In the age before Bute

Johnny Dumfries made it to F1 and won Le Mans before returning to his duties as the Marquess of Bute. He talks to Marquess, er, Marcus Simmons

Tap the name 'Johnny Dumfries' into any internet search engine and you get the grand prix encyclopaedia pages. You're told that he was born in a castle and that he is now a talented painter. So you get this image of a bloke who, either side of a racing career which took him to Formula One with Lotus and to a Le Mans 24 Hours win with Jaguar, left his blue-blooded roots and then returned to undertake tranquil pursuits entirely befitting his new role as the seventh Marquess of Bute. There he is in the castle gardens: "Jeeves, go and fill my paint palette — and bring me a Pimms and lemonade."

But Johnny Bute, as he has been known since inheriting the Marquess title in 1993, is far from that. "I was born in the local hospital actually," he chuckles, before adding that the family pile at Mount Stuart is in reality "a very large house". And the painting? "Well, I used to be a painter and decorator!"

This interview takes place many miles from the splendour of the ancestral home. We're in a spartan meeting room near London Bridge station, where Dumfries (OK, it's not his current name, but in the motor racing world he will always be known as this) runs one of his two property companies. The only decoration on the stark walls is Lizard Lounge, a striking work by Gonzo artist Ralph Steadman. "I really like Hunter Thompson as well," he says.

Johnny's racing exploits weren't quite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but they did have their own quasi-Gonzoid elements, recounted in a charmingly self-deprecating manner and punctuated by staccato laughter, usually at his own expense and interrupting a story of an accident or a tale of naïvety in taking a wrong decision. Now aged 47, he has left behind a world where he was, in late 1984, The Next Big Thing, the Formula Three star who turned down a Formula One offer from Tyrrell and, within the space of six months, tested for McLaren, Lotus, Brabham, Ferrari and Williams...

Born John Crichton-Stuart, Earl of Dumfries, he became fired up by the exploits of his cousin Charlie, who was a useful F3 driver in the 1960s and would become sponsorship coordinator for the Williams F1 team. "Charlie was around a lot when we were kids, and I was quite captivated by the fact that he was a racing driver," recalls Johnny. "When he was racing in the sixties it was a very romantic sport still."

Unhappy at public school, Dumfries struck out at the age of 16 and found work as a builder. Then, when Johnny was 19, cousin Charlie helped him get a job at Williams as a van driver. The following year, 1978, he became a mechanic for the BS Fabrications McLaren team. It was a short time later, while working as a garage mechanic, that Johnny started competing in 100cc karting. He broke his ankles in a shunt and was already 22, so he moved into Formula Ford in 1981 and was eventually introduced to a new sponsor, Luigi Graziano.

"Luigi was completely consumed with enthusiasm and said we had to go to F3 for 1983," recalls Dumfries. That enthusiasm ensured that Johnny turned up at the base of David Price Racing to take delivery of the Ralt RT3 the team had run for Martin Brundle in '82. Dumfries would be run by one-time F1 racer Dave Morgan: "I went to pick the car up in my work clothes and with my road car and a trailer. Dave Price had this secretary called Teresa, who went into his office and said, 'There's some bloke here to pick up the car — he looks like a bloody builder!"

It was in a European championship F3 round at Silverstone in June 1983, when he battled for second place, that Dumfries really came to attention. "Brundle walked that race," says Johnny. "Ayrton Senna made a very tricky tyre choice and put three different compounds of Yokohama on his car, and it really didn't work. He was struggling like hell and really overdriving, and he put me on the bloody grass at full speed going down to Stowe, which wasn't a great experience. Then I started catching him again." Senna had a big moment at Club and, in avoidance, Dumfries hit a kerb: "That bent the floorpan, which in turn bent the spindle which runs through the pedal assembly, so the throttle kept sticking." Johnny carried on and broke the lap record, but finally retired when he overrevved the engine.

Later that year there was a European round at Donington: "Dave Price rang me up and said, 'Look, I've got permission from BP [via the company's motorsport boss Les Thacker] to run two entries at Donington and I really want you to drive the other car. I've had a hell of a job talking Les into it because he says you crash too much.' Before I tested it Dave said, 'Look, don't crash the f**ing car." In the race Dumfries went off while trying to defend second place from Tommy Byrne...

Even so, Johnny got the BP 'works' deal with Price for 1984. That year he swept all before him in the British championship. More impressively, despite missing some clashing races he was a close runner-up to Ivan CapeIli in the European series, where he saw off the likes of Gerhard Berger, Roberto Ravaglia and John Nielsen. There was also an offer to join Tyrrell in F1 after Brundle broke his legs in Dallas.

