TeamsPrince Bira: 1954 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Ever since the early 1930s the evening dress-inspired blue had adorned the cars of Prince Birabongse. And from those very first moments Prince Bira had proven himself as a competent racer. In many a race, competitors would left chasing after a skirt they could not catch. The flirting would continue heading into the 1954 season.
Despite being in his late thirties, Prince Bira remained a tough competitor. Being one of the Princes of Siam (Thailand), Prince Bira was always able to have some of the latest equipment at his disposal. While his talent was considered good and never really in doubt, his drive and determination would sometimes be lacking. But when he was motivated, he could hang with just about anybody and he would use this, and his equipment, to good effect scoring a number of victories and scoring 5 points in the first year of the Formula One World Championship.
Always considered a gentleman on and off the circuit, Prince Bira would have many friends and few enemies. But that didn't mean he couldn't make anybody upset with him. And in 1952 he would make Juan Manuel Fangio quite frustrated with him.
It had been agreed that Fangio would catch a ride with Bira in his airplane after the Ulster Grand Prix. The following day after the Ulster Grand Prix the Grand Prix of Monza was set to take place. But having his own plane, Bira could make the trip between the two races relatively easily. This meant Fangio would have arrived in plenty of time to get ready for the race at the famous Monza circuit.
However, Bira would leave without Fangio forcing him to try and catch a commercial flight. When he missed his connection on the European mainland, Fangio would elect to drive all through the night to arrive just about a half an hour before the start of the Grand Prix of Monza. Tired and worn out, Fangio would set off in the race only to crash hard after just two laps. Had Bira taken Fangio the Argentinean likely would have fared rather well. Instead, he would end up with a broken back and almost an entire year away from racing. In spite of this incident, Bira was still well-respected and liked amongst all of the drivers, even Fangio.
But being a gentleman doesn't mean results, and the three year period between 1951 and 1953 would see Bira struggle in the World Championship. Over the course of those three years his best result would end up being a 7th place finish at the 1953 British Grand Prix.
Bira had earned the 7th place driving a Connaught A-Type for the Connaught factory team. By the end of the season Bira had switched to a Maserati A6SSG. And while he would only finish 11th in the Italian Grand Prix, the last round of the World Championship, he was at least driving one of the best cars available at the time.
Fully aware of the fact the 1954 season would be conducted, once again, according to Formula One regulations, Prince Bira knew he would need the best car available if he wanted to compete against a field that was becoming progressively more competitive.
Prince Bira already had a Maserati A6GCM and was aware of its performance limitations. In 1953 Maserati had created its updated Formula 2 chassis known as the A6SSG. The body-styling would serve as the basis for the chassis meant to conform to the upcoming Formula One regulations but retained a 2.0-liter engine with increased horsepower. At the end of the 1953 season Bira still had the older A6GCM. Bira knew Maserati was finishing up a new car that conformed to the new Formula One regulations, particularly the new 2.5-liter engine limit. The new car, called the Maserati 250F, seemed very promising. And against a floundering Ferrari team not knowing whether it was coming or going, it seemed to be the best car to have.
The Maserati 250F didn't exactly have the best debut. It would take to the track in Modena in December and would end up being crashed. Nonetheless, it was clear the car had the performance to compete. As a true customer car, orders for the 250F really began to come pouring in.
Prince Bira would order one. As with his other cars, his Maserati 250F, the mean single-seater from Modena, would be finished in the same finish that had adorned all of his other cars. Inspired by an evening dress worn by a girl Prince Bira had met once, the same light blue finish would dominate the overall look of the Maserati. But there would be some minor differences.
On each of his cars the light blue had dominated. A small amount of yellow would serve as trim. However, on his new car, the entire bottom-third of the chassis would be adorned in yellow. This would make for a truly striking contrast with the light blue.
However, Prince Bira would have to wait to turn heads with his new brightly painted Maserati 250F. Bira was in line to receive a new 250F but it would still be some time before it would be finished. In the meantime, Bira needed a much more competitive car than the A6GCM he had finished the 1953 up with. Therefore, Prince Bira would approach Felice Bonetto and would end up purchasing the A6SSG he had used throughout the 1953. This wasn't exactly a bad purchase as Bonetto had performed well in the car at times throughout the season. Until some mistakes and other problems hit, Bonetto had been right in the mix at the wild French Grand Prix and at other times. So Bira was purchasing a proven car. This would be good as he prepared for the start of the 1954 grand prix season.
Prince Bira didn't have time to wait for his new car; the caravan was leaving across the south Atlantic for Argentina. On the 17th of January, just a few months after the conclusion of the 1953 World Championship season, it would all start up again with the first round of the new season.
The first Argentine Grand Prix had been added to the World Championship for the first time the year prior and had very tragic consequences. An incredible throng of spectators attended the event hopeful to cheer on its national hero Juan Manuel Fangio. Unfortunately, the large crowd would lead to a terrible accident. Giuseppe Farina would swerve to miss a boy on the circuit and would end up plowing through a crowd of spectators killing more than a handful. This was truly a dark blemish on the Argentine Grand Prix. Teams, drivers and organizers hoped the next installment would conclude with a much more festive mood.
Located to the south of Buenos Aires, the Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez would be built in 1952 in response to president Juan Peron's desire to host the World Championship in Argentina. He had good reason for this with Juan Manuel Fangio being a world champion. Originally called Autodromo 17 de Octubre, the circuit would open in 1952 with a number of different layout options.
As with the first time, the Argentine Grand Prix would take place around the number two, 2.42 mile, course. This circuit layout played out as a medium speed circuit with short blasts and a number of quick chicanes.
Even though there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding Ferrari, it certainly didn't appear to affect anything in practice. Giuseppe Farina would be at the wheel of a new Ferrari 625 when he would turn the fastest lap of practice with a time of 1:44.8. Jose Froilan Gonzalez would remind the Argentineans there were other national drivers besides Fangio. He would end up just a tenth slower than Farina and would start from 2nd on the grid.
Juan Manuel Fangio would be the fastest of the Maserati entrants. His lap time of 1:45.7 would be just nine-tenths of a second slower than Farina and good enough for the 3rd starting position. The final position on the front row would go to Mike Hawthorn. His best time around the circuit would be 1:47.0. And though he would be clearly slower than his Ferrari teammates his 4th place starting position meant there would be three Ferrari team cars starting on the front row.
