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McLaren hires Nichols!

MCLAREN boss Ron Dennis has chosen American Steve Nichols to lead the long-overdue technical revival at McLaren. Nichols is expected to use most of the engineers currently at McLaren, but is likely to recruit one or two new men as well before work on the 1996 chassis begins at the end of this month.

Although the announcement of Steve's return to Woking was played down by the team, it is a significant event because it underlines the fact that Ron Dennis has been forced to accept that he cannot rely on a faceless engineering department. Nichols quit McLaren in 1989 because Dennis gave fellow designer Neil Oatley control of design, despite the fact that Steve had just produced the team's most successful car: the MP4/4, which won 15 of the 16 Grands Prix in 1988.

For Nichols it is a return to the limelight after what has been a chequered career in recent years. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February, 1947, Steve graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in mechanical engineering and went to work for the Hercules Aerospace company, spending four years working with the new carbon composite materials. A racing fan from an early age, Nichols then joined the Gabriel company, designing dampers for Indycar racing, and while doing this, he met John Barnard, who was interested in building a carbon composite F1 monocoque and so hired Steve in 1980 to join the Project 4 design team. When Project 4 merged with - and ultimately took over - McLaren, Nichols worked alongside Barnard and fellow engineers Alan Jenkins (now at Arrows), Oatley and Tim Wright (now at Benetton). When Barnard left McLaren in 1986 after falling out with Dennis, it was Nichols who took over, producing the magnificent MP4/4, the first Honda-powered McLaren, with which Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna dominated the 1988 season. Nichols also fell out with Dennis and left the team in 1989 to replace Barnard as head of chassis design at Ferrari. The radical - but unsuccessful - F92A led to his departure, and he moved on to Sauber where he worked briefly on the design of the Sauber-Ilmor C13 chassis. He spent most of 1993 out of racing and lasted only a few months at Jordan, before joining the stillborn Junior Team project last year.

Back in a top team and - presumably - having been given assurances by Dennis that he has complete control of the technical department, Nichols is capable of designing a car which will dig McLaren out of its current troubles and cement the Marlboro McLaren Mercedes triumvirate in 1995. His recruitment will help Dennis recruit a top driver to race alongside Mika Hakkinen next year and should help to ease the pressure on McLaren from Marlboro and Mercedes.

One man who might be tempted to join Nichols at McLaren is Tyrrell's deputy technical director Mike Gascoyne, who was recruited to McLaren by Nichols from the Westland Helicopter company back in 1989. The two also worked together at Sauber and from time to time compete against one another in pre-1983 Formula Ford 2000 racing in Britain.

The return of Nichols to McLaren is bad news for Oatley, but his days have been numbered since the team cockpit cock-up earlier this year, when Nigel Mansell was unable to fit into the MP4/10 chassis. It is also bad news for McLaren aerodynamicist Henri Durand, who worked briefly with Nichols at Ferrari before being replaced by Jean-Claude Migeot.

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