John Bute: Racing as Johnny Dumfries and walking away from the sport

The 7th Marquess of Bute is better known to many readers as Johnny Dumfries, the aristocrat who started out in racing as a van driver for Williams. Here he tells us about the aloofness of Senna, winning Le Mans and walking away from the sport he loved

John Bute header

Paul-Henri Cahier / Getty Images

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The name, in gold lettering, on the black bodywork of the JPS Lotus-Renault 98T was Johnny Dumfries. Well, John Colum Crichton-Stuart, Earl of Dumfries, would have taken up a lot more space and the descendant of Robert the Bruce was more focused on his arrival in Formula 1 than family history. This was 1986; his team-mate was Ayrton Senna, a rival in their Formula 3 days. He’d won the British F3 championship and come within three points of beating Ivan Capelli to the European title. We haven’t done an interview since 1985 so it’s time to catch up with the man who was the next big thing – and then walked away from the sport in 1991.

Motor Sport: Racing was in the family – your cousin Charlie Crichton-Stuart won the Temporada F3 series in 1966 and was Williams’ sponsorship finder in the early days. How did you get on the ladder?

John Bute: I was always very independent, left school after my ‘O’ levels and got various jobs… painter, decorator, building sites, and later, in 1977, at Williams where I drove their Morris Marina van. My dad was fantastic, a lovely man, and he taught me to drive in the fields at home on the Isle of Bute. He just let me make my way in the world. I loved the sport. As a kid my hero was Ronnie Peterson, and my mates were all racing karts so I started there, just having a bit of fun. I broke both my ankles karting, so at least I got that out of the way, and wanted to go further.

MS: From karting you went to Formula Ford and took part in the Star of Tomorrow series in 1981. Did that help hone your skills for the sport’s higher levels?

JB: Oh yeah, it did. The racing was fantastic, so close, and it was so much fun. I loved the whole process of going racing, working on the car with my friends. When I first drove a Formula Ford it felt so sloppy compared to karts but you adapt. I bought a Crosslé 32F from my mate Martin Longmore, a Scot – and it caught my eye because he was sponsored by the Station Hotel in Dumfries. A group of us had this big garage at Elephant & Castle in London where we worked on the cars at night after our day jobs. You can’t replicate this process in any other job, getting the car prepped, going to the track, driving on the limit to get up the grid, and then winning. That’s such a fantastic feeling at the end of the whole process. I feel energised just by talking about it. Grass-roots level is a great experience. When you get to the higher formulae you’re working with engineers to improve the performance; you don’t get your hands dirty any more. You’re just the monkey strapped in the car, paid to drive it as fast as possible.

Johnny Dumfries Formula Ford 1981

In 1981, John moved into Formula Ford, a time of close racing and getting his hands dirty

MS: At what point did you realise you had what it takes to make racing a career?

JB: I started getting decent results, realised I was good enough and became more ambitious. Then in F3 I started winning, found I could learn circuits very quickly and knew I could make this a career. I learnt so much working with Dave Morgan in ’83; he’d been a very quick driver and taught me about setting up the F3 car. I moved to David Price’s team in 1984, thanks to support from Les Thacker at BP, and again Dave taught me so much; he was a big influence on me at that time. We won the title with three races to spare and we’re still good friends today. I loved the teamwork, the camaraderie, that shared experience, that bond between people working under pressure. I kept on learning from that as I moved up into F3000 in ’85 with Marlboro but there wasn’t the budget for many races and it wasn’t a good year for results.

Johnny Dumfries eading the 1985 Formula 3000 opener at Silverstone, 1985, in his Onyx March 85B

Leading the 1985 Formula 3000 opener at Silverstone in his Onyx March 85B

MS: While you were at Onyx, Bernie Ecclestone offered you a Brabham contract. How did that come about?