Driving a Formula 2, 2.0-liter, Maserati A6SSG under the Officine Alfieri Maserati team name, Prince Bira would still be impressive in practice setting a lap time of 1:49.3. This would earn him a third row starting position. Starting 9th, Bira would be between Roberto Mieres and Harry Schell on the third row.
The day of the race would see the circuit wet and the skies overcast. The cars would begin to be lined up on the grid in preparation for the 2:00pm starting time. Before the competitors was a race lasting 87 laps, or, 211 miles.
As the field roared away at the start of the race it was clear it would be a race of two halves. The new Formula One regulations and the January race date meant that only about half of the field would be heading toward the first corner with the 2.5-liter power. This certainly offered an advantage to those blessed to have the extra power.
And as the field raced around on the first lap of the race, it was clear who had the power advantage. Farina would break first with Fangio also getting a good start to run in 2nd. Gonzalez would make the poorest of starts and would find himself fighting hard to remain in the top four through the first lap.
Known for his steady driving style, Bira would remain right around where he had started the race. But this would be a good place for him to be, especially considering the fact he was at the wheel of a Formula 2 car.
Then things would turn in his favor. Gonzalez would recover from his poor start to overtake Hawthorn and Fangio for 2nd place. Then, on lap 15, Gonzalez would make his move on Farina to take over the lead of the race. Not a while lot would take place at the front of the field until about 30 laps into the race. At that point in time, a rain storm came and soaked the track. This would make things very interesting.
Immediately, Gonzalez would spin his car off the circuit in the wet conditions. Farina would make a quick stop in order to get a visor to help his vision in the deteriorating conditions. Hawthorn and Fangio would be about the only ones left at the front.
In spite of the storm, Bira would still find himself down in the running order, but not for long. Roberto Mieres would retire after 37 laps with an oil leak. Onofre Marimon's engine would let go after 48 laps. Then, in the wet conditions, more chaos would transpire that would help Bira move up the running order despite being more than one lap down.
Mike Hawthorn would spin in the wet conditions on the 52 lap. He would receive a push start to help him get back on track. Jean Behra would end up doing the same thing on the 61st lap. However, both of them would eventually be disqualified for receiving the outside help. This further promoted Bira up the running order despite being more than three laps down to Fangio, who was all alone in the lead of the race.
But the race wasn't over yet. The track began to dry out and Gonzalez would take off after Fangio. Soon, Gonzalez would make his way back by Fangio, but providence would have the final say in the matter as another rain storm soaked the circuit. This would allow Fangio to retake the lead. In the wet conditions Fangio would make a final stop for special tires. Believing the Maserati mechanics had broken a regulation, Farina and Gonzalez would be ordered to take it easy and just make it to the finish. The protest would end up being rejected and Fangio would be allowed to escape with the lead and the victory.
Juan Manuel Fangio would hold onto the lead. And after 87 laps and three hours and fifty-five seconds, Fangio would come across the line to take the victory in the first round of the 1954 Formula One World Championship. Giuseppe Farina would carry on to finish the race in 2nd place a minute and nineteen seconds behind Fangio. Gonzalez would struggle in the wet conditions and would lose out to Farina. However, Gonzalez would hold on to finish in 3rd, two minutes and a second behind behind Fangio.
The mechanical troubles, the chaos in the wet and the disqualifications would lead to Prince Bira running a steady race to a 7th place finish some four laps behind Fangio. It had been a good opening race for Bira. His steady, consistent driving style enabled him to stay out of trouble and make it to the finish inside the top ten and with a Formula 2 car. This was a very good sign considering he still hadn't take delivery of his new Formula One car.
Although Bira's role and presence in the Argentine Grand Prix was largely overlooked he had to be pleased with his pace given an underpowered car. The only unfortunate part of the whole thing is that he was still on the South American continent, so he had to deal with what he had and trust in his abilities to earn even better results a little later on in the 1954 season.
And, still armed with his Maserati A6SSG, Prince Bira would remain in Buenos Aires to take part in the 5th Gran Premio Ciudad de Buenos Aires on the 31st of January, just a couple of weeks after the first round of the Formula One World Championship.
The non-championship Formula Libre race would take place at the same Autodromo 17 de Octubre circuit on the same 2.42 mile number two layout. Even the majority of those entered in the race would be the same from the Argentine Grand Prix.
As with the first round of the World Championship the first row of the grid for the 65 lap race would be overflowing with Scuderia Ferraris. Giuseppe Farina would be on the pole with Jose Froilan Gonzalez starting in 2nd. Mike Hawthorn would make it Scuderia Ferrari sweeping the first three positions on the front row. Maurice Trintignant, driving for Ecurie Rosier, would make up the 4th, and final, position on the front row. Prince Bira would start the race back down in the field; his actual starting position unknown.
The race would see a good amount of attrition take out a number of competitors. Louis Rosier would be out of the race rather early on. A number of South American drivers would also retire from the race early on, including the Brazilian Francisco ‘Chico' Landi.
Up at the front of the field, Trintignant would look strong, but he would have some help. Giuseppe Farina would run into trouble with his car and appeared out of the race. However, Gonzalez would be ordered in to give Farina his car for the remainder of the race. Giuseppe was back into the event but was quite a ways down.
Juan Manuel Fangio and Onofre Marimon would each run into trouble and would end up retiring from the race. Mike Hawthorn would struggle and would end up with a blown engine on the very last lap of the race. All of the chaos and confusion meant that Trintignant was in the lead with Roberto Mieres, driving a Formula 2 car, running in 2nd ahead of Giuseppe Farina and Harry Schell. Prince Bira had been running another consistent and steady race and would be inside the top ten coming down to the last couple of laps of the race.
Trintignant was well ahead in the lead of the race. Mieres was holding on by a few seconds over Farina. The best battle on the circuit was between Harry Schell and Jean Behra for 4th place. Less than a second separated the two. Bira was running in the 7th position until the last lap of the race when he was further promoted by Hawthorn's retirement.
In the end, Trintignant would storm across the line to take a rather surprising victory. Twenty-nine seconds later, Roberto Mieres would give the Argentineans something to cheer about as he would hold on to finish the race 2nd ahead of Giuseppe Farina, who trailed Mieres to the line by about eight seconds. Schell would hold on by nine-tenths to defeat Behra and Prince Bira would end up with another solid finish coming in 6th place in his Maserati.
