It is often remembered as a time of honour, sportsmanship and openness in motorsport.
Simpler times when safety was not an issue and drivers were daredevils playing in the fire – and when Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh took to the wheel; motorsport felt the rare touch of royalty.
The man who would eventually be known as “Prince Bira” (or B. Bira) was born in Bangkok on July 15th, 1914 in a country then known as Siam (now Thailand).
Unbeknownst to the infant, he had been born into a world ready to rip itself apart, as anger and mistrust spread like viruses through governments and regimes around the globe.
Revolutions and civil wars were ripening, while the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at the end of June would trigger the First World War.
Yet for Bira, this world did not exist. A playful child, the Siamese Prince felt a love of cars at a young age, finding the utmost pleasure in thrashing little toy machines.
Thanks to his family’s long-standing connection to British royals, the thirteen-year-old Bira was uprooted and moved to England in 1927, where he fell under the influence of a man that would change his life forever – his cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse.
However, home was not the only thing element of Bira’s life that fell away – having already lost his mother at the age of four, his father would later die in 1928, effectively making the Prince an orphan at the age of fourteen. Thereafter Chula became Bira’s legal guardian.
As the 1920’s drew to a close, political pressures in Siam grew and in 1932 and King Rama VII abdicated the throne, but for the Prince, that life seemed a world away.
Royalty Behind the Wheel
A versatile and cultured young man, Bira attended Eton, Cambridge University and Byam Shaw Art School, but for all his knowledge absorbed, it would be an MG Magna that intrigued the young Prince.
The Magna – an 18th birthday gift from Chula – was ripe for racing, yet the Prince did not enter it into competition, instead preferring to bide his time; however when Chula formed the privateer squad White Mouse Racing in 1935, everything changed.
Determined to race, Bira obtained the permission of Chula and the dethroned Rama VII to enter a short event at Brooklands in 1935, but was not helped by his choice of vehicle – a slow and ageing Riley Imp. It would not stop the Prince from becoming one of the promising young stars of the Voiturette Class of International Racing (machinery smaller the Grand Prix cars).
Despite being rather shortsighted, Bira soon became a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel and with additional homes in both Geneva and Southern France, Bira took the opportunity to race in smaller European events. Having replaced the Riley Imp with a more up-to-date M3 Magnette, the car was fashioned with the colours of Siam – pale blue with a yellow trim, later to be known as ‘Bira Blue’.
A new ERA
Bira’s fortunes would take a further upswing later that year – Chula would purchase a new 1.5 litre ERA Voiturette machine that he would call Romulus. It would be a powerful combination, helping Bira to 2nd place in its first race at Dieppe (France) despite a mid-race stop for repairs.
The Prince continued to race well against the more powerful cars of the 1935 Grand Prix season, taking another second place at Switzerland’s treacherous Bremgarten circuit, followed by a 5th at the Donington and 3rd at Brooklands. For an unknown driver only competing in a small number of events, it was a startling array of results.
The following year saw the Princes purchase another ERA (called Remus) and a third machine – a Maserati 8CM – all of which would be split between international and British events.
It would be a year of further glory for White Mouse Racing. Bira’s quality behind the wheel of his quick and sturdy Romulus would ensure victory at the Coupe de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo (the build-up race to the Monaco Grand Prix). The Prince would win a further four races in 1936 in his trusty ERA, before claiming another 5th and 3rd at Donington and Brooklands with the Maserati.
To top the year, Bira received the first of three BRDC’s Road Racing Gold Stars. However, the stellar string of results and good fortune could not last…
A Swift Downfall… and War
1936 was the peak for White Mouse Racing. The following year saw the tiny team pick up a Grand Prix Delage machine from the Mercedes-bound Richard Seaman. A second Delage was also bought – this time from a private sale – however both were to woefully underperform.
Despite the hiring of famous race engineer Lofty England, the cars were slow and unreliable, with good results now coming against lesser talents in equally difficult machinery.
In order to try to keep up with the fields of 1937 and 1938, White Mouse Racing was forced to run in the now outdated ERA machinery, leaving the Prince with precious little to play with. As more and more money was poured into upgrading the Delage pair, preparation of the ERA’s suffered and this showed in Bira’s largely disappointing results.
Although, there were occasional victories, they were not of the stature of previous years.
Indeed, Prince Bira’s success in the mid-30’s had made him famous for reasons beyond his heritage and as the decade drew to a close, a Grand Prix in the city of Bangkok came close to becoming a reality. With Siam now renamed Thailand, a feeling of hope rang in the air.
Sadly it was not to be. The Bangkok Grand Prix, due to run in October 1939, would not come to fruition. The outbreak of the Second World War put an instant halt to the race, with Thailand becoming occupied by Japanese forces not long thereafter.
While based at his new residence in Cornwall, Bira – loyal to the country in which he had spent his adult life – became a glider instructor for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Yet Bira, like many of his motor racing contemporaries, would lose many of his racing years to the war – by the time he next sat in a racing car, it was 1946; still sometime before any credible races and championships could be strung together.