"Ken Tyrrell was fantastic," says Dumfries. "He was a real old-style mentor for emerging talent, and that's very important in any sport. I had to talk to Les about it because he'd made a commitment to me and I had a contract with BP. Les was very fair and said it was my choice. Tyrrell had had some good results, but most of the remaining circuits on the calendar that year were very quick, and the turbo cars were just going to put Tyrrell on the back of the grid. It just didn't look like a smart move."

Even if there was no F1 racing, there was some testing. In August 1984 Dumfries had an outing at Donington Park in a Lotus-Renault. Then he shook down a William-Cosworth, also at Donington. His prize for winning the British F3 title was a run-out in a McLaren-Porsche at Silverstone. Then it was off to Kyalami in December for three days in a Brabham-BMW...

By this stage Dumfries had also had two outings in the World Endurance Championship, driving a Rothmans-liveried Porsche 956 which was there purely for filming purposes. But there was a story behind this: Rothmans was thinking of funding Johnny in a Dave Price-run Formula 3000 March in 1985, a deal that would run hand-in-hand with a Brabham F1 testing contract. Then came a call to test for Ferrari at Fiorano, and Johnny took the 'romantic' option: he signed as test driver for the Prancing Horse. It meant he would have to fund his own F3000 programme: "In retrospect I was bloody naive! I should have gone for Brabham, but I took the Ferrari deal. I didn't like Fiorano very much. It's a really tiny little track, with a housing estate on one side—the location is quite weird and surreal. I thought the car was bloody difficult to drive as well. The object of the exercise for them was to develop their four-cylinder engine, but the project got shelved, and after a couple of months I didn't do any more testing."

Dumfries had started the F3000 season with Onyx Racing, running on little but faith, but soon the money ran out. He was no longer the Next Big Thing...

Luckily for him, though, Senna had vetoed the signing of Derek Warwick for the second Lotus F1 seat in 1986, on the grounds that the team did not have the resources to run two front-running cars. While the British media slammed Senna for arrogance and Lotus boss Peter Warr for being weak, Dumfries was chosen for the drive. If he'd got the deal 12 months earlier, as the new F3 hero, he'd have been carried along on a Buttonesque wave of enthusiasm. As it was, he was viewed as the man in a seat that was rightfully Del Boy's: "It was a bit galling, because even though I'd had a fairly crap year in Formula 3000 I knew I was quick enough. My face fitted at the time. That was fate, luck, call it what you like, but I knew at the time that I was capable of driving in F1.

"Senna was always a guy who worked very much in his own circle — he was like that in F3 as well. He was very off-hand with people and fair enough, I respect that — I can be off-hand myself. He was a very interesting character. Even before I got to know him I thought he was an intelligent person. I suspect that his aloof attitude was kind of a tactical part of his personality, staying away from people, keeping them where he wanted them, but also maybe as a result of personal insecurity... I don't know. That's just an opinion and I might be completely wrong.

"He was straightforward, and I always appreciate that. On our way to our first test at Paul Ricard he said, 'You know, all of this press nonsense is just a distraction. We've both got to get on and do our jobs to the best of our ability, and that's it.' Throughout the year there certainly wasn't any camaraderie, but what I was doing was academic compared to what they were doing. They were on their own agenda and we knew we were number two."

Dumfries was initially saddled with developing the new — and unreliable — six-speed gearbox. He would ultimately take only two points-scoring finishes and, with Honda power and Satonu Nakajima arriving at the team for 1987, he was out of a drive. Efforts to remain in F1, with Tyrrell, came to nothing, but as '87 progressed the sportscar offers came thick and fast.

Starting with a C2 Ecosse at Silverstone, Johnny then starred in a Sauber-Mercedes in qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours. But it was in the Brands Hatch 1000km, where he shared Britten Lloyd Racing's Porsche 962 with Mauro Baldi to second place, that things really took off. Dumfries had been trying to get in touch with Tom Walkinshaw about driving for the Jaguar team. Now his fellow Scot was doing the chasing: "Tom was one of those guys who would never call back. After the race at Brands we had to walk through that tunnel under the pit straight and up into the press box. All of a sudden Tom appeared at my shoulder and said, Congratulations, good drive. If you want to talk to me about next year give me a call.' So I did and I got the drive for 1988."