Bira managed to put together another solid performance. The trip across the south Atlantic had been relatively fruitful. As he packed and headed back off to the European continent, he undoubtedly hoped the good results he had already earned would become even better knowing he was heading back to Europe with a Maserati 250F soon to be at his disposal.
The first major grand prix on European soil would actually take place on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. On the 11th of April, Syracuse, Sicily prepared for the running of what was the 4th Gran Premio di Siracusa.
Prince Bira had an entry for this tough contest. He was to enter his Maserati A6SSG once again. However, Prince Bira would elect not to come to Sicily, and instead, would wait until May before he would take part in another grand prix.
In early May, Prince Bira still had yet to take delivery of his new Maserati 250F. Nonetheless, he would head to France to take part in his next grand prix. The Siamese prince's next race would be a non-championship event held in the southwest of France. The race was the Bordeaux Grand Prix held on the 9th of May.
Capital of the Aquitaine region of France, Bordeaux is the world's major wine capital. But the city's place in history goes well beyond the wine industry. In fact, Bordeaux's history would extend back through German occupation during World War II, the occupation of Louis XIV's army, the days of Edward, the Black Prince and the Battle of Castillon, Carolingians, the Battle of Tours and even back through the days of Roman rule back during the last century before the birth of Christ.
It would be fitting then that the Bordeaux Grand Prix would take place on a 1.53 mile circuit surrounding the Esplanade des Quinconces, one of the largest squares in France. The Esplanade des Quinconces features a number of sculptures and other pillars marking some of those important dates in the city's history.
Except for the portion of circuit passing around the esplanade, the circuit would favor those on the entry list with the 2.5-liter horsepower. The run down Quai Louis XVIII favored the horsepower of the Formula One cars and would enable them to escape the Formula 2 cars despite being a circuit in which the Formula 2 cars could do well at.
Mike Hawthorn had been burned at the non-championship race held at Syracuse just a couple of weeks prior. This meant Ferrari would be down a driver. Therefore, the Ferrari stable would be quick to hire Maurice Trintignant to drive for the team.
Trintignant would take advantage of his new opportunity by going fastest in practice and taking the pole for the 123 lap race. Jose Froilan Gonzalez would continue to look impressive in his return to Ferrari. He would end up being second-fastest in practice. The French fans assembled to watch the race would have reason to be excited as Jean Behra would make it two Frenchmen on the front row as he would start in the 3rd position driving for Equipe Gordini.
In spite of driving a Formula 2 car, Prince Bira would be in a mood to go racing. He would end up setting the fastest lap time in a Formula 2 car and would miss out on a front row starting position by just seven-tenths of a second. Instead, Bira would start from the second row in 4th position.
Thirteen cars practiced. But only twelve would make their way to the starting grid for the start of the race. It would have been thirteen had it not been for Roberto Mieres suffering a crash in practice and not being able to get his car repaired in time.
Rain had fallen on the circuit a little earlier. Otherwise it was overcast and still very threatening for more rain. As the field roared away, it would be Stirling Moss that would make an incredible start from his 7th place grid position. He would be in the lead of the race in front of Behra and Elie Bayol. Gonzalez would be squeezed between them all while Trintignant faded from a poor start. Spray was kicking up off everyone's tires. Prince Bira, despite his wonderful starting position, would be lagging behind taking it easy in the wet conditions.
Trouble would begin in earnest considering the length of the race. Peter Whitehead and Louis Rosier would be out the running even before the race was 10 laps old. Both of them would suffer from engine failure. In the wet conditions it would be easy to stress components, like the clutch. And after just 16 laps Harry Schell had managed to burn through his clutch. On the 34th lap of the race, Jean Behra's gearbox would fail.
Up front, Moss' early pace was coming back to haunt him later on. He would lose his lead and would actually begin to fade down the running order. In contrast, Robert Manzon had started the race from 5th on the grid and just continued to steadily climb the running order. Gonzalez had been the only one that actually went with Behra, Moss and Bayol at the start of the race. But with Moss fading, Behra out and Bayol languishing even further down, Gonzalez would be all by himself in the lead of the race.
The steady approach to the race seemed to have worked for some like Manzon and Trintignant. However, it fails to work when the car fails to work. And this would be Bira's problem. Prince Bira had started the race out carefully, looking to get into a comfortable rhythm in the wet conditions. It was working until, on the 44th lap of the race, an oil system problem would appear that would sideline him for the remainder of the race. This had ruined Bira's first grand prix back on the European continent.
The day would far but ruin Gonzalez's day on the continent. After setting the fastest lap of the race and cruising along at an average speed of a little more than 60 mph, Gonzalez would come comfortably across the line to take the victory over Robert Manzon. Maurice Trintignant's 3rd place would make it two Scuderia Ferraris on the podium and a clean sweep for Ferrari 625s.
It would be both fortunate and unfortunate Prince Bira fell out of the race. The unfortunate aspect was the mere fact that he was forced to retire from the race. But the fortunate aspects were two-fold. For one thing, it happened with an older Formula 2 car. And, secondly, it would be the last race in which he would be forced to enter with inferior power as his Maserati 250F was finally ready for delivery and to go racing.
There were just six days in between races for Prince Bira. However, Prince Bira likely could not have been more excited. For though he had to make his way back to the coast and across the English Channel, he knew what he had waiting for him there. He had his new Maserati 250F and it was time for it to make its competitive debut.
Prince Bira would need the car for his next race, which came on the 15th of May. Once on English soil he would pick up the car and would immediately head north of London to Silverstone. For on the 15th of May Silverstone played host to the 5th BRDC International Trophy race and it was widely popular with both English and foreign teams, like Ferrari and Maserati.
The International Trophy race was going to be a baptism of fire, but it would be the perfect way to find out just what he could do when up against the world's best in similar cars. And Silverstone was certainly the place to let a car run wild and free.
Formerly RAF Silverstone, the former bomber training base was a wide open area amidst farmland. Relatively flat and featureless, the 2.88 mile perimeter road was fast due to its rather long straights owning to the fact that the majority of them run along parallel to the airbases three runways.
