The prince and I
- Leif Snellman
- 8W August 2000 issue
- ERA G-Type - The crooked Silver Arrow from Britain, by Felix Muelas
- Maserati 250F - Classic Red, the Maserati 250F series, by Don Capps
Maserati 250F (self-entered)
1954 French GP (4 July 1954)
What has a Scandinavian woman named Barbara Grut to do with Grand Prix racing? Well, a light blue evening dress she owned gave the color for the Siamese national racing colors!
In the late 20s three members of the Siamese royal family came to England to study. They were the king's nephews, Prince Abhas, Prince Chirasakti and Prince Birabongse. Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh was born in 1914 and had been car-crazy since the day he as a little child had sat on the lap of the chauffeur and been allowed to steer one of the cars belonging to the royal car park. He came to England in 1927 and supervised by his older cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse he educated at Eton and Cambridge before concentrating on sculpture. In 1932 Birabongse got his first car, a MG Magna. In 1935 after much persuasion he finally got Chula's permission to enter a Riley Imp in a race at Brooklands. The car was sent to a garage for tuning and was painted light blue after a dress of a young girl Birabongse had met. Birabongse started at Brooklands under the name "B Bira" and showed promise during the race but the car proved far too slow so it was soon replaced by a M3 Magnette. With it Bira entried several local British events.
In 1935 the sensational new ERA voiturettes were offered for sale and Prince Chula was one of the first buyers. The car, a 1.5 litre B-type, was given to Bira on his 21st birthday and was given the name "Romulus". Five days later Chula's and Bira's new White Mouse Stable, based at Hammersmith outside London, made itself known for the first time on the continent, at Dieppe on the French north coast for the 7th Grand Prix de Dieppe. The debut was quite sensational because Bira had to stop for new plugs but still managed to finish second. The team with its little spectacled oriental driver and with its non-interpretable Siamese pit signals was soon to be known on the race tracks all over Europe.
A month later at Berne Bira took on the whole voiturette elite and once again finished second. He finished off the season with a fine fifth at the Donington GP and third at Brooklands, in both cases being the top voiturette finisher among the bigger GP cars.
The 1936 season proved to be perhaps the best of Bira's career. A new ERA B known as "Remus" had been bought for British events while Bira mostly relied on "Romulus" for the international races. A Maserati 8CM Grand Prix car was later also added to the stable. The season started off well when Bira after a dramatic race took his first victory at the Coupe Prince Rainier, the voiturette race before the Monaco Grand Prix. He followed it up by victories at the JCC International Trophy, Grand Prix de Picardie and Albi Grand Prix. He was second to Seaman's Delage on the Isle of Man and finished 3rd behind two Maseratis at Nürburgring. In the Donington GP and at Brooklands he raced his GP Maserati and finished 5th and 3rd.
In 1936 the brightest voiturette star had been Dick Seaman with his old Grand Prix Delage so the future seemed bright for the White Mouse Stable when they bought the Delage with all its spares from Seaman, who had signed on for Mercedes. Chula also managed to buy the second Delage that existed in England and now owned half of the GP Delages ever produced. The cars were extensively upgraded with a new chassis and independent suspension and phenomenal results were expected. Sadly the rebuilt cars did not live up to the expectations at all and Bira had to rely on his old ERAs which by now were inferior to the new Maseratis. The team had taken on too big a task and as a result of the money (£ 7 836) spent on the Delage, the team was now on a strict budget and the race preparation of the ERAs suffered. Bira was victorious at some occasions in England; at the Campbell Trophy at Brooklands with his GP Maserati and on the Isle of Man and Crystal Palace with the ERA, but the international starts proved mostly to be disastrous for the team.
For 1938 the team got itself yet another ERA, an ex works C-type with a Zoller vane supercharger, and it received the name "Hanuman" after a Siamese ape god. Chula tried to sell off the Delage for £ 2 500 but found no buyers. After the Delage disaster, the team concentrated mostly on British events during the season to minimize expenses, proving victorious at the Coronation Trophy, the Cork Grand Prix, the London Grand Prix and the Nuffield Trophy.
In 1939 a wide yellow line appeared on the cars and the wheels were also painted yellow . On the continent the ERAs were outclassed by the Maseratis. Bira's victories that year included the Nuffield Trophy with "Hanuman", the Sydenham Trophy and Crystal Palace Cup with "Romulus" and a handicap race at Brooklands with the Maserati 8CM. At the Coupe de la Commission Sportif at Reims-Gueux Bira crashed badly during practice destroying "Hanuman" but fortunately escaping himself with only minor injuries.