A Return to the Roads
As his 32nd birthday approached, Bira returned to race at Chimay in Belgium, finishing 6th in his Maserati 8CM, before returning to winning ways a year at the same circuit. However, his win came in his old ERA machine – a car considered outdated one decade previously; an acknowledgement of far European still had to come go as it rebuilt itself.
Lurking in the backdrop was the reformed White Mouse Racing, but this was no longer the 1930’s and the relationship between Bira and his cousin Prince Chula had cooled considerably. With British and European racing still proving to be sluggish, the privateer team imploded and the cousin’s went their separate ways for good.
For Bira, the slide was slow, but now his future was cast and the Prince began to fall towards oblivion. Chula, meanwhile, would pass away in 1963 having fallen out of the sport completely.
With Bira free from White Mouse Racing, the Thai pilot made a switch to Maserati in 1949 – a move that would garner several podiums – at a time when the Formula 1 World Championship was formed.
By entering the inaugural event at Silverstone in May 1950, Bira became the first, and thus far only Thai driver to compete in Formula 1 when he ran for Enrico Platé’s private squad, driving the Maserati 4CLT-48.
In what was fast becoming an outclassed car, Bira would retire from the British Grand Prix, although points would come Monaco (5th) and Switzerland (4th), rewarding him with 8th position over all. A podium at the non-Championship event at Goodwood was a highlight in a year bereft of delights.
The Beginning of the End
The Thai Prince attempted few events in 1951, one of which was the Spanish Grand Prix – indeed Bira pulled out after only a single lap with an engine failure; however he was well off the pace in qualifying. He did win the short 1951 Richmond Trophy at Goodwood and took 4th at the Bordeaux Non-Championship Grand Prix as a private entrant in his Maserati 4CLT, but beyond that results were sparse.
The following year brought two finished in Formula 1 races (Belgium 10th, Britain 11th), but no points. A podium at the Marseilles Grand Prix was his sole salvation, albeit five laps behind race winner Alberto Ascari. With his patience dissipating, Bira’s interest began to wane and his circuit appearances became more inconsistent.
1953 saw Bira start the year with Connaught Engineering, before switching to the Scuderia Milano squad. It would prove to be his lowest year in Grand Prix racing, with no points in F1 and few finishes in Non-Championship events.
Form returned briefly as the mid-50’s approached. Entered in his own Maserati 250F, Bira secured his final points finish in France, before winning the Non-Championship Grand Prix des Frontieres in Belgium. Two more runner-up spots in Non-Championship events came at Rouen and Pescara, until the Prince celebrated for a final time – one final victory came in January 1955 at the New Zealand Grand Prix in Ardmore.
Solid results at the Bordeaux GP and at the BRDC International Trophy shortly after the Ardmore event once again raised the Prince’s profile somewhat amongst his peers.
Then as the Belgian Grand Prix approached, an entry for Bira was muted – only for the Thai Prince to mysteriously pull out beforehand. With little fanfare, Bira suddenly – and unexpectedly – announced his retirement and turned his back on the world of motorsport.
Life Later On
Although Bira’s F1 results may not amount to much on paper, his skill in the wider arena of motorsport’s calendar brought much deserved success. He returned to Thailand for a time in 1956 following his retirement, but also kept home in Europe.
However, Bira did not disappear completely. Indeed the Prince joined the Thai Olympic squad as a sailor, débuting at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and then competing in a further three games. His final appearance as an Olympian was at the 1972 Munich games, at the age of 58.
As time passed, the Prince ran several business’, but often they struggled – Bira could not bring his racing prowess to industry and without the support of the now defunct Thai monarchy, Bira descended toward financial severe difficulties.
Thereafter Bira returned to France and later to England for good – this former Grand Prix driver, forgotten and alone amongst London’s vast surroundings.
Sadly, Bira’s life would reach of an anonymous end. On the 23rd of December 1985, the Prince collapsed and died of a heart attack at Barons Court underground station in London. With no identification, Bira lay in state until a handwritten note found in his pocket gave clues as to his who he was.
Upon investigation by the University of London and Scotland Yard, Bira’s body was identified and the Prince was given a deserving celebration of life by the Royal Thai Embassy.
Bira would not be forgotten this time. Established in the mid-1980’s, Thailand’s “Bira Circuit” is the country’s sole track that has been certified by the FIA – for now. Should Formula 1 see a future there in years to come; that may well change.
The Bangkok Grand Prix did eventually happen; albeit in 1988 as a historic race – and Prince Bira’s famed Romulus took to the roads piloted by Narisa Chakrabongse, daughter of Prince Chula.
With Formula 1 slowly, but surely shifting its house further east in search of an undiscovered audience, rumours of a race in Thailand have grown exponentially, leading some to believe that the country may be a new Grand Prix venue, following on from Russia’s eventual début.
Should the sport move to Thailand, it would mark the first running of a Grand Prix in the nation – a feat so nearly managed for real over seventy years ago.