One of the few big races to draw an international crowd, the International Trophy race was conducted according to different guidelines. The entire race consisted of two heat races and a final. Each of the heats was 15 laps in length while the final was 35. The entire field of cars would be split into the heats and practice would determine the starting order for each of the heats. However, the final grid positions would be determined by finishing times recorded by each competitor in their respective heat race.
Prince Bira would find himself listed in the first heat along with Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Stirling Moss, Jean Behra and Umberto Maglioli. In practice, Gonzalez would be fastest in a Ferrari 553. It would be wet and his time of 1:48 would end up being about three seconds faster than Behra's 2nd place effort. Stirling Moss would be also on the front row staring in the 3rd position. Alan Brown, driving the new Vanwall, would complete the front row.
In spite of the fact Bira had a 2.5-liter engine at his disposal, the conditions would be such that it would almost negate the advantage. As a result, the best lap Bira would manage to put together would only be good enough for an 8th place starting position on the third row of the grid.
The first heat race would be a wet affair. In spite of the very wet conditions Gonzalez would lead the way at the start of the race. Prince Bira would make a great start from his 8th place starting position and would be up near the front of the field in a short amount of time.
The wet conditions would mix everything right up. Stirling Moss would manage to get by Jean Behra, but so too would Umberto Maglioli. Alan Brown had started the race from the front row of the grid but would end up being forced out right almost from the very first moment of the race. As a result, Brown would slip down the running order.
Gonzalez would seem totally unaffected by the wet conditions and would go on to set the fastest lap of the heat with a time of 2:03.00. Prince Bira would just continue to climb the running order until he found himself in 2nd place with Stirling Moss fighting hard for the position. It was an incredible race for Bira. He looked strong and fast and was more than able to keep Moss at bay.
The battle between Bira and Moss would allow Gonzalez to focus on keeping his car on the circuit. His lead was comfortable enough to allow him to stay in front while also staying safely on the circuit.
The wet conditions would really bring the average speeds down. However, at the end of 15 laps, Gonzalez would come across the line in thirty-one minutes and forty-nine seconds to take the victory. When in the mood, Prince Bira had the ability to surprise and the first heat race would be no exception. He would make a terrific start from his 8th place spot on the grid and would manage to hold off Stirling Moss by a couple of seconds to finish the heat in 2nd place.
The first heat race had finished, but not without some issues. Almost immediately after finishing the engine in Jose Froilan Gonzalez's Ferrari would seize leaving the rest of the race in doubt for him.
Nonetheless, it was time for the second heat to take to the circuit. The second heat would see Ferrari's Maurice Trintignant taking on the likes of Reg Parnell, Robert Manzon and others.
Practice times for the second heat would be a little bit slower than those set by the first heat qualifiers. The fastest of them all would be Trintignant setting a time of 1:52 earning him the pole. He would barely edge out Reg Parnell who would also set a time in the 1:52 range. The rest of the front row consisted of Andre Simon in a Gordini T16 in 3rd spot and Bob Gerard driving a Formula 2 Cooper-Bristol T23 in 4th.
The second heat would have the advantage of seeing the kind of pace the first heat posted. The second heat would have an even bigger advantage as the circuit would begin to dry out. This meant lap times would drop considerably. It also meant the all-important finishing times would be a fair bit lower than those from the first heat.
In the second heat, Trintignant would be out front with Parnell giving chase. Robert Manzon would try to pull off the same trick Bira managed in the first heat. Starting 8th on the grid, Manzon would quickly make his way up through the field and would be in the top three rather quickly. Roy Salvadori was pulling off an even greater illusion. Having started 12th, Roy would be well inside the top five very early on and would try his best for even better.
Pushed by Parnell slightly, Trintignant would be flying in the race. He would set the fastest lap of the race and would have an average speed nearly 5 mph faster than Gonzalez in the first heat. This meant the finishing time would be quite a bit lower, and it was.
Trintignant would power his way to the victory finishing the 15 laps one minute and forty seconds faster than Gonzalez. Parnell would also look strong and would finish in 2nd just six seconds behind Trintignant. Manzon would round-out the second heat podium finishing forty-seven seconds behind Trintignant.
Then the controversy erupted. While Bira calmly rolled his car out to his grid position there was some buzzing around Scuderia Ferrari. Gonzalez's engine had seized. He needed a car or he would be out of the race. But instead of giving the Argentinean Umberto Maglioli's chassis, Trintignant would be told to give up his car to Gonzalez. This promoted Gonzalez from a 6th place starting position to the pole while Trintignant would be driven down to 6th and Maglioli left totally out. In spite of the controversy, the cars lined up on the grid.
Gonzalez would be on the pole with Parnell, Manzon and Salvadori joining him on the front row. The second row would see Andre Simon start 5th, Trintignant in 6th and Prince Bira starting a fine 7th.
As the field prepared for the start of the 35 lap final, the circuit had really started to dry out. This meant the cars would really be able to strut their stuff. And as the field powered away from the grid to start the final race it would be Gonzalez that would lead the way. Almost immediately it looked as if he was pulling away from the rest of the field with the greatest of ease. Meanwhile, Prince Bira would be surrounded by fast cars and would just try hard to find a position from which he could really start to attack.
As Gonzalez motored on around the 2.88 mile circuit, a number of others began to run into trouble. Manzon's race would come to an end after just 2 laps due to transmission failure. Reg Parnell would last just three laps more before the propeller shaft failed in his car. This seemed to throw the door to the front of the field wide open, and it had.
Unfortunately, Prince Bira would not be one of those capable of taking advantage of the situation. Just about every couple of laps there would be another car that would fall out of the running. On the 12th lap of the race, it would be Bira's turn. Driving hard, trying to earn the best position possible, Bira would use up the clutch in his Maserati. Therefore, he would be forced to retire before making it to the end of the final.
While Bira would not be able to take advantage of the misfortune, Jean Behra would. Starting the final all the way down in 11th, Behra would be on the move right from the start. He would force his way by a struggling Trintignant, who seemed to be without drive after having to give up his car to Gonzalez. Behra would also force his way by Simon. Soon, Behra would find himself in 2nd place and all alone.
Gonzalez was flying. He would set the fastest lap of the race with an average speed of nearly 96 mph. Averaging nearly 93 mph each and every lap, Gonzalez would leave everyone else behind…at least until he saw them again to put them a lap down.
