biggest balls, really – as you reach the stage where you really can't see much, and you've got so much going on inside the car, and out on the track. The track completely changes, and we wanted to make sure we could implement that in the game.
"I came up with loads of ideas to help improve the game to make it more realistic, and we've really knocked the nail on the head, let's say, to the point where you really have to drive within your limits in the wet. You have to be focused, and delicate with the steering and your braking, as it's easy to lock up, slide off and crash. That's what we have to learn in real life, for driving in bad weather."
And having had such a close relationship with driving sims before he got his own break in the professional world, Nicolas is naturally made up that he's been able to participate in the making of what, he hopes at least, will be regarded as a more than worthy addition to today's crop of acclaimed racers.
"I'd been wanting to be a part of a game, of a project like this, for a long time. When this opportunity came up, it was a dream come true, really. Originally they approached me just for some brief advice, and some feedback, but I really wanted to maximise this chance and I took it with both hands. I really wanted to help, and it got to the stage where it meant something to me. This project is deep within my heart and it's something I wanted to really push, and help with."
I'm certainly optimistic that Project CARS will be met by a positive reception on release on the 8th of May (for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), based on what I've seen and played. It might lack red shells, and there's no chance of hearing "Passing Breeze" as you bolt along a Brno straight, but it's already changing my attitude to realism-first racers. If the end product reflects even half the passion that people like Nicolas have put into it, it's sure to do just fine.