Features - Exclusive Interview
DECEMBER 18, 2000
BY ALAN HENRY
"The real challenge of Formula 1 is whether you want to be in or out. If you want to be in the front line, that means a lot of travelling. During my last stint at McLaren I'd stepped away from that front line. But if you want to be really involved, you've got to come to the races. And I wanted to be really involved - which is why I accepted the invitation to join Jaguar."
At 53 years old, Nichols could hardly be described as one of Grand Prix racing's "bright young things." He has been hired for his immense diversity of experience in the F1 front line which extends back to the early 1980s when he was Niki Lauda's race engineer on the McLaren International squad.
He's a man who knows the priorities, appreciates the value of keeping calm in a crisis and - hopefully for Jaguar - knows some of the short cuts. When one considers the wider canvass, it's no surprise that the pragmatic Bobby Rahal selected Steve as precisely the "safe pair of hands" which the team's engineering base needed to steer the program onto a competitive heading for the 2001 season.
"When you look at a team like Jaguar, you have to admit that they've come quite a long way in a relatively short space of time," says Nichols. "They had a pretty good year, as Stewart, in 1999, and I think that fact accentuated the pain they have suffered in dropping to ninth in this year's World Championship.
"Probably that previous year was a little bit fortuitous - and a lot of their points, of course, came from Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello finishing first and third at the Nurburgring. Just one race. So they may have felt they were ahead of where they really were and perhaps too much, too soon was expected of the Jaguar package. So that increased the pain.
"I look on Jaguar as an opportunity. I've been at McLaren on two separate occasions when they were down and having to climb back to the top. That's the most interesting part; the journey to the top. Once you're on top, it turns into a bit of a nightmare trying to stay there!."
Just as Eddie Irvine came to Jaguar from Ferrari, so Nichols has arrived from the direction of F1's other contemporary super-team. He admits that it gives him a shrewd baseline perspective from which to judge the overall picture.
"I think everybody at Jaguar realizes that we have to raise the standard of our game in pretty well all areas," he says. "You have to get the basics right before you move on to refine some of the more esoteric elements of the organization, areas where Ferrari and McLaren are so strong.
"A lot of people perhaps don't understand that you have to be sure that you have to do all the basic things properly; whether this is the manufacturing processes or operating the cars. It may seem dull and boring, but it has to be done. I am also a strong believer that reliability issues are paramount; getting it right is a long, hard slog. It's not glamorous.
"Getting another 50 pounds of aerodynamic downforce is glamorous is glamorous, but if the car's parked up at the side of the track, what's the point? No point in saying 'well, we were fast, but didn't finish.'
How did Nichols feel about coming into Jaguar to take over an existing program. "In many ways it's always difficult whenever you come into a new team, because the nature of F1 is such that the design process is continual and any car that you design is effectively just a snapshot of that process at any given time.
"What we have to concentrate on now is to make sure that the Jaguar R2 is on time for its unveiling in January and that we get sufficient pre-season testing so that it's reliable, and the drivers understand it, prior to the first race in Melbourne. Then, having looked at this car and developed it through the coming year, we'll develop a reasonable idea of what we can do in the longer term."
Nichols is excited by the Michelin dimension. "I don't think that anybody is under any illusions about the enormity of the task, but there are very good people. I think Michelin is a very good company and I'm sure they will get there. Knowing their expertise, I think it will be sooner rather than later, although I think they're currently a bit behind on their dry tires development."
He is also upbeat about Eddie Irvine's input; "he is a good man. I'm impressed, but then I've always tended to like racing drivers." Nichols, an amateur single seater racer himself, grins as though this is a rather unusual remark for an engineer to make.
Interestingly, both men admit they are Jaguar enthusiasts as road car aficionados. Nichols admits that, when he was younger, he would drool over a top ten list which included the XK120 and XK150S classics. Irvine is a little more contemporary, enthusing over his company car - a current XKR - which he describes as "an absolutely brilliant machine" capable of travelling from his yacht at Portofino to his apartment in Milan in just an hour's high speed indulgence.