Obituary: John Nicholson, 1941-2017

John Nicholson, who made one just grand prix start at Silverstone in 1975 but won two Formula 1 world championships as an engine builder, has died at the age of 75.

The New Zealander was best known for founding Nicholson-McLaren engines, one of the premier suppliers of Cosworth DFVs.

His products powered Emerson Fittipaldi to the title in 1974, and James Hunt two years later. Although he never had the finance or time with which to pursue a driving career at the top level, he showed considerable ability in the lower ranks, beating many future stars.

Born in Auckland in 1941, "Johnny Nick" followed his father into powerboat racing before moving into cars, racing Lotus and Brabham single-seaters.

In 1969 he became part of the wave of Antipodeans who headed to England in search of a future in motorsport. In Nicholson's case his reputation as an engine builder in New Zealand earned him a job offer from Bruce McLaren, for whom he worked on CanAm and F5000 programmes.

He subsequently set up his own business under the Nicholson-McLaren name. He would continue to service F1 engines for McLaren through the DFV era, while other F1 teams he supplied included Embassy Hill.

Having established himself in the UK he restarted his racing career, competing with a March in Formula Atlantic in 1971. The following year he campaigned a Lyncar, designed by former March man Martin Slater, and earned second in the British championship.

John Nicholson, Lyncar 006
John Nicholson, Lyncar 006

Photo by: Sutton Images

Using his own BDA engines he won Formula Atlantic titles in 1973 and 1974, against quality opposition that included Tom Pryce, David Purley, Alan Jones, Tony Brise and Jim Crawford.

The '74 season also featured the first appearance of the Lyncar 006 F1 chassis that he commissioned from Slater. Lacking a proper budget, Nicholson only made three appearances with it, and all in the UK.

He was a non-classified finisher at the Race of Champions in March, and in April finished a respectable sixth at the International Trophy.

He then tried to qualify for the British GP at Brands in July, but it was to be a fraught weekend. First in practice he was involved in a collision with Carlos Pace, and later he damaged both ends of the car when he spun off on his own. He failed to make the grid.

That year he also made his only Le Mans start in the Gordon Murray-designed De Cadenet, equipped with his own DFV, sharing driving duties with Chris Craft. After a troubled race Nicholson crashed the car on the pit straight when the suspension failed shortly after 5am.

He repeated the same three-race F1 schedule in 1975, retiring at the Race of Champions, and finishing 13th in the International Trophy. However this time he qualified and started at the British GP at Silverstone.

He was one of many drivers to crash in the rain storm that stopped the race, joining James Hunt in the pile of wrecked cars at Club, although he was classified 17th. It was to be his only GP start, and the only Lyncar F1 machine was subsequently sold to Emilio de Villota.

In 1976 he took a step back to F2 with a year-old March, which he raced in both the European championship and the domestic Shellsport Group 8 series, and the following year he raced in Atlantic in his native New Zealand.

His driving career gradually wound down, mainly because time pressures meant that he had to focus on his thriving engine business.

However in 1977 he returned to powerboat racing, having decided that it fit his schedule better. He won the British ON title in 1979, but in 1980 he suffered 18 rib fractures and a punctured lung in a major crash at the Embassy GP.

He bounced back to win the British title again in 1981, 1982 and 1983. After another crash he subsequently retired from boat racing. In the mid-80s he was seen briefly back on four wheels in the Group C2 class in the World Sportscar Championship, where several teams used his engines.

Although his Nicholson-McLaren company dropped out of F1 in the turbo era, it would continue to find success with Cosworth products in F3000 and Group C2, in the British hillclimb series, historic F1 racing, and the short-lived GP Masters series - and is still going strong today.

John Nicholson, Lyncar 006
John Nicholson, Lyncar 006

Photo by: LAT Images

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Series Formula 1
Article type Obituary