Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh (Thai: พีรพงศ์ภาณุเดช; RTGS: Phiraphong Phanudet; 15 July 1914 – 23 December 1985), better known as Prince Bira of Siam (now Thailand) or by his nom de course B. Bira, was a member of the Thai royal family, racing driver, sailor, and pilot.
|Born||15 July 1914|
Grand Palace, Bangkok, Siam
|Died||23 December 1985 (aged 71)|
Barons Court Station, London, England, United Kingdom
|Spouse||Ceril Heycock (1st) (1938–1949)|
Celia "Chelita" Howard (1951–1956)
Salika Kalantananda (1957)
Arunee Chuladakoson (1959–1964)
Chuanchom Chaiyananda (1967–1980)
|House||Bhanubandh family (Chakri Dynasty)|
|Father||Prince Bhanubandhubongse Voradej|
|Mother||Mom Lek Bhanubandh na Ayudhya|
|Formula One World Championship career|
|Teams||Enrico Platé, Gordini, Connaught, Maserati, Scuderia Milano, independent|
|First entry||1950 British Grand Prix|
|Last entry||1954 Spanish Grand Prix|
|24 Hours of Le Mans career|
|Best finish||DNF (1939, 1954)|
Birabongse raced in Formula One and Grand Prix races for the Maserati, Gordini, and Connaught teams. He was the only Southeast Asian driver to compete in Formula One until Malaysia's Alex Yoong joined Minardi in 2001, and the only Thai driver to compete in Formula One until Alexander Albon made his debut in 2019. Birabongse also competed in sailing events at four Summer Olympic Games, and flew from London to Bangkok in his own twin-engine Miles Gemini aircraft in 1952.
Prince Birabongse's parents were Prince Bhanurangsi Savangwongse and his second wife. Birabongse's paternal grandfather was King Mongkut, loosely portrayed in the Hollywood movies The King and I and Anna and the King. His mother died when Prince Birabongse was only four years old. Birabongse was sent to Europe in 1927 to complete his education in England at Eton College, where he joined one of his nephews, a grandchild of his father through his first marriage. While he was at Eton Bira's father died, leaving him an orphan. He was placed under the care of his cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, who ultimately became Prince Bira's legal guardian. On leaving Eton at age 18, in early 1933, Prince Bira moved in with Prince Chula in London, while he decided on his future.
Prince Birabongse had been registered to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, but had not passed the Cambridge University entrance examination. Initially, Prince Chula hired a tutor for Prince Bira, to better prepare him for the exam, but Prince Bira changed his mind and expressed a desire to learn sculpture rather than attend university. Prince Chula approached leading sculptor Charles Wheeler, and Wheeler took Prince Bira on as a pupil within his studio. Although Prince Bira showed some talent as a sculptor, in Wheeler's opinion he needed to learn to draw, and so in the autumn of 1934 Prince Bira enrolled at the Byam Shaw School of Art. Prince Birabongse did not attend the Byam Shaw School for very long, but while there he became friendly with a fellow student, Ceril Heycock, and he began courting her in earnest only a few weeks later. However, both Prince Chula and her parents placed severe limitations on their relationship, and it was not until 1938 that they were able to marry.
Bira first raced with his cousin Prince Chula's team, White Mouse Racing, driving a Riley Imp at Brooklands in 1935. In this car Bira established the national motor racing colours of Siam: pale blue with yellow. He later lived near Geneva, Switzerland, and in the south of France.
Later in 1935, Prince Chula gave him one of the new ERA voiturette racing cars—R2B, which was nicknamed Romulus. Bira finished second in his first ever race in Romulus, despite needing to stop for repairs. The remaining races of the season saw Bira consistently placing among the more powerful Grand Prix vehicles, with another second place, and fifth at the Donington Grand Prix.