Heading into the final lap of the race Gonzalez was just cruising. He had lapped the field, with the exception of Behra in 2nd place and he was well back to try and mount a challenge. All Gonzalez had left was to safely circulate the track and the victory would be his. No issues or concerns, Gonzalez easily drove to victory taking the race by thirty-six seconds over Behra, and by over a minute on Andre Simon in 3rd place.
The International Trophy race had looked very promising for Bira until the final. He had looked strong in the heat race, which meant he was focused and really in the mood to do something special. Unfortunately, his Maserati wasn't in the same mood. Therefore, after two strong performances in his first two races of the season, Bira would follow them up with two-straight early retirements. He needed to build some momentum and some confidence.
On the 22nd of May, Prince Bira would be in Bari, Italy looking for some of both. Prince Bira had come to Bari to take part in the 7th Gran Premio di Bari. The event was a 60 lap race around a 3.43 street circuit situated in the heart of the city and right along the Adriatic coast.
Located close to the heel of Italy's boot, Bari's position along the Adriatic Sea has kept the city an important economic center for the province of Bari. With a rich history dating back to the 3rd century before Christ, Bari has been involved in a number of important historical eras. Unfortunately, this cultural landmark would see its share of destruction and hard times including a truly tragic moment during the Second World War when the harbor was attacked and mustard gas was released killing a number of casualties. However, in just a few years after World War II, Bari would again attract people and sport. And by 1954, Bari was preparing for its 7th Gran Premio di Bari.
Since the race took place in Italy it wouldn't be necessary to state the entry list would be dominated by Ferraris and Maseratis. But while the Maserati works team often sponsored privateers to drive under the factory name, Prince Bira would actually be one of the very few entered in the race as a privateer. No less than five of the twelve cars in the race would be Ferraris. Maserati chassis would make up another five while Equipe Gordini and their Gordini T16 would make up the remaining two cars in the field.
In practice, Gonzalez would again prove to be fast. He would beat out Trintignant for the pole. The remaining position on the three-wide front row would go to Jean Behra in his Gordini T16. Curiously, although Bira was known to take part in the race his starting position on the grid remains something of a mystery. All that is really known is that he had to have started further down than 8th.
Bira's main concern heading into the 60 lap, 207 mile, race was finishing. He had two retirements in a row and needed a strong finish to help with momentum and confidence. So, as the field leapt away from the grid, Bira would not be as concerned with driving his way to the front of the field. He would be much more conscious of staying out of trouble early on. Gonzalez and Trintignant, on the other hand, would not take it easy at the start. The two Ferrari pilots would lead the way; Behra would do his best to keep in touch in 3rd.
The race would not be an easy one on the cars and the drivers. Sergio Mantovani would be out after just 3 laps due to shock absorber problems. Louis Rosier wouldn't last much longer. Bira, however, continued to motor on. He was running well, but not as inspired as he had been at Silverstone.
It was hard to keep up with Gonzalez and Trintignant, and in many cases, other drivers just did not. Before the end of the race Gonzalez and Trintignant would have just Behra left on the lead lap with them. But being a lap or two behind was certainly better than being out altogether.
This would be what would happen to Robert Manzon, Andre Simon and Roberto Mieres, some of the best competition in the field. This meant Bira would continue to move up the running order just by staying out of trouble.
And staying out of trouble was about all that Bira was doing in Bari. His pace was rather sedated compared to that of Gonzalez and Trintignant. This would put the man from Siam down more than just a couple of laps. But the retirements meant he was running just outside of the top five. If there was to be another retirement, other than his, he likely had 5th place sown up.
Onofre Marimon would end up setting the fastest lap of the race but it would do him little good as he would finish the race a lap down in 4th place. Gonzalez would be consistently fast throughout the whole of the race and would go on to take yet another victory. His pace of nearly 88 mph meant he would finish the race seven seconds ahead of Trintignant in 2nd. Behra would hold on, just barely, to finish in 3rd. By the end of the race, Prince Bira would be a little more than four laps down to the top three, but, he would still finish a very solid 6th.
This would be a good recovery for Prince Bira's season. And it would be important with the next rounds of the World Championship just around the corner.
But before the next round of the Formula One World Championship, Prince Bira would enjoy a bit of nostalgia and would take part in a Formula 2 race. In early June, Bira would make his way to Belgium. He was on his way to the 6.73 mile Chimay Circuit to take part in one of the oldest grand prix races in all of Europe. On the 6th of June, Chimay, Belgium would host the 24th Grand Prix des Frontieres.
It was understandable why Bira made the trip to the circuit. Measuring 6.73 miles, the Chimay circuit took place on public roads traversing the Belgian countryside just to the west of the village. Its history and layout made Chimay a truly wonderful place to race, especially with a fast car. And the long straights and fast bends seemed to perfectly suit the power of Bira's Maserati A6SSG.
The entry list for the race would be rather long but a number of those would not make it to the circuit. Instead, a field of mostly Belgian and French drivers would prepare for a 20 lap, 135 mile, race.
Against such aged chassis as a Veritas Meteor, Veritas RS and number of BMW 328 specials, it was clear Bira would have an advantage in the much newer and more powerful Maserati. However, the field wasn't totally void of potential. And in practice Jacques Pollet would take the pole with a Gordini T16. Driving for Equipe Gordini, Pollet's lap time of 3:55 would be eight seconds faster than Bira. It would also be fifteen seconds faster than Don Beauman who would occupy the final position on the front row.
In all, twelve cars would qualify for the race. However, not all of the twelve would end up lining up on the starting grid. One of the favorites heading into the race would not be able to start the race. Jacques Swaters would not be able to start the race as a result of camshaft failure. Fellow teammate and countryman Roger Laurent also would not be able to start the race as a result of an engine failure. In all, three would not start the 20 lap race.
But the race would end up being much worse. Even Bira's mood would be muted. The field would roar away to start the race. Quickly, the countryside would be shattered not with the roar of engines as much as screams of horror.
Pollet would again be fast and would hold onto the lead of the race with Bira hanging right in there with him. Andre Pilette would also be fast and he would actually get ahead of Pollet just long enough to set a chain of events in motion that would end up truly tragic.
