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Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh (Thai: ; RTGS: Phiraphong Phanudet; 15 July 1914 – 23 December 1985), better known as Prince Bira of Siam (now Thailand) or by his nom de courseB. Bira, was a member of the Thai royal family, racing driver, sailor, and pilot.
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.
Later in 1935, Prince Chula gave him one of the new ERAvoiturette 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.
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 colours
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 second ERA racing car, R5B Remus, in an intermediate livery of blue with yellow wheels only. The UK flag is placed in the position of honour, at the right leading edge of the car's bonnet, to represent its manufacturer
Bira's third ERA, chassis R12B Hanuman II, in the final Thai racing scheme of pale blue with yellow chassis rails and wheels. The Thai flag is placed in the subsidiary position, at the left leading edge of the car's bonnet, to represent the driver (it is also on the tail)
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
Bira driving his 1954 Maserati 250F in the 1954 French Grand Prix. The adaptations to the official racing scheme needed for post-WWII cars that lacked visible chassis rails are clearly seen: the yellow now forms a broad band around the lower part of the car's bodywork
Complete European Championship results
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position) (Races in italics indicate fastest lap)