JB: Mike Earle told me there was just a chance Bernie might help me fund my F3000 season with Onyx in 1985 if I signed a testing contract with Brabham. So I went to see him in his flat in Chelsea. He was absolutely charming, made me a coffee, and told me they were doing a tyre test at Kyalami with Piquet and Fabi but that “nobody drives my cars without signing a contract”. So he gets the testing contract out, and I said, “Well, I ought to get my lawyer to look at it,” and he slams the contract down on the table, stands right next to me and says, “If you want to do the test in Kyalami, sign the contract!” So I thought I’d better read it even though I knew I was going to sign it anyway. You have to laugh; he was very honest with me, but he’s a proper operator.

Anyway, I went to Kyalami, had never seen the circuit, and the car was just brutal to drive. The BMW had a monstrous turbo, really terrible turbo lag, and the seven-speed gearbox was a bit of a revelation. Not a comfortable car to drive, but you get used to all that and it was a great experience.

I should have come to an agreement with Bernie but I signed a contract with Ferrari and that was a big mistake.

MS: Surely an opportunity at Ferrari was every young driver’s dream?

JB: Aaaah, well, yes and no. John Hogan from Marlboro set up a meeting with Marco Piccinini [Ferrari F1 team principal] who told me Ferrari was developing a four-cylinder engine in response to proposed new FIA regs for ’86, so I signed a contract and went to Maranello to meet Enzo Ferrari. There he was in his rather spartan office, sitting there like the Pope with the prancing horse badge in his lapel, eyes behind his shades, surrounded by his entourage. We had a good chat; I decided not to use the little Italian I had learnt, and he signed a copy of his book Piloti, Che Gente… for me. It was a great experience. I was very young, but his PA Brenda Vernor was fantastic. She looked after me, she called all the drivers “her boys”. I was there when the news broke that the Old Man had sacked René Arnoux after the first race of the year and Brenda went ballistic, rampaging up and down that corridor between the offices, screaming and swearing like a mad woman. She loved René. She was so angry, but good on her; she didn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

The passion for Ferrari in Italy is tangible, a phenomenon, the history is inescapable, and to be at Ferrari at that stage was just remarkable for me. Testing the 156/85 at Fiorano was amazing. Everything stopped for lunch, the chef brought the food to the track, we all sat down to eat our pasta, we all had a glass of Lambrusco with the mechanics. The first time I was offered a glass with my pasta, I wasn’t so sure about that, but Michele Alboreto said, “Go on Johnny, just have one, will you?” I was used to a chicken sandwich and a cup of tea. Early that summer the FIA decided not to change the engine regs so that was the end of my time in Maranello. It was a big mistake; it led nowhere.

Johnn Dumfries Ayrton Senna Lotus 1986

The high-pressure world of F1. John had few interactions with ‘golden boy’ Senna at Lotus

MS: At the end of 1985 we all assumed that Derek Warwick would be driving for JPS Lotus. So how did you get that seat alongside Ayrton Senna?

JB: I’d established a relationship with Peter Warr and Team Lotus at the end of ’84, had a test with them at Donington, and they got back in touch late in ’85. Peter Warr was mad about Senna and I think he’d agreed to allow him to call the shots regarding his team-mate. I didn’t pay much attention to the media coverage, but, yeah, I thought Derek would have been the obvious choice. I guess choosing me was a safer option for Senna because, although I’d won the Formula 3 championship in ’84, I hadn’t done much in F3000. I’d raced him hard in European F3, but I had very little experience of more power before stepping up to a turbocharged Formula 1 car and I was aware of his status in the team, so I felt slightly uncomfortable. I’d done some good times in testing but these cars were monsters – awesome power and grip, and to be honest my confidence could have been better. And yet the first race in Brazil went well, fourth-fastest lap, top 10 finish, and I came away thinking I could really improve from there.

Johnny Dumfries Lotus 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix

John made his debut with Lotus at 1986 Brazilian Grand Prix, finishing ninth. Team-mate Senna was second

Mike King/Getty Images

MS: What was it like working with Senna? How supportive was the team?