Pilette would spin right in front of Pollet causing Pollet to have to react very quickly to the unfolding events. It is in those moments that all reason leaves and reaction takes over. In this case, Pollet would avoid Pilette but would end up losing control of his own car. This would lead to him leaving the circuit and plowing through an assembled crowd of spectators. Pollet would hit a number of the spectators and would end up killing two. Amazingly, both Pilette and Pollet would right their cars and would car on.
The crowd of spectators would make out the worse in the situation as both Pilette and Pollet would remain in the race. However, Pollet would end up a couple of laps down by the end of the race.
It would be hard to consider such an event advantageous, and it truly wasn't by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, the incident with Pilette's spin would lead to Bira taking over the lead of the race. The chaos would leave Bira pretty much by himself with Don Beauman doing his best to keep touch with an underpowered Connaught.
Once in the lead, Bira would rely on the power advantage of the Maserati and would begin to pull away into the distance. Soon, Pilette would recover and begin to hound Beauman for 2nd place. This would enable Bira to escape all the more as Pilette and Beauman fought amongst themselves.
Bira would be flying. The circuit would suit his Maserati perfectly. Soon, he would find himself coming up behind 3rd place Beauman. Averaging a little more than 98 mph, Bira would leave just Pilette on the lead lap with himself.
Bira's advantage would be too much for Pilette to overcome. After the tragic early stages, the race would conclude with Bira taking the victory by thirty-five seconds over Pilette. Beauman would follow in a very distant 3rd.
The victory couldn't have come at a better time. As the World Championship prepared to resume, Bira had momentum on his side. What's more, Bira had even more confidence. And he would need it heading to his next race.
After Bira's victory at Chimay, he would have a couple of weeks in which to prepare for his next grand prix. And he would need the time to prepare for the next race was to be the third round of the Formula One World Championship, the Belgian Grand Prix.
Only about two hours east of Chimay, the 8.77 mile Spa-Francorchamps was another of Belgium's, and the world's, true road courses. Full of all that makes grand prix racing great, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit was, and remains, one of the favorite circuits of the world according to drivers and spectators.
Elemental in its sheer speed, spectacular elevation changes and fast, sweeping bends, the circuit just seemed destined to hold grand prix races. But one of the elemental issues that helped to make Spa-Francorchamps something truly special was the mixture of the danger and the ultra-fast nature of the circuit. This would require input from the driver on a level higher than most circuits. The bravery and courage required to be fast had the potential to reward driver and spectator alike.
And it was to this ultra-fast circuit that the best teams, cars and drivers would descend. They would come to take part in the 15th Grand Prix de Belgique held on the 20th of June in 1954.
Besides the Indianapolis 500, the last round of the World Championship, the first, had taken place all the way back in January of the new year. However, the Belgian Grand Prix would kick off a stretch of World Championship rounds that would happen within weeks, not months, of each other.
Bira would arrive at the race confident, but not over confident. It would be easy to remain humble with the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Giuseppe Farina, Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss and others present. But Bira still had reason to be confident. He was at the wheel of his own Maserati 250F and had just scored victory on the Belgian soil a couple of weeks prior.
Unfortunately, the confidence wouldn't quite translate into front-running pace. In practice, Juan Manuel Fangio would be fastest in a Maserati 250F. His time of 4:22.1 would earn him the pole over Jose Froilan Gonzalez who would be a second and a half slower over the same 8.77 mile circuit. Giuseppe Farina would complete the front row having set a time four seconds slower. Bira, unfortunately, wouldn't be within just a few seconds of the front row. In spite of driving a Maserati 250F himself Bira would be over twenty-four seconds slower than Fangio over the same 8.77 miles. This meant Bira started the 36 lap race from the 13th starting position, which was the outside of the fifth row, second-to-last.
Situated in the Ardennes Forest, Spa-Francorchamps always seemed to have its own unpredictable weather system totally detached from the rest of the world. It would be nothing to have a forecast call for sunny and warm temperatures, and yet, see torrential rains and cold weather descend upon the whole area. However, as the teams rolled their cars out to their grid positions for the 2:00pm start to skies were sunny, the temperatures were mild and the track was dry. That meant the spectators would witness a truly blistering race.
As the field roared away from the grid toward the hill at Eau Rouge for the first time, Roberto Mieres would have trouble right away. His car would catch on fire. And in the struggle to get out of the car he would suffer some minor burns.
Gonzalez would be oblivious to the problem as he powered his way into the lead and up the hill for the first time. However, the amount of time at full power would take its toll on the Argentinean's Ferrari, even on the first lap. Sure enough, with still some of the 1st lap left to complete, Gonzalez's engine would begin to let go. This would force him to slow just to make it back to the pits. This would hand the lead to Farina.
The Belgian faithful, especially those that loved the Ecurie Francorchamps team based just a couple of hundred yards from the circuit, would have to find another in which to cheer for as Jacques Swaters' race would come to an end also on the first lap due to engine failure.
But while Swaters would be left out of the race, Gonzalez would not. As with Trintignant at the International Trophy race, Mike Hawthorn would be ordered in to hand his car over to Gonzalez for the remainder of the race.
Mieres' fire and the engine problems suffered by Gonzalez, Swaters and Onofre Marimon would enable Prince Bira to overcome his second-to-last starting position. Within just the first couple of laps of the race he would find himself much further up in the running order than perhaps even he expected at that time, and it would only get better.
Though Farina was in the lead of the race, Fangio was hounding him greatly. The former Alfa Romeo teammates would battle for just a little while before Fangio would take over the lead. But there are so many variables that must go right to earn a victory. And one very simple and small variable almost ruined it all for the Argentinean.
While in the lead of the race the visor strap would brake on his helmet. This would flop around and annoy Fangio causing him to slow his pace because of a loss of concentration. This would hand the lead back to Farina for a short period of time.
Thinking he had been handed a great gift, Farina would have the race stolen away from him within just a lap or two when the ignition on his Ferrari led to his engine letting go on the 15th lap of the race. This, and Paul Frere's engine expiration on the same lap, would help Bira to move even further up in the running order. He was well inside the top ten, and, in fact, was just a little ways back of Andre Pilette for 5th, the final points-paying position. His pace was very good. If Pilette could have just a little bit of trouble Bira would take the position.
