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Thruxton 1984 Johnny Dumfries

Johnny Dumfries 1958-2021

Above: Johnny hustling the Formula 3 Team BP Ralt RT3/83 to victory at Thruxton in 1984. (Steve Rendle)

Sadly, last month we lost another popular motorsport figure – Johnny Dumfries, probably best known for co-driving Jaguar’s XJR-9LM to victory at Le Mans in 1988. Mark Cole looks back at the Marquess of Bute’s varied motorsport career.

“The young Scottish Earl leaned over the breakfast table towards the grizzled Australian Knight…” So began my Motor report on the 1984 Sandown 1,000Kms, the final round of the 1984 World Endurance Championship.

The Earl was Johnny Dumfries, the Knight was Sir Jack Brabham, and they would be sharing a Rothmans Porsche 956 camera car in the event at the Melbourne racetrack, which used roadways at Australian’s premier horse-racing venue, in similar fashion to Aintree.

Dumfries had previously driven a Group C sports car, but it was new territory for Black Jack. For this race, the car was run in full Rothmans livery by Silverstone-based Richard Lloyd Racing, and the fact that it was a camera car meant frequent stops to replenish the camera.

I knew JD by reputation, having seen him winning the 1984 British Formula 3 Championship with David Price Racing, dominating the season with 10 wins from 17 starts in the Team BP Ralt-VW. He was also runner-up in the European F3 series to Ivan Capelli. 

Heir to the estate of the Marquess of Bute, Johnny (the Earl of Dumfries until he succeeded his father as Marquess of Bute), or John Colum Crichton-Stuart to use his full name, was a member of one of Scotland’s oldest aristocratic families and biggest landowners. Johnny wanted to succeed in his own right, and never used his title. He had followed his forebears to study at Ampleforth College, but left early. 

“My father didn’t care what I did as long as I didn’t go to him for the money to pay for it,” he recalled. “I started karting, but broke both ankles, so at least I got that out of the way and wanted to go further.” So he became a van driver and gofer for Williams Grand Prix (where his cousin, former F3 racer Charlie Crichton-Stuart, was sponsorship coordinator) to save up to race in Formula Ford, progressing to Formula 3, where he achieved the success that got him noticed. 

To supplement his racing career he took up house-painting and decorating, working from his London home in Ladbroke Grove. In 1984 he had also met Carolyn Waddell on a blind date in a Fulham pub, and they soon married. She was known to everyone in the paddock as Freddie, and was as popular as her offbeat husband.

Sir Jack Brabham

Above: Mark Cole hears from Sir Jack just how difficult ground effects are to handle, but the three-times world champion gave a good account of himself. (Malcolm Bryan)

So when Rothmans Australia asked for a car to bring three-times F1 World Champion Sir Jack out of retirement for this one race, Rothmans PR man Sean Roberts had no hesitation in suggesting that they make use of the camera car with Dumfries as Sir Jack’s co-driver. Johnny had already done a stint in the car at the Spa 1,000Kms sharing with Richard Lloyd, so was a natural choice; he was obviously on his way into F1, and it would be good publicity all round. The deal was done with Johnny’s F3 team boss David Price, and so it was that the three of us (I was then the Rothmans Porsche press officer) were breakfasting together at Melbourne’s St Kilda Travelodge on the morning of the race.

Sandown 1984

Above: Sir Jack Brabham and the Earl of Dumfries, aka Johnny, shared the Rothmans Porsche camera car at Sandown 84. (Malcolm Bryan)

It was fascinating to hear the three-times World Champion passing on tips to Johnny; at 26 years old, whether he was listening to his 58-year-old team mate (who was by now as deaf as a post) or not, who knows, but they each did a couple of hours in the #56 Rothmans car, getting video footage. It was never intended that they would run the whole race, but between them they completed 108 of the 206 laps of the bumpy Melbourne venue.

While the fit, young Johnny was quickly at home with ground-effect grip levels and handling, Brabham found the Group C car tiring, but claimed he enjoyed every minute! Roberts recalls: “He couldn’t do the belts up and wouldn’t accept any help, and growled ‘leave it’, pulled the door down and off he went. He spent the rest of the afternoon rolling around inside the car like a pea in a pod.”

JD told me of his frustration at Black Jack’s deafness: “I handed the car over to him and tried to tell him to be careful at Turn 1 because of dropped oil, but all I got back was ‘eh?’, and of course he went straight off when he rejoined!”

Johnny didn’t know it at the time, but it was the precursor not to a successful Formula 1 career, but to becoming one of the elite winners of the Le Mans 24 Hours. 

Thruxton 1985 Formula 3

Above: A return to Thruxton in April 1985, driving the Onyx March 85B in F3000. (Steve Rendle)

In 1985 JD still put single-seaters first, although his campaign in the inaugural International F3000 Championship with Mike Earle’s Onyx March team – cue ‘Earl on Earle’ headlines – was disappointing, a sixth place at the two-bit Vallelunga circuit his best result. He switched to Lola for a couple of races mid-season, but his fortunes did not improve.