JB: There wasn’t much dialogue between Senna and I. By the end of the season I really didn’t feel I knew him any better than I did when we were racing in European Formula 3, where I was already aware of his obsessive focus. He wasn’t communicative then either. Senna was a pretty aloof character; there was no sharing of information, it was his team, there was no relationship. He worked with Steve Hallam, I was with Tim Densham, so I just kept my head down and worked as well as I could with Tim and maybe that was naive of me. We didn’t have equal kit. I should have made more noise about all the mechanical failures I had. Early on, the gearbox casing kept on breaking and it took time to get that sorted, but I was the new boy and Senna was clearly very much Peter Warr’s golden boy.

From the archive

I was aggressively ambitious but I would have been better off in another team like Tyrrell. I had my chance to drive for Ken in ’84 when Martin Brundle was injured in Dallas, but I was winning in F3 and felt a moral obligation to Les Thacker of BP and Dave Price who made all that possible.

The F1 arena is so pressurised, almost intimidating, and I didn’t perform to the best of my ability. Honestly, I screwed up. I didn’t have a manager or a sponsor, how the hell did I get myself into that position? At Hockenheim in July, after five mechanical failures, I was told I’d be out at the end of the year. Peter Warr and Senna wanted Honda engines and with the Honda deal came Satoru Nakajima, so I was out of the door. The car broke again in Germany but then I got fifth in Hungary, ninth in Portugal and sixth in Australia, although I hated street circuits – too many slow corners – and it was all just too little too late. I talked to a few teams for ’87 but I was clueless, not smart enough in that extreme environment.

I should have had a manager, knocked on all the doors, but I have no regrets. I’d made it to Formula 1, felt a great sense of achievement, learnt a lot about resilience, about dealing with people.

Johnny Dumfries Le Mans 1988 Jaguar XJR9

The greatest day of John’s career came at Le Mans in 1988 driving the Jaguar XJR9 – a race he knew he could win

DPPI

MS: You were immediately successful in Group C, signed up by Tom Walkinshaw early on. Was it a letdown after F1 with Senna and Lotus?

JB: Mmm… it really wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I didn’t like driving those cars at all. Coming from single-seaters, you’re shut in under a roof and it felt very claustrophobic. But I was still ambitious and being well paid to do a job, so I thought I’d better just get on with it. You get used to it, and it was a world championship with great teams, good cars and drivers. I never liked sharing with other drivers but I was lucky with Jan Lammers at TWR; we had a great relationship and we’re still friends. The ’87 season was a bit scrappy but Mauro Baldi and I shared Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 962, a great car, in the Brands Hatch 1000Kms and we were quick, coming second and splitting Walkinshaw’s Jaguars. I’d been phoning Tom, he hadn’t returned any of my calls, but he came up to me after that race, congratulated me and said if I wanted a drive in ’88 I should call him. So of course I did, the next day. He was a tough guy, a Scot of course, and ran a fantastic team, so it was a great opportunity for me and many other F1 drivers. That XJR9 was a very good car and ahead of Le Mans in ’88, Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and I knew we could win it.

Jan set the car up, very low drag of course, a bit twitchy in the Porsche curves, but so fast, and on the Mulsanne back then it was flat all the way. You were acutely aware of the speed. Having taken the lead, all we had to do was look after the car. I’d put all my aggression in a box and locked it up
for that race – so did Jan and Andy – and we brought it home. I didn’t sleep at all, I was too wired. Jan did the last two stints; something had broken in the gearbox, and Tom wanted Jan in the car. He stopped using most of the gears to get us across the line. That was great teamwork – and you need a bit of luck to win Le Mans.

MS: The TWR drive came to a rather abrupt end. What went wrong?

