April 21, 2021

Obituary: Johnny Dumfries, 1958-2021

He faced a near impossible task alongside the Brazilian, and after that difficult year, he never had another shot at Grand Prix racing.

In fact, he was a much more accomplished driver than the bare 1986 statistics suggested, as he had already shown in his F3 days, and would subsequently demonstrate in sportscar racing.

In some ways Dumfries was a throwback to an earlier era, following in the footsteps of aristocrats who raced ERAs and Bentleys in the pre-WW2 years. However, rather than spending the family fortune, he tried to make it on his own, not using his name to open doors. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he retained a dry sense of humour – and always had a down-to-earth perspective on his career.

He was born John Colum Crichton-Stuart in 1958, and as the son of the Marquess of Bute, he was titled the Earl of Dumfries.

He had a close connection to motor racing as his cousin Charlie Crichton-Stuart had been an F3 racer in the sixties, part of a close-knit group that included Piers Courage, Frank Williams, Bubbles Horsley and Charles Lucas. However, he was introduced to the sport by work colleagues who enjoyed karting, and after sampling it, he was hooked.

He didn’t want to use his name or family money to progress. He worked in a variety of jobs, notably as a builder, and as painter and decorator. In 1977 he had a spell as a van driver/gofer for Williams, and then moved to the BS Fabrications team, which ran Brett Lunger and Nelson Piquet.

Having given himself a surname that would not attract attention, Dumfries first made his mark in FF1600 in 1980. He acquired a car from early mentor Bert Ray, whose factory based close to Brands Hatch, and his cousin Charlie helped out with contacts where he could.

In 1983 he graduated to F3, where he was initially run by former racer Dave Morgan. The following year he took a step up to Dave Price’s frontrunning team, with strong BP backing.

It proved to be a superb season. He scored 10 victories and won the title easily – with his prize including a McLaren F1 test. He even turned down a chance to sub for the injured Martin Brundle at Tyrrell to focus on his F3 campaign.

He won four races in the European F3 series, and despite not contesting all the rounds, he was a close runner-up to champion Ivan Capelli.

He also gained his first sportscar experience, driving a Porsche 956 camera car at Spa and at Sandown Park, sharing at the latter with Sir Jack Brabham. But he didn’t enjoy the experience of driving with a closed roof.

1985 Johnny Dumfries, Lola Motorsport

1985 Johnny Dumfries, Lola Motorsport

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In 1985, Dumfries graduated to the new Formula 3000 series, which featured a mixture of bespoke machinery and former F1 cars. He landed a seat with Onyx, earning a best of a sixth place at Vallelunga, but funding ran out and he switched to the Lola Motorsport team before his season ground to a halt. At the end of the year he had his first proper sportscar outing, sharing Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 956 with Kenny Acheson at Fuji.

His stock remained high, and he gained F1 experience testing for various teams, notably Ferrari. He signed a Maranello test contract that proved to be a dead end, having earlier turned down an opportunity with Bernie Ecclestone and Brabham.

His chance to race for Team Lotus alongside Senna in 1986 came after the Brazilian vetoed the choice of Derek Warwick, feeling that an established British driver might divert attention from his campaign. Dumfries, who tested for the team at Donington Park, was an acceptable alternative.

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault, makes a pitstop

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault, makes a pitstop

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Renault-powered 98T was one of the quickest and most powerful cars of the turbo area. Utterly dominant within the camp, as was his wish, Senna took a string of poles.

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However, the car was not easy for a rookie to tame and Dumfries struggled to make an impression. On paper his best performance was in Hungary, where he started eighth and finished fifth, while his only other score came with sixth at the Adelaide finale. Poor reliability, especially with the gearbox, cost him elsewhere, but he did at least manage seventh in his home race at Brands.

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Speaking to F1’s Beyond the Grid podcast last year he made a candid admission: “I didn’t put it on the line enough. I was very conscious of not wanting to be the rookie driver who kept stuffing the car into the Armco barrier.