Bira also had plans for organizing a voiturette race in his homeland. Naturally the date had to be set after the racing season as moving the cars to and from Siam would take months. A preliminary date for the Bangkok Grand Prix was set at 10th December 1939 but of course the war destroyed those plans.
After the war Bira resumed racing at Chimay, on June 9, 1946, finishing 6th with his Maserati 8CM. At the Ulster TT on August 10th he was back as a winner with the rebuilt "Hanuman". For 1947 he got himself a new Maserati 4CL and with it he won the Grand Prix des Frontières. In 1947 he also became a works driver racing for Simca-Gordini, winning at Reims and the Manx cup.
In 1948 he continued racing Maserati 4CL and 4CLT/48, winning with both cars. After the season his long partnership with Chula ended. In 1949 Bira continued racing his Maseratis for the Swiss Enrico Platé stable, winning the Swedish Grand Prix and taking a lot of podium places. He continued racing for Platé in 1950, taking 5 points in the new World Championship but the cars were outclassed by the Alfa Romeos. For 1951 Bira raced as privateer with an OSCA V12-engined Maserati, an experiment that did not turn out well. A skiing accident destroyed part of the season and Bira seems to have lost interest in racing. He spent more and more time home in Thailand during the next two seasons when he raced Gordinis and Connaughts without too much success.
But in 1954 Bira was back again and with the Maserati 250F he regained his interest and even if some of his pre-war speed had been lost he proved that he still was a force to be reckoned with. He finished 6th in the Argentine Grand Prix with a works car, finished second in his heat at the International Trophy, was 6th at the Bari Grand Prix and took what proved to be his last European victory at the GP des Frontières in Chimay. He finished 6th at the Belgian Grand Prix with a private 250F but of course there were no points earned for finishing 6th in those days. Coming to the French Grand Prix at Reims-Gueux, Bira had not received a World Championship point for almost four years.
The 1954 French Grand Prix was especially interesting as it was the comeback race for Mercedes-Benz, almost exactly 20 years after their first great international comeback at the 1934 French Grand Prix. The three new Mercedes-Benz W196 streamliners were run by Fangio, Kling and Herrmann. They were challenged by 18 other cars including three works Ferraris for Gonzalez, Hawthorn and Trintignant and Rosier's and Manzon's old private Ferraris. Equipe Gordini entered three cars for their drivers Behra, Frère and Pollet with Belgian driver Berger (Georges, not Gerhard!) racing a private ditto. Lance Macklin raced a HWM-Alta and Harry Schell a private Maserati A6GCM.
The story of the Maserati 250F is too long to be told here (that's why it's told here!). Shortly one can say that it was the "workhorse" of Grand Prix racing in the mid 50s and no less than seven of those cars were on the entry list for the French Grand Prix. Maserati had lost Fangio to Mercedes but Lancia had released Ascari and Villoresi and both were now racing for Maserati together with Mieres and Marimon, while Salvadori raced a Maserati for Gilby, Wharton one for Owen and Bira his private 250F under his own name.
The race proved to be a very dramatic one for Bira. Starting in the third row he initially held 6th place behind two Mercedes, two Ferraris and Marimon's Maserati. Ascari was already out of the race with transmission trouble. After a few laps Bira was passed by Herrmann's Mercedes but soon he started to earn positions as the drivers in front of him struck trouble. Both Hawthorn and Gonzalez blew the engines of their Ferraris in the pursuit of the disappearing Silver Arrows. They were followed by Marimon, who had to make a pitstop for new plugs, and when Herrmann's engine gave up on lap 13 Bira found himself in third position leading the chase on the Mercedes duo of Fangio and Kling.
But soon Bira found himself attacked by Behra's Gordini and Trintignant's Ferrari. On the 20th lap all three cars came to the braking point for Virage de Thillois at the end of the long straight in a bunch. Behra made a mistake and hit a fence and Trintignant had to take to the grass to avoid a collision. That left Bira with a secure third position until it started to rain. Bira got problems with his goggles and had to fall back behind Manzon's Ferrari but when the rain stopped Bira regained his podium position. But shortly before the end Bira ran out of fuel and was once again forced to see the Ferrari pass. So Bira took the flag in fourth position as the best Maserati driver, taking the last three championship points of his career.
Bira's fine season continued. He was second at the Rouen GP, 4th at Caen and 2nd at Pescara. He was 9th in the Spanish Grand Prix and retired at the British and German GPs. In 1955 he won the New Zealand Grand Prix before he sold his Maserati and returned to Thailand to run an airline. He died in 1985.