JB: Tom fired me [much laughter]. The love affair was over when I chucked the car off on the first lap of the Nürburgring 1000Kms. It was a classic idiotic mistake [more laughter] but there you go. The race was run in two heats. It was wet for the second one. I took the start, slid off on lap one, and it took half an hour to repair the car. Tom went very quiet. He didn’t need to say much – he didn’t like crashers. He wasn’t a spanner-thrower; you only had to look at him and you knew, so I steered well clear of him.

Then I went to TOM’S Toyota, did two seasons with them. We had some success; the ’89 car was fantastic, so much power in that single-turbo four-cylinder engine, but on the new car, a twin-turbo V8, the fuel consumption was terrible, it understeered and we struggled to cure its pitch and roll. Finally we changed the front uprights. It was a frustrating two years, two DNFs at Le Mans, and I didn’t have a job for 1991, no prospects, that was not a good moment. What was I going to do? Then my dad became ill. He needed my support in his businesses. I still loved racing but I just had to turn my back on it all, and get on with a new life.

John-Bute-photographed-in-2007-at-Dumfries-House

Photographed in 2007 with Dumfries House in the background, which the family sold to a trust headed by Prince Charles. These days, John mainly spends his time in London

James Fraser/Shutterstock

MS: How tough was that, having to walk away from an intense and competitive sport?

JB: You know, everyone always talks about missing the adrenaline, but it’s not that. It’s about the desire to compete and win, the satisfaction, really close relationships, working with a team, living in that pressurised environment. That’s irreplaceable and leaves a big hole.

I still meet up with a lot of my old mates from Formula Ford and Formula 3. We have so many shared experiences; we had a lot of fun and we are still friends. Some, like Andy Middlehurst, are doing historics. I’m not sure about doing that.

MS: In 2002 you created the Mount Stuart Classic on the Isle of Bute. What inspired you to do that?

JB: I saw what Charles March was doing at Goodwood, staging those fantastic events, and I had driven the TWR Jaguar at the Festival. It was a bit embarrassing actually because I went into the bales at Molecomb Corner. Why break the habit of a lifetime? [More laughter]. I was mortified but Jan [Lammers] was there too, celebrating our Le Mans victory, and he said, “Don’t worry Johnny, that’s what all the people come here for.”

MS: You had F1 cars at Mount Stuart. People who went may remember Takuma Sato’s runs in the BAR-Honda.

JB: Yes, I had all the connections to do it, the crowd loved it, and we had very good press coverage. It was successful but challenging, because of it being on an island on the west coast of Scotland, not in the South within easy distance of London. The logistics were a nightmare, using ferries, and not enough accommodation on the island, so we only ran it for two years. It was good, though, and great fun while it lasted.

Johnny Dumfries Niki Lauda Alain Prost Grovewood Award 1983

Grovewood Award winner, 1983, which was presented to the year’s up and coming drivers

MS: You love restoring old American cars. Is that how you relax these days when away from running your commercial property business in London?

JB: Yeah, I never let go of my old toolbox from the Formula Ford days and this all goes back to the 1980s with Dave Price, who loved American cars. I bought a 1949 Series 62 fastback coupé Cadillac, an amazing car.

I used it every day round London, stored it for two years, then it needed restoration and I met Mike Sargeant at Tornado Automotive, an excellent fabricator and mechanic, who did a beautiful job on that car. I was impressed so I bought some more cars, and a unit in High Wycombe, and we moved Tornado in there. That’s where I go to work on my cars, which include a 1968 Plymouth Road Runner, a real piece of work, goes like hell, a 1954 Chevrolet pick-up truck and a 1960 Pontiac Bonneville. I drive the pick-up truck when I’m getting around London.

MS: So, what’s your best memory of Johnny Dumfries the racing driver?

JB: Winning the Formula 3 championship; enormously satisfying. It all came together so well. But you know what? I wish I’d had what we had in 1984 in 1983, then I could have gone up against Senna and Brundle. I’d shown what I could do, and that would have been fantastic. But it was all a hell of a lot of fun and I loved every minute of those days.