For 1936 the princes decided that the previous season's results merited a second ERA. They purchased chassis R5B (which Bira named Remus) to use in British events and retained Romulus for international races. Chula also purchased a Maserati 8CM to complete the White Mouse roster. Bira's expertise behind the wheel earned him the Coupe de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo. Bira won a further four races in the ERAs that season, and took the Grand Prix Maserati to 5th at Donington and 3rd at Brooklands. This was the high point for Bira and the White Mouse team.
Following Dick Seaman's move to Mercedes for 1937, the Thais purchased his Grand Prix Delage and all of its spare parts, along with a second Delage. Despite several upgrades, and hiring experienced race engineer and future Jaguar team manager Lofty England, the cars underperformed, and on many occasions Bira raced in the older and by now substantially inferior ERAs. In addition, the money spent on the Delage upgrades had sapped the resources of the team and corners were being cut in the ERA's race preparations. Later in the year White Mouse did invest in a newer C-Type ERA, chassis R12C. R12C came to be known as Hanuman, and Bira attached a large, embossed, silver badge depicting the Hindu deity after whom he had named the car. Following a major accident in 1939 Hanuman was rebuilt back to B-Type specifications, and in light of this major overhaul Bira renamed the car Hanuman II.
While Bira maintained a respectable results tally in British events, the more costly international races were largely a disaster.
After the war, Bira returned to racing with several teams. In 1951 he raced in an old Maserati 4CLT fitted with a newer V12 Osca engine. No results were obtained this year as a result of the poor performance of the car combined with a severe accident. By 1954, with a newer car, a Maserati 250F, he won the Grand Prix des Frontières on the Chimay road circuit and then finished fourth in the 1954 French Grand Prix with his own Maserati. In January 1955, he won the New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore; he retired at the end of that season.
Bira competed in sailing events at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in the Star, 1960 Rome Olympics in the Star, 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the Dragon and the 1972 Munich Olympics in the Tempest. In the 1960 Games he competed against another former Formula One driver, Roberto Mieres, who finished seventeenth, ahead of the prince at nineteenth.
Prince Bira died at Barons Court tube station in London on 23 December 1985. He collapsed and died having suffered a major heart attack, but as he carried no identification with him, his body could not initially be identified. A handwritten note was found in his pocket by the Metropolitan Police and was sent for analysis at the University of London, where it was shown as being written in Thai and addressed to Prince Bira. The Thai Embassy was notified, and realised his significance. A Thai funeral service was held at the Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, and he was later cremated according to Thai and Buddhist tradition and customs.
Bira Circuit, based just outside Pattaya, Thailand, is named after Prince Bira.
In 2016, in an academic paper that reported a mathematical modeling study that assessed the relative influence of driver and machine, Prince Bira was ranked the forty-third best Formula One driver of all time.
Development of the Thai racing coloursEdit
Prince Bira was instrumental in developing and setting the national racing colours of Thailand. The base colour for the scheme, a mid to pale powder blue, was adopted by Bira in 1934, and was derived from the evening dress of a young woman that Bira met during his early years in London. Initially the cars were painted solely in blue, but gradually Bira added in some yellow to offset the base colour. He started painting the cars' chassis rails yellow in 1939.