By his fellow competitors Bira was known as a gentleman. He vas very short-sighted, and always had to use glasses or special goggles. His driving wasn't of course of the Lang/Caracciola class but he was a steady, reliable driver and when he was in the right mood he had what was needed to be a winner. In the 1937 RAC International Light Car Race on the Isle Of Man, raced in heavy rain, he really excelled in the terrible conditions, dominating the race over such drivers as Mays, Fairfield and Villoresi. If the political situation had been another in Europe in the late 30s it is probable that Bira at least would have got a chance in one of the major German or Italian teams. Now his background made the final step to the top impossible.
Reader's Why by Alessandro Silva
It was the first race and the first win for Mercedes Benz W196. "B" Bira also tied for his best World Championship finish (4th). Several racing cars has shown characteristics that were ahead of their times before and after the appearing of the Mercedes W196. As a matter of fact few of them were able to be winners right away and certainly none has been so victorious as the Mercedes W196. There can never had been a first class racing car so replete with innovations and heterodoxies all at the same time. They entered 12 World Championship GP’s in the seasons 1954/55 and totalled 9 wins, 5 seconds, 3 thirds, 5 fourths and a fifth. Out of 39 starts, they finished 25 times, with 8 poles and 9 fastest laps.
When early in 1954 it became certain that Mercedes would come back to GP racing there was great curiosity. Though Mercedes let leak many technical details, nothing was known about the shape of the cars. When at the beginning of July in Reims, the cars showed up for practice, emotion and astonishment reached high points in front of their unusual all-enveloping bodies and their speed. The effect was as shattering as in 1934 for the rather conservative world of motor racing. The car had a space-frame chassis, all-independent suspension with torsion bars (of a new low-pivot design at the rear), enormous inboard brakes, complex fuel and electrical services on the Bosch system, adjustable rate rear springing to cater for diminishing fuel loads during the race, and a built-in aura of well engineered invincibility. Their tradition of the De Dion axle was broken; their traditions of welded fabrication for the engine cylinders sustained (just imagine the amount of craftmanship needed to weld inlets in the cylinder blocks!). As it was likewise retained the old straight-eight configuration.
Yet it was a brilliantly innovative engine, with direct fuel injection on the Mercedes-Benz system, and springless desmodromic valve actuation. The power transmission was through the one plate dry clutch and the five-speed gearbox on the back axle was sychronized (also a new feature in racing cars). Direct fuel injection was installed for the first time in racing cars. It came from aircraft engines technology and was meant to overcome the problem with the carburettor of achieving equally good performance with a very wide range of speeds. It enabled very large inlets cross-sections to be used and in spite of this an equally good performance was achieved, and even in the lowest number of revolutions the torque was satisfactory. Tha main difficulty was the correct arrangements of the jets (no electronics then!). They had to work so that the sparking plugs received a rich mixture but the remaining part of the cylinders a correspondingly poor mixture. Another important advantage of the method was that it would allocate the same quantity of fuel to each cylinder, and to gauge the fuel dosage, hence the long-desired decrease in fuel consumption. The crankshaft was built in separate pieces on the very expensive Hirth system and engine units were disassembled after each race and carefully checked. This did not create difficulties since 15 W196s were built and only an average of three raced. The engine was mounted aslant of 50 degrees in order to fit the sharply sloping front of the car.
In 1955 Mercedes Benz was innovative again in introducing on some car adjustable suspensions: a feature which was to be picked up by the others only in 1960. After an unsatisfactory experience in the next race at Silverstone, the all enveloping body was to be retained only for ultra-fast tracks and substitued by a matter of fact open-wheels one. Cars with different wheelbases were built also to be the used accordingly to the characteristics of different tracks. The only evident defect that they showed was a pronounced understeering so that Mercedes' technicians had to work on it continuously in the two racing seasons.
In 1954 Fangio proved to be the only winning card in Mercedes' deck. He was beaten only twice by improbable drives by Ferrari's lightning-quick men Gonzalez and Hawthorn. Fangio was very lucky in winning the Italian GP when Stirling Moss' privately entered Maserati broke a few laps before the finish after an inspired drive. Moss was signed for 1955 and the stronger team left only a cahotic and dramatic Monaco GP to Trintignant's second string Ferrari in that shortened season. The car was built on a four-year development program, but at the end of 1955 Mercedes flatly announced: "The formula task is fulfilled".
Chief designer Uhlenhaut had personally tested the car in Winter and Spring 1954 for thousands of kilometers, before handing over the task to Kling and Lang. Mercedes did not enter the cars for races until they were sure of total efficiency and when they showed up in Reims they were ready. Fangio took pole position rather easily at an average speed of 200.040km/h, thereby winning 50 bottles of champagne given by famous organizer Toto Roche to whom would break the 200km/h mark. Fangio was 10km/h faster than his record on the Alfetta 159 in 1951 with 150hp less. Kling was one second slower with Ascari, for once on a Maserati, very close to him to complete the first row of the grid. Second row went to Argentinians Gonzalez (Ferrrari) and Marimon (Maserati) and the third Mercedes car driven by young Hans Herrmann was 7th, six seconds slower than Fangio and started on the third row between Prince Bira's new Maserati and Hawthorn (Ferrari).
