Obituary: John Bute, Scottish nobleman and racing driver

Johnny Dumfries, racing driver. Born: 26 April 1958 on the Isle of Bute. Died: 22 March 2021, aged 62

Johnny Dumfries in a Lotus car in 1986

Johnny Dumfries was a Scottish racing driver of independent mind who forged his own successful career in motor sport without making use of his aristocratic background.

Born into one of Scotland’s oldest families as the Earl of Bute, son of the 6th Marquess, he was determined to make his own way in the world of motor racing, dispensing with titles and insisting on being known as Johnny Dumfries.

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High points of his career included winning the British Formula 3 Championship, a season in Formula 1 with Lotus as second driver to future world champion Ayrton Senna and a win at the iconic Le Mans 24-hour race. His ability probably merited a more garlanded CV but elements of misfortune, poor decision making in terms of opportunities available and inexperience at crucial times hindered greater achievement.

Born John Colum Crichton-Stuart at Mount Stuart House near Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Johnny was the third of four children of the 6th Marquess of Bute and his first wife, Nicola. Brought up and educated there until he was eight, he was then sent to Ampleforth College, the Roman Catholic boarding school in Yorkshire, where he dropped out in his mid-teens. Having enjoyed driving on the family estate as a youngster in an old Mini Moke, his interest in motor sport was stoked by his older cousin, Charlie Crichton-Stuart, an ex-Formula 3 driver. Johnny would sharpen his skills with Charlie on drives over the moors and tracks of the 3,000-acre estate.

After school he began living in London and worked on building sites, as a painter and decorator and in a garage with the intention of trying to break into motor sport. Initially he became involved in weekend go karting but by 1978 had found a job with the Frank Williams racing team as van driver and “gofer”, enabling him to attend races, further firing his enthusiasm. In 1981 he was able to buy a Formula Ford 1600cc. car, a Crossle 32 F, which he raced in his debut at the Croft circuit, near Darlington, later referring to that season as “his learning year” – marked by several accidents.

The next year he won two races in a Bert Ray factory car, leading to his securing a sponsor to race in the Formula 3 championship in 1983 which was won by future teammate Senna.

His real breakthrough year was 1984 as he convincingly won the British Formula 3 title in a BP-backed team, claiming ten victories, while also winning four races in the European Formula 3 championship, the only ones in which he competed. That success opened doors for him in 1985 as he won a testing contract with Ferrari at their base in Maranello, a wonderful opportunity, but misfortune struck as a change in competition regulations led to their shelving the car project he was involved in developing. He also competed in Formula 3000 races but again, misfortune in terms of his teams’ financial problems bedevilled him.

However, time spent as a test driver for Lotus that year would pay dividends when he was recruited for their Formula 1 team in 1986. It was clear from the outset that everything was set up to favour Senna, to Johnny’s disadvantage. Although inexperienced with super powerful F1 cars and subservient to Senna’s needs, he acquitted himself well for a debut season, earning a 5th in Hungary, a 6th in Australia and a 7th at Brand’s Hatch. Elsewhere he was let down by mechanical problems and when Lotus engaged Honda to supply their engines for 1987, the deal demanded a Japanese driver replace Johnny.

He turned to sports car racing, where a success at the Spa circuit in a Jaguar led to Scot Tom Walkinshaw giving him a full-time contract with the marque for 1988, leading to his momentous Le Mans win – the first Scot to do so since Edinburgh’s Ron Flockhart in 1957. Although he continued racing with different teams until his final appearance at Le Mans in 1991, he was unable to reach previous heights.

Reflecting later on his career, he felt he should have gone straight from F3 to F1 and perhaps not joined Lotus when he did, commenting: “I took my chance and it didn’t quite work out.” He added: “I ’ve always liked to challenge myself and that I did so in an extreme environment with a degree of success gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction.”

With his father ill, in 1991 he took over the running of the family estates and two years later became the 7th Marquess of Bute on his father’s death. To overcome death duties he successfully ran the estates on a more commercial basis. On Bute he instigated various initiatives, including opening the estate to the public and setting up an award-winning visitor centre, while Dumfries House near Cumnock was refurbished and sold, with its superb Chippendale furniture collection, to a consortium headed by Prince Charles’ Foundation.

His first marriage ended in divorce and in 1999 he married Serena Wendell, who survives him, as do his four children.

The family said in a statement: “Johnny chaired the Board of Mount Stuart Trust from its active inauguration in 2005 when Mount Stuart and its gardens opened to the public, and its rural estate was vested into the charitable trust. He was a moderniser and an inspirational thinker, transitioning a family home to a progressive working visitor facility and estate. His island projects include the internationally respected Bute Fabrics, and most recently, Kerrylamont Centre for Rural Excellence and Bute Yard. He was a philanthropist through his foundation, particularly focusing on Scotland and the West Coast."

The family added: “The indomitable spirit and energy which Johnny brought to his life will be greatly missed and the immense love with which he embraced his family. His heart was firmly rooted in the Isle of Bute where he spent much of his time.”

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