Bira's 1936 Maserati 8CM, seen in his original all blue livery with Siamese flags on the tail and the White Mouse emblem just ahead of the cockpit
Bira's 1954 Maserati A6GCM Inter in a looser interpretation of his racing colours. Post-WWII, and particularly outside Grand Épreuve events, national racing colour schemes were not strictly enforced
Complete European Championship resultsEdit
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position) (Races in italics indicate fastest lap)
|1938||Squadra Sabauda||Maserati 8CM||Maserati 3.0 L8||FRA||GER||SUI
- ^1 – As a co-driver Bira was ineligible for championship points
Complete 24 Hours of Le Mans resultsEdit
|1939||Raymond Sommer||Raymond Sommer||Alfa Romeo 6C 2500SS||3.0||173||DNF||DNF|
|1954||Aston Martin Lagonda||Peter Collins||Aston Martin DB3S Coupé||S 3.0||138||DNF||DNF|
Post WWII Grandes Épreuves resultsEdit
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)
|1947||Enrico Platé||Maserati 4CL||Maserati 4CL 1.5 L4 s||SUI
|Ecurie Souris Blanche||ERA B||ERA 1.5 L6 s||BEL
|Scuderia Milano||Maserati 4CL||Maserati 4CL 1.5 L4 s||ITA
|1948||Equipe Gordini||Simca Gordini T15||Simca-Gordini 15C 1.5 L4 s||MON
|Enrico Platé||Maserati 4CL||Maserati 4CL 1.5 L4 s||SUI
|Prince Chula||ERA B||ERA 1.5 L6 s||FRA
|Scuderia Ferrari||Ferrari 125||Ferrari 125 F1 1.5 V12 s||ITA
|1949||Prince Chula||Maserati 4CLT/48||Maserati 4CLT 1.5 L4 s||GBR
Complete Formula One World Championship resultsEdit
|1950||Enrico Platé||Maserati 4CLT/48||Maserati 4CLT 1.5 L4 s||GBR
|1951||Ecurie Siam||Maserati 4CLT/48||Maserati 4CLT 1.5 L4 s||SUI||500||BEL||FRA
|OSCA 4500 4.5 V12||ESP
|1952||Equipe Gordini||Gordini T15||Gordini 1500 1.5 L4||SUI
|Gordini T16||Gordini 20 2.0 L6||FRA
|1953||Connaught Engineering||Connaught Type A||Lea-Francis 2.0 L4||ARG||500||NED||BEL||FRA
|Scuderia Milano||Maserati A6GCM||Maserati A6 2.0 L6||ITA|
|1954||Officine Alfieri Maserati||Maserati A6GCM||Maserati A6 2.0 L6||ARG
|Prince Bira||Maserati 250F||Maserati 250F1 2.5 L6||BEL
|1955||Prince Bira||Maserati 250F||Maserati 250F1 2.5 L6||ARG||MON||500||BEL
Non-championship Formula One resultsEdit
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position; races in italics indicate fastest lap)
|Ancestors of Birabongse Bhanudej|
- "The Prince And I: The story of the last Thai F1 driver". BBC. 27 November 2018. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
- Birabongse, Princess Ceril (1998). The Prince and I: My Life with Prince Bira of Siam. Veloce Publishing. p. 224. ISBN 978-1-845845-69-8.
- Viva F1. "Formula One at the Olympics". Archived from the original on 8 August 2012. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- "Birabongse Bhanudej". Olympedia. Retrieved 2 June 2020.
- Hanlon, Mike (12 May 2016). "The Top 50 F1 drivers of all time, regardless of what they were driving". New Atlas. Archived from the original on 19 September 2016. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
- Snellman, Leif (August 2000). "The prince and I". 8W. Forix.com. Retrieved 27 April 2022.
- "THE GOLDEN ERA – OF GRAND PRIX RACING". kolumbus.fi. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- "All Results of "B. Bira"". racingsportscars.com. Archived from the original on 14 October 2017. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- ""B Bira" – Biography". MotorSportMagazine. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
- ""B Bira"". motorsportmagazine.com. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
- "Prince Bira – Involvement Non World Championship". statsf1.com. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Birabongse Bhanudej.|
- Bira, the Grand Prix driver text: Autocourse site
- Malcolm Campbell and Prince Bira photo: The Brooklands Society site
- pre-war pictures many photos: The Brooklands Society site
- His personal life text.
- A brief biography grandprix.com
- Snellman, L. 2000. The Prince and I, 8W.
- Prince Bira at The Crittenden Automotive Library Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine, full F1 race-by-race statistics
- Bira International Circuit
- "Blue Wings to Bangkok" written by Prince Bira 1953