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How Dumfries’s Lotus F1 dream turned into a nightmare

When the late Johnny Dumfries, who has died aged 62, joined Lotus for the 1986 Formula 1 season, the pressure cranked up on the rookie sharing a garage with Ayrton Senna. In the 18 August 2011 issue of the magazine, Dumfries explained to Autosport how it all came about and why a promising campaign turned into a disappointment

How Dumfries’s Lotus F1 dream turned into a nightmare

Johnny Dumfries had impeccable credentials when he was signed up to be Ayrton Senna’s team-mate at Lotus for 1986. He was a British Formula 3 Champion, and a dominant one at that. He’d been test driver for Ferrari. And he’d raced in Formula 3000. That wasn’t the CV of a driver who was going to jump into a grand prix-winning car and end up with just three championship points to his name at the end of the season.

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To this day, Dumfries isn’t exactly sure what went wrong during his first and only season of grand prix racing. Yet talking to him 25 years on, one gets the impression that his state of mind of mind played a part.

For a start, he admits that he was intimidated when he landed the drive in the second Lotus-Renault 98T.

That winter there had been a very public courtship between the British team – or perhaps more correctly, lead sponsor John Player Special – and out-of-work Renault driver Derek Warwick. British American Tobacco, which owned the JPS brand, was stipulating a British driver to race alongside Senna, but the Brazilian hotshot, with a contract enshrining his number one status in his briefcase, was calling the shots. Dumfries was in effect second choice for the seat.

“I felt slightly intimidated by the situation,” Dumfries admits. “It was all a bit unfortunate. There had been a lot of drum beating in favour of Warwick. That wasn’t very fair on me, because my credentials were good.”

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As was his start to the season.

“It all began pretty well at Rio,” he says. “I can’t say I wasn’t prepared ahead of the season. I’d done quite a few kilometres in the Ferrari in ‘85 and a bit of running with Lotus, and I was very fit.”

The second Lotus ended up ninth at the Brazilian Grand Prix, but he might have finished higher but for an unscheduled pitstop, witness his fourth fastest race lap.

“I was pretty encouraged, but I wasn’t very competitive in the early European races,” he recalls. “I wasn’t strong at Imola and then I crashed in practice at Monaco, which was a pretty disastrous thing to do.

“My confidence gradually got eroded and that isn’t a good state of mind for a racing driver to be in.”

“Team Lotus liked to run that kind of team and Peter Warr [the team manager] was completely in love with Senna, and with good reason. But it was still one of the top teams and it was impossible to turn them down" Johnny Dumfries

Poor reliability, exacerbated by having to develop the new six-speed gearbox, was a factor in that situation, claims Dumfries. “It cut down on my mileage down and that had a debilitating affect on me,” he says.

Dumfries agrees that he might have been in a better state of mind to begin his F1 adventure had he graduated straight from F3. He believes that his career was losing momentum from the moment he had to leave F3 behind.

“I’d gone from having a really dominant year in F3 to a shocking year in 1985,” he explains. “I’d a handful of F3000 races and had that weird testing situation with Ferrari [which signed him to develop the still-born straight-four engine]. I think I would have been in better shape if I had got to F1 straight after F3.”

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 98T Renault, leads Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Ayrton Senna, Lotus 98T Renault, leads Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Photo by: Motorsport Images

There were highs for Dumfries in 1986, most notably his first points finish at the first Hungarian Grand Prix. And he thinks he knows the reason: “It was the first time there for everyone.”

Dumfries reckons he might have done better than his eventual fifth place: “I started to feel tired about three quarters of the way through. It was an incredibly busy circuit and very hot that year. I started to make a few mistakes, decided to take it easy and take the points.”

Dumfries knew that he wouldn’t be retained by Lotus as the 1986 wore on and admits that his chances of making it back into F1 were always going to be limited.

“That would have required me finding a sponsor,” he says. “And that wasn’t going to happen.”

Dumfries concedes that he was very much a number two at Lotus, but had no quibble with his situation.

“Team Lotus liked to run that kind of team and Peter Warr [the team manager] was completely in love with Senna, and with good reason,” he says. “But it was still one of the top teams and it was impossible to turn them down.

“Only in my most cynical moments would I say I was shafted. I took my chance and it didn’t quite work out.”

A Lotus press conference for the first race of the season: Peter Warr, Lotus Team Manager, Ayrton Senna, and team mate Johnny Dumfries

A Lotus press conference for the first race of the season: Peter Warr, Lotus Team Manager, Ayrton Senna, and team mate Johnny Dumfries

Photo by: Sutton Images

When Dumfries dominated to the 1984 British F3 title

“The best driver we ever had in Formula 3.” That’s how team owner Dave Price sums up the talents of Johnny Dumfries. Praise indeed given that David Price Racing’s F3 alumni include Martin Brundle.

“I’m absolutely convinced that our success in ‘84 was all down to him because it wasn’t as if we’d been a top team the year before,” says Price, whose charge won the British title with 10 victories and was a close second in the European F3 Championship in his BP-sponsored Ralt-Volkswagen RT3. “He was supreme: every time he got in the car, he was straight on the pace. There was no mucking around and he knew exactly what he wanted from the car.”

Price admits that he doesn’t know what went wrong at Lotus, though he has the suspicions that a driving style that had served him so well in F3 wasn’t so well suited to F1 at the time.

“Johnny was a left-foot braker when it wasn't par for the course,” explains Price. “In those days, Copse at Silverstone was a bit of lift, but he would go through flat with hint of brake. His style of driving suited F3, but maybe it didn't suit going forward with the cars of the time.”

So convinced of Dumfries’ talents was Price that he tried to lure him out of retirement on more than one occasion, even at the age of 45. Remember the Scot’s appearance at the Le Mans Test Day at the wheel of a DPR-run DBA4-Zytek LM675 prototype in 2003?

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Johnny Dumfries, Lotus 98T Renault

Photo by: Sutton Images

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Series Formula 1
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