Farina's expired engine also meant Fangio was back in the lead of the race. With the visor issue taken care of, Fangio would strengthen his position at the head of the field. Maurice Trintignant would find himself running in 2nd after Farina's retirement. And while he too was running a strong race, it was going to be hard for the Frenchman to deal with Fangio, who just laps earlier had set what would be the fastest lap of the race with a time just a couple of seconds off of his own pole time.
Averaging just a little more than 6 mph slower than Fangio, it was almost impossible for the Prince to keep from going a lap down before the end of the race. However, if he fought hard enough he could keep himself from being down two.
He would do just that. In spite of starting the race from 13th on the grid, Prince Bira would put together a very strong and inspired race. At the end of 36 laps and 315 miles, Bira would finish the race in an incredible 6th place, just one off from the points.
Bira would head around on his final lap just mere moments before Fangio would come into view to take the victory. It had taken the Argentinean two hours, forty-four minutes and forty-two seconds to complete the race distance and take the win. The time translated into an average speed of 114.8 mph. This would be more than enough to pull out an advantage of more than twenty-four seconds on Trintignant by the end. Trintignant would end up the only one on the lead lap as Moss would come across one lap down in 3rd.
Bira would, once again, take advantage of events and would be rewarded with a second-straight top finish. Against Fangio he had no hope but he would come away with an incredible result nonetheless. The confidence and the momentum was building even more.
The races started to come at a much more feverish pitch. While months would separate the first and the third rounds of the Formula One World Championship, only two weeks would be the difference between the third and the fourth. And so, in early July, Prince Bira would pack up his Maserati 250F and all the rest of his equipment and would head to France. His destination would be another ultra-fast circuit, Reims. The race was the French Grand Prix.
Located amongst the rolling countryside to the west of the city, the Reims road course wasn't anything like a Sunday afternoon's drive. Featuring long straights and fast, sweeping esses, Reims was yet another of the ultra-fast circuits on the World Championship calendar.
One year previous, the final year in which the World Championship raced according to Formula 2 regulations, the Reims circuit served up one of the greatest races in grand prix history. The race would be filled with wheel-to-wheel and nose-to-tail action throughout and it wouldn't just include a couple of cars, although it would come down to a titanic battle between the masterful Juan Manuel Fangio and a very young Mike Hawthorn. For action, it was perhaps the best grand prix ever.
It would be hard for the 1954 edition of the race to live up to what the 1953 race had been. But the race would have a surprise of another sort in store for the large throng of spectators assembled hoping and waiting for a truly incredible race.
It was known that Juan Manuel Fangio had left driving for Maserati. And at the French Grand Prix he would appear with his new team. For the first time since before the outbreak of World War II the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz would be present set to take part in a grand prix.
While Mercedes unloaded their three sleek-bodied W196s, Prince Bira would be busy unloading his Maserati 250F preparing for a tough 61 lap, 314 mile, race. But first, he would have to find out where he would start the race.
In practice, the outright speed of the W196 would be more than obvious. Fangio would end up being fastest with a lap time of 2:29.4. His best lap would end up being a full second faster than teammate Karl Kling. Alberto Ascari, who would be on loan from Lancia, would be just a tenth slower than Kling and would start in the final position on the front row.
Throughout the majority of Bira's races, to that point in the season, he had started well down in the field. However, he would appear to be clearly focused as he would go out and set what was to be the sixth-fastest time in practice. This meant Bira started the race from the first position on the third row of the grid. He had managed to out-qualify a number of stronger drivers including Maurice Trintignant, Jean Behra and Mike Hawthorn.
The cars would line up on the grid preparing for the start of the French Grand Prix. The circuit was dry at the moment but it was clear some rain was on the way. As the green flag flew and the field poured off the grid toward the Courbe de Gueux it was Fangio and Kling at the front of the field. Alberto Ascari was there with them but would suddenly be dropped with transmission failure. Just like that, without having completed a single lap, the double world champion was out of the race.
This meant Fangio and Kling would pull away with the lead of the race. Kling would end up taking the honors over the first couple of laps. But it would be Fangio that would take over the lead of the race on the 3rd lap. Prince Bira, who had started in 6th, would find himself in an interesting battle with Trintignant and Behra. Behra was on an absolute charge. He started the race 17th but would make a great start to be right up there with Bira and Trintignant. Trintignant had also started on the row behind Bira but had had a good start and was able to challenge for position. Hans Herrmann had started in 7th place in the third W196 but he was on a charge to try and catch up to his fellow teammates. He would push hard and would end up setting what would be the fastest lap of the race on that 3rd lap, but he was putting tremendous strain on his car doing so.
Things settled down for a few laps but there would be a bevy of attrition to strike the field just short of the 10 lap mark. Over the next 12 laps, or so, nine cars would end up falling out of the race. Among them would be Mike Hawthorn, Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Hans Herrmann all suffering engine failure.
Hawthorn had been in a fight with Onofre Marimon for 3rd before the engine failure drove him out of the race. Marimon wouldn't last much longer as gearbox issues would end his race after just 27 laps.
Attrition was decimating the field. It would be aided by the presence of rain and a wet circuit. But it wasn't bothering Bira all that much, who was still locked in a battle with Behra and Trintignant. And it certainly wasn't bothering Fangio or Kling.
Fangio and Kling would trade the lead amongst themselves. After Kling's brief moment in the sun it would be Fangio that would lead until the 29th lap. Kling would then retake the lead and hold it for about 4 laps. These two would continue to trade the lead back and forth putting on a great show for the spectators assembled to watch the race.
Heading into the final third of the race, the rain had stopped and the circuit was dry once again. Fangio and Kling continued to share the lead for about 3-5 laps each. This was truly entertaining. But while everyone was paying attention to the Silver Arrows decimating the field, there was a surprise lingering well behind them.
Behra and Trintignant were locked in a fight. The two Frenchmen were aiming for the best placement for a French driver. They would be pushing hard at every moment. This meant the two were running dangerously close to making a mistake. And then it happened. Behra would make a mistake and would go off the circuit. The problem is that it happened right in front of Trintignant. This would cause Trintignant to have to bail. Spins and flying off the track meant Bira would be gifted with 3rd in the running order. Trintignant would try to get restarted but would lose a lot of time doing so. On top of it all, his engine would let go with 25 laps remaining. Behra, the culprit of the event, would lose a lot of time and would end up a number of laps down by the end of the race.