“I think it’s important to finish, but it’s also important to make a decision about when it should be put on the line, and when a bit of caution should be added.”

By the end of the year, it was clear that he would be dropped to make way for Satoru Nakajima, who came with the Honda engine deal.

A Lotus press conference: Peter Warr, Lotus Team Manager, Ayrton Senna, and team mate Johnny Dumfries

A Lotus press conference: Peter Warr, Lotus Team Manager, Ayrton Senna, and team mate Johnny Dumfries

Photo by: Sutton Images

In 1987 Dumfries began a new career in the World Sportscar Championship. His first outing came at Silverstone with the Ecurie Ecosse C2 team, before he stepped up to the main class to drive a Sauber-Mercedes at Le Mans, partnering Mike Thackwell and Indy car racer Chip Ganassi.

He was then invited to join Mauro Baldi in Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 962 for the Brands 1000kms – and the pair finished a strong second. That summer he won the Elkhart Lake IMSA race with Price Cobb in Rob Dyson’s 962.

By now he’d attracted the attention of fellow Scot Tom Walkinshaw, which led to a drive in a Jaguar XJR-8 at Spa. Dumfries won the race with Martin Brundle and Raul Boesel. He also returned to F3 for Macau, where he finished ninth.

The Spa performance earned him a fulltime Jaguar seat in 1988, alongside Jan Lammers. It was a difficult year for the pair, and the sister Brundle/Eddie Cheever XJR-9 did most of the team’s winning. However, Dumfries and Lammers triumphed in the big one, the Le Mans 24 Hours, joined by third driver Andy Wallace.

#2 Jaguar XJR-9LM: Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries, Andy Wallace

#2 Jaguar XJR-9LM: Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries, Andy Wallace

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

After a couple of crashes Dumfries was dropped by Walkinshaw, and for 1989 he went to the new TOM’S Toyota World Championship operation, with John Watson and Geoff Lees alternating as his team mates.

The year got off to a bad start with a spectacular practice crash at Monza – where Dumfries rolled after spinning into the Lesmo barrier. Toyota couldn’t match the pace of the Saubers, Porsches and Jaguars, and his best result was a fourth at Dijon. That year he also continued to log F1 mileage testing for Benetton, working on active suspension.

The 1990 season proved to be even more disappointing, with Roberto Ravaglia his most frequent teammate, and Dumfries was not invited to be part of Toyota’s transition to the new normally-aspirated rules for the World Sportscar Championship.

#37 Toyota Tom's Team Toyota 89 CV: Johnny Dumfries, Geoff Lees, John Watson

#37 Toyota Tom’s Team Toyota 89 CV: Johnny Dumfries, Geoff Lees, John Watson

Photo by: Philippe Hubert

In 1991 he drove a Cougar-Porsche for the Courage team at Le Mans, sharing with Anders Olofsson and Thomas Danielsson. The car retired on what would prove to be his final outing in the 24 hours.

Dumfries’ racing career fizzled out, and then his life changed when his father passed away in July 1993. He inherited the title, becoming the 7th Marquess of Bute. With it came the responsibility for running the family estate at Mount Stuart and its associated businesses, and he split his time between his homes in London and Scotland.

He stayed away from racing thereafter but did make a brief return to Le Mans in testing in 2003. For a couple of years he organised a Festival of Speed-style event at Mount Stuart, but the logistics of getting cars and people to the Isle of Bute proved too complicated. He retained few ties with the sport – he remained in contact with close friends like Dave Price – but as the years passed he was able to look back fondly.

He told Beyond the Grid: “I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to make a career out of doing something that gave me such incredible pleasure, and represented such a huge challenge. And that word challenge is really important, because I think challenges are really important in life.

“I’ve always liked to challenge myself, and knowing that I challenged myself in an extreme environment, and had a degree of success, gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction.”

Johnny Dumfries, Eddie Cheever

Johnny Dumfries, Eddie Cheever

Photo by: Kenneth Barton

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