Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Nichols developed an interest in racing in his teens, through karting and reading Car & Driver magazine. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Utah and in 1972 joined Hercules Inc., which was expanding into defence-related rocketry at the time. He spent the next four years working with the then relatively new carbon composite materials, then, in 1976, keen for a closer involvement in racing, he moved to the Gabriel company to design Indycar dampers. It was while doing this that he first met John Barnard - who was designing Indycars for Parnelli and then Chaparral. The two discussed building carbon composite monocoques for F1 and when Barnard was hired by Ron Dennis's Project 4 team in 1980, he quickly hired Nichols to work with him on the MP4/1 chassis. Project 4 took over the McLaren F1 team shortly afterwards and in the few years Barnard, Nichols and fellow engineers Alan Jenkins, Neil Oatley, Tim Wright and Gordon Kimball produced a string of hugely successful TAG Porsche-powered cars with which Niki Lauda and Alain Prost won five Drivers' and Constructors' World Championships.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 collected 15 historic wins in the 1988 season. By the end of the year, however, Nichols had fallen out with Dennis as well and in January 1989 he moved to Ferrari to replace Barnard as head of the chassis design department.With aerodynamicist Jean-Claude Migeot he produced the radical Ferrari F92A but this flopped badly and Nichols was soon on his way to Sauber, where he worked briefly on the design of the Sauber-Ilmor C13. He spent most of 1993 out of racing and lasted only a few months at Jordan in 1994 before joining the stillborn Junior Team project in the Spring of 1995.In July 1995 he agreed to return to McLaren where he became Head of Vehicle Engineering, being involved not only in Formula 1 but also in the company's other automotive programmes as well.At the end of 2000 he was named to replace Gary Anderson as technical director of Jaguar Racing but the Jaguar R3, produced under his control was a disaster and he departed the team at the start of 2002.