The race itself was not a big deal. Kling was first on lap 1 from Gonzalez, Fangio and Hawthorn, but the two Ferraris soon disappeared, both with huge smoke from their bonnets. Fangio and Kling exchanged the lead continuously and Herrmann was chasing them and closing up in front of an unhappy Neubauer. Herrmann made the fastest lap but asked too much to his engine and withdrew. The race was all in the last two laps (60 and 61). Kling took the lead on lap 60 and was in front of Fangio for the last time out of Thillois. The huge cross-section of the Mercedes helped Fangio's slipstream. He was out of the tail of Kling's car 200 metres before the finishing line and won by one tenth of a second. It was going to be the only time in two years that Kling was able to fight on equal terms with Fangio. Robert Manzon on a Ecurie Rosier blue Ferrari was third by one second over Bira's Maserati after another sprint; both were one lap behind. Only six cars finished the race.
Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, "B. Bira" for a pseudonym, had received his new Maserati chassis just in time for GP de l'ACF. Its engine put in an A6GCM chassis made possible his win at the GP des Frontières at Chimay in early June. In this GP de l'ACF he matched his best result in World Championship races: a fourth at the Swiss GP in 1950 on a Maserati entered by Enrico Platé. Born in Siam in 1914, a grandson to king Mongkut, he was educated at Eton and Cambridge after coming to England in 1927 guarded by his elder cousin, prince Chula Chakrabongse. Obviously well-bred, cultured and versatile, he was also an accomplished amateur sculptor, a yachtsman and a glider pilot, he lived the life of British high society in which he married. He always kept ties with Europe maintaining homes in Geneva and Southern France once he retired from racing in 1955 and came back to Thailand.
Both he and Chula loved motor cars. For his 18th birthday Chula presented him with an MG Magnette, soon replaced by an Invicta and then by a Rolls-Bentley. In 1934 Chula allowed him to compete in reliability trials and bought him a Riley Imp. For his 21st birthday Bira was given an ERA. The car was painted in a particular shade of light blue taken from the evening dress of a Danish girl to become Siam's racing colours. A yellow strip at the chassis was added in 1939. The car was raced by the White Mouse Stable run by Prince Chula. It was the first of three ERAs, and it was nicknamed "Romulus". To it were added another B-type, "Remus", and a C-type, "Hanuman", the name of the Siamese monkey-god. "Romulus" was by far the most successful, Bira becoming one of the top voiturette drivers in the seasons 1935/36. It took 10 firsts, 8 seconds and 5 thirds from 1935 to 1939, but it has to be said that Bira raced mostly in Britain in 1938/39 since the car was much slower than the new Italian voiturettes.
An 8CM Maserati was added to the stable in 1936, with which Bira took first place in the British Empire Trophy in Brooklands. 1937 saw also the ill-fated attempt by the stable of rebuilding two of ex-Seaman's 1927 Delages by fitting them with ugly streamlined bodies and an independent front suspension. Bira was among the most active private entrants in his career spanning from 1935 to 1955. He was a good driver if not among the quickest. After WWII he resumed racing but the engine of his beloved "Romulus" blew in pieces at the Pau GP in 1947. He bought a Maserati 4CL winning the GP des Frontières and a race at Lausanne. Later on a new 4CLT/48 he won a race in Zandvoort in 1948, in Sweden in 1949 with a third at the Italian GP that year. A OSCA 4.5-litre engine was also fitted on this car in 1951, to no avail. At the end of 1948 his partnership with Prince Chula was dissolved and in 1950 he took part in the races for the World Championship in a Maserati entered by Enrico Platé. It is said that his origin prevented him from driving for a top team, but maybe also that was because he was extremely short-sighted, having to wear spectacles or special goggles.
He had works drives in F2 for Gordini starting in 1947 with four World Championship races in 1952, occasionaly for HWM and three World Championship races for Connaught with a type A with Lea Francis engine in 1953, all with little success. A 250F engine was assembled on a A6GCM Maserati early in 1954 to be transferred later to the car in the photograph. It was one of the best cars he ever drove and with it he won the New Zealand GP early in 1955. But after a third in the Silverstone International Trophy he decided to retire permanently from racing, sold the car to Horace Gould and went back to Thailand to run an airline. He raced a total of19 World Championship GPs for 8 points. Hit by a stroke in a London Subway station, he died on December 23rd, 1985.