In fact, Dumfries was drafted into the team earlier than that: in order to help Raul Boesel wrap up the 1987 title, Johnny co-drove the Brazilian and Brundle to victory at Spa — on his Jaguar debut. It made up for what had happened in the previous round at the Nürburgring, in what was his last outing for Sauber: "I hit a Group C2 car in that fast chicane at the back of the pits in practice, so hard that the car just took off and disappeared. The reason I know it took off is that when I hit it, the poor guy was obviously completely forced back in his seat with his foot still glued to the accelerator, because I heard his engine go ‘wheeeee’! It completely dislodged the right-hand front suspension on my car, so I came into the pits with the wheel sitting on the windscreen. The Sauber guys were all standing there with their chins practically on the floor, thinking, 'What has he done to our beautiful car?' And yeah — the chassis was knackered." Dumfries transferred to the sister car for the race, but "er... I never drove for Peter Sauber again after that!"

The exploits carried over to the IMSA series in the States, where Johnny drove a Porsche 962 for Dyson Racing at Elkhart Lake in a bid to try and help the team's star driver, Price Cobb, win the title: "It was an unmodified 962 I think, and I just couldn't believe how horrible it felt to drive. It was too awful to describe! Plus I was in a complete fury that I was over in the middle of Wisconsin driving this pile of shit when I should have been an F1 driver. Anyway, luckily it rained for the race, and me and Oscar Larrauri were out there like a couple of maniacs destroying everyone else in the field. That was great and I won the race, and Rob Dyson thought that I was the best thing since sliced bread. For about five minutes..."

Johnny was invited back by Dyson to race at San Antonio, where he crashed Cobb's car in the closing laps. There was one more try at Columbus: Dumfries started Cobb's 962 and brought it safely to the mid-race pitstop. He then jumped into the car Dyson had driven in the first stint — and crashed that one: "I left the circuit before the end of the race without really seeing anyone. I just got on the plane and got the f**k out of there as quick as I could! So that didn't endear me to poor old Rob."

The highlight of 1988 was that famous win for Jaguar at Le Mans with Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace: "We had an incredible team behind us — Tom Walkinshaw really knew how to run a race team. Andy was amazing — it was the first time he'd ever done that race — and Jan was a natural leader. He's very unflappable and blindingly quick. He was responsible for setting the car up during practice and he did an incredible job. He's my best friend from my racing days — it was very bonding to win that race together."

The rest of that season wasn't such a success: "I made a bit of a mess of it. It's a well-known fact that Tom didn't like crashers, and he fired me at the end of the year..."

Thanks to that Le Mans win, Dumfries washed up at Toyota for 1989 and '90: "The Japanese have always been very captivated by Le Mans, so the fact that I'd won it was a huge incentive for them to come after me." Starting out with the old four-cylinder Toyota 88C — "it was staggeringly powerful" — the team then switched to the new 89CV, but struggled hugely with the fuel-consumption rules: "It was terribly demoralising to be quick for five hours and then drive like an old woman for the last hour. There was a lot of tension as well between me and Geoff Lees." Both Lees, the established star in Japan, and Dumfries felt they should be number one.

Johnny was also keeping his hand in with an F1 testing programme for Benetton, looking after the team's active suspension project, but his career was fast reaching its close. There was an attempt in late 1990 to line up an Indycar drive, but sponsorship, not a Dumfries strong point, was in short supply. There was one more drive at Le Mans — in '91 with Courage — and that was it: with his father ill (he would die in '93), Johnny retired.

He kept his distance from the sport after that, but was tempted to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2000, when he was reunited with his Le Mans-winning Jag: "I crashed that as well! All those years of racing and I went and crashed the Jaguar into some stupid little tree and wiped out the nose. I saw Jan Lammers a bit later and said, 'God, I feel like such a bloody prick!'. And he said, 'Don't worry — what do you think all those people have come to see?'!"

Inspired by Goodwood, Johnny established his own motorsport event at Mount Stuart — in a bid to boost tourism to the home — in 2002 and '03. It was a success, but the crowd was so large in the second year that the island's infrastructure was at breaking point. In '03 he was also tempted back to Le Mans by his old mate Dave Price to test the DBA-Zytek, with a view to a racing comeback: "I'd always kind of felt a bit frustrated deep down that my career had ended too early, so I told him I'd do the test and see how it went. Dave bent over backwards to get me in that car and I really appreciate that, but you know what? I came back to the pits and thought, 'No, this isn't for me.' And that was it, basically. I'm not interested in getting in a racecar, even for a bit of fun — even to drive up the hill at Goodwood!"

He's too busy anyway. "I loved every minute of being a driver," he states. But that life — and Johnny Dumfries — are history. These days, apart from the family-run Mount Stuart tourist attraction, he has those two property companies and a textile manufacturing firm, Bute Fabrics. And six children! All these — and Johnny Bute — are the future.