British GP at Brands Hatch

Above: Johnny spent a challenging year as Ayrton Senna’s teammate at Lotus in 1986 – seen here in practice for the British GP at Brands Hatch. (Steve Rendle)

Nonetheless, Lotus had seen his Formula 3 results, and Peter Warr signed him to the JPS-sponsored team for 1986. Derek Warwick had originally been offered the second seat, but Team Lotus star Ayrton Senna vetoed that, so JD was a late replacement, and gratefully accepted the position. While the Brazilian took eight pole positions and two wins to finish fourth in the championship, Johnny struggled to claim two top-six places (at the new Hungaroring and in Adelaide) and even failed to qualify for the Monaco GP. He was replaced by Satoru Nakajima for 1987, when the Japanese brought Honda engines with him.

As the F1 door shut, another opened. Still managed by Price, Dumfries competed in several World Sports Prototype Champioship (WSPC) races in 1987. His first Le Mans, for Kouros Mercedes, sharing with Chip Ganassi (then a driver) and Mike Thackwell, ended in retirement, but not before he had set a new lap record for La Sarthe. 

He finished second at Brands Hatch in the Price-run RLR Porsche with Mauro Baldi, then won the Spa 1,000Kms for Jaguar (sharing with Martin Brundle and Raul Boesel), and finished second at Fuji with Boesel. There was also an IMSA win at Road America sharing the Dyson 962 with Price Cobb.

The die was cast, and Tom Walkinshaw’s Silk Cut Jaguar team retained Johnny for 1988. His season started with third place in the Daytona 24 Hours, sharing with Eddie Cheever and John Watson, where the IMSA XJR-9s ran with Castrol backing. However, the first four WSPC races, driving the Group C XJR-9 with Jan Lammers, all ended with retirements. “It is disheartening,” he said at the time, “Jan and I are driving our hearts out, but both cars are having constant gearbox failures., then we ran out of fuel at Silverstone.”

So expectations were not high for the following race, the Le Mans 24 Hours, where Jaguar had entered five cars. “Tom always said it takes three years to win Le Mans, and this was our third, so we were hoping against hope.” JD and Jan Lammers were joined by Andy Wallace for this race, which many regard as one the most exciting of the Group C era. They were in first or second place throughout the race, and it was Johnny’s #2 ‘Silk Cat’ that crossed the line to win, despite the transmission being stuck in fourth gear for the final 40 minutes.

On the final lap, the three surviving Jaguars took the chequered flag in echelon formation, echoing Ford’s 1966 finish, the winning car shadowed by the fourth-placed Daly/Perkins/Cogan #22 car and the 16th-placed American-crewed Sullivan/Jones/Cobb #21. It was a massive victory for the marque, its first since the string of 1950s C-type and D-type wins, and boosted Johnny’s confidence no end.

As Motor correspondent, I had joined the team for its press dinner on the Friday night, taking along my wife-to-be Alexandra (stepdaughter of another Scottish Earl), who was attending her first race. On the Monday she asked in all innocence if it was normal to dine with the winners beforehand! 

It was not until years later that Walkinshaw revealed that when the winning car’s gearbox was opened up back at Kidlington the main pinion shaft was in two pieces. Had Lammers tried to shift out of fourth, that would have been the end of it.

A month later JD and Lammers finished third at Brno and then fourth at the end of the season back at Sandown, but otherwise their luck had once again deserted them, and Johnny ended the season joint 12th in the drivers’ rankings, despite the Le Mans win. There would be two more full seasons of Group C racing, with Toyota, sharing the 88C and 89C-V with either Geoff Lees or John Watson in 1989, and the 90C-V mainly with Roberto Ravaglia in 1990, but the car was not competitive against the Jaguars, Mercedes and Porsches and JD had a best of fourth place (at Dijon in 1989) from 20 starts. 

One final attempt at Le Mans followed in 1991, driving for Courage, but it too ended retirement, the fourth from five starts at La Sarthe. We would still catch up in the Le Mans paddock, but he was becoming increasingly disillusioned that he hadn’t been able to repeat his 1988 success, and quit racing to return to his ancestral seat, Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute, where on the death of his father he became the seventh Marquess of Bute. The same year, 1993, his marriage to Freddie, with whom he had three children, came to an end. “He just never properly grew up,” she told The Daily Telegraph.

Johnny Bute, as he was now known, threw himself into his estate, which covered 25,000 acres and included Dumfries House as well as Mount Stuart, courting controversy on the way when he tried to sell Dumfries House, a Palladian mansion filled with Chippendale furniture. Neither the Scottish government nor Russian oligarchs were interested, and it was eventually taken over by the Prince’s Foundation, founded by the Prince of Wales.

In 1999 he remarried, and with fashion designer Serena Wendell had a daughter, Lola.

Johnny never gave up his interest in motorsport, and ran the Mount Stuart Classic in 2002 and 2003, attracting historic and current race cars, including F1 machinery. The event had to be abandoned from 2004 because the ferry companies could not cope with the increasing influx of visitors needing to be transported across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Bute.

In recent years, Mount Stuart has been run by the Mount Stuart Trust, chaired by Johnny from its inauguration in 2005, attracting 30,000 visitors a year.

Johnny died after sadly losing his battle with cancer on 22 March 2021, aged just 62, but will be remembered affectionately throughout the motorsport world as the London lad who went out and won Le Mans.

By Mark Cole

Other articles by Mark

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