Bira was surprising everyone. It was one of those days he felt like going racing. He was running average speeds just a couple of miles per hour slower than Fangio and Kling and was clearly only going to be a lap down by the end of the race. It was shaping up to be a good day. He just needed everything to keep running without a problem. And on this day, that would be easier said than done.
Heading into the final couple of laps, Fangio and Kling continued to share time in the lead of the race. However, it was clear there was a championship to consider. Heading into the penultimate lap, Kling would have one last moment in the sun. He would lead Fangio around the 5.15 mile circuit for the second-to-last time. Then, on the final lap of the race, Fangio would retake the lead.
In a race filled with attrition and other happenings, the last lap still had the potential for ruining a race. Only six cars were still circulating the track on the final lap. It had been an incredibly tough race. Only six of the twenty-one starters would remain circulating the track and one was beginning to have troubles.
Heading into his final lap, Prince Bira was experiencing some trouble. He had pushed so hard throughout the race that it was clear his car was beginning to run out of fuel. His pace would drop off immediately. Not only was a place on the podium in jeopardy, his race, which was just a couple of miles from being concluded, was also in trouble. While Bira fought and struggled to help his car make it to the line, the cars that had dominated the events were just about to finish.
Coming out of the Thillois hairpin for the final time, Fangio had the advantage but Kling was right there with him. This day wasn't so much about an individual winning as much as it was about a team displaying dominance. And so, as the two cars approached the finish line Kling would swing out beside Fangio in a line-abreast formation. Fangio and Kling would cross the line nearly equal. But it would be Fangio that would take the win. He would cross the line a tenth of a second ahead of Kling. These were the only two left on the lead lap. The only question remaining was, 'How would finish in 3rd?'
The fuel issue was giving Bira fits. It was clear it would be a struggle just to finish the race. Therefore Robert Manzon would come through to take over 3rd place. Just like that, the podium had been snatched away from Bira. However, he would still manage to bring it home in 4th place earning 3 points toward the World Drivers' Championship and scoring yet another strong result.
Bira had been gifted results in a couple of other races throughout the season to that point. It was almost only right that he would gift the final podium position to a Frenchman. Though it was not his decision, Bira's car seemed to share the same character that Bira had become well known and liked for.
Enjoying the result in the French Grand Prix, Bira would have little reason to leave. Just one week after the French Grand Prix there was another non-championship grand prix that was to take place just about three hours to the west. On the 11th of July, the 3.17 mile Rouen-les-Essarts circuit awaited to host what was the 4th Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts.
The result at Reims offered Bira great confidence coming into the race. He knew he would take on the likes of Ferrari and Maserati and do well despite not having a major factory backing him.
But he still could not be over-confident. For many of those same drivers that had looked strong before attrition ended their races at Reims would also be at Rouen. One team that would be absent at the race, however, would be the team that absolutely dominated the proceedings at Reims—Merecedes-Benz.
A favorite of many of the drivers, the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit was yet another public road course that offered just about everything a racer would desire, just in a slightly smaller scale than Spa, Reims or the Nurburgring. Elevation changes; blind, courageous corners; fast straights and tight hairpin turns were all a part of the character of the circuit making it a challenging, but rewarding, circuit.
Practice would see the same two Frenchman that had battled it out at Reims take spots on the front row. Maurice Trintignant would be fastest in his Ferrari with a time of 2:09.4. Eight-tenths would be the difference between Trintignant on pole and Behra starting 2nd. Seven-tenths would be the difference between Behra and Hawthorn starting in 3rd. With fourteen in the field, Prince Bira would find himself starting right around the middle of the grid. His best lap would be just slower than Clemar Bucci which meant he would start the race from the third row of the grid in the 8th position.
The race would get underway with some wild moments marking its start. As with the French Grand Prix, Jean Behra would be in the middle of some chaos that would include himself and Mike Hawthorn. This meant two-thirds of the front row would be involved in this incident. Therefore, the door would be left open to others to take advantage. Prince Bira would end up being the one that would take the most advantage of the situation presented.
Trintignant would be out front and pulling away with the lead of the race as a result of the trouble involving Hawthorn and Behra. The chaos would see Hawthorn and Behra off the circuit. Both drivers would end up being pushed started to get back into the race. Unfortunately, this was not allowed according to the rules and the two men would be disqualified.
There were any number of competitors besides Bira that could have taken advantage of the misfortune fallen upon Behra and Hawthorn. However, mechanical troubles would take these would be recipients one by one. Gonzalez would have another engine let go on him leaving him unable to take advantage. Andre Pilette was perhaps another that could have taken the most advantage of the situation over Bira since he too started ahead of him on the grid. However, transmission ailments would bring his race to an end after 40 laps. All of this would leave Prince Bira all alone in 2nd place.
The race was a long affair. At 95 laps and 301 miles, it would be a long afternoon. However, neither Trintignant nor Bira would put a wheel wrong at any turn. As a result, these two would leave the rest of the field miles behind. Unfortunately for Bira, Trintignant would leave him behind as well.
Anchored by a fastest lap just tenths off of his own qualifying effort, Trintignant would be untouchable over the course of the 95 laps. In three hours, forty minutes and thirty-four seconds Trintignant would come around the final right-hander, down the straight and across the line to take the victory. Prince Bira would drive absolutely magnificently to finish the race in 2nd place, albeit a lap down. Roy Salvadori would end up taking the final podium position but would be five laps behind Trintignant and four behind Bira.
The spectacular performances just kept coming. Ever since the victory at Chimay, Bira had been on an incredible roll. In spite of some stronger drivers, Bira would prove to be there in the end and it was a great testament to his abilities as a driver. But the season was only half over. There was still a lot of time to do even better, or worse.
After an exciting few weeks on the European continent Prince Bira would pack everything up and would head back across the English Channel to England, his adopted home. He had a little less than a week to prepare for his next race on the season, which was the fifth round of the Formula One World Championship, the British Grand Prix.
The race, set to take place on the 17th of July, would take place just two days after Bira's fortieth birthday. His racing career had touched three decades. And just when it seemed like it was time for him to step away from it all, he would be on an incredible roll suggesting he was only getting better with age. But Bira realized, full well, his age. Therefore, as he unloaded his car and equipment at Silverstone, Ron Flockhart would be with him rumored to be set to share the drive with Bira.
Bira's sudden rejuvenation, however, wouldn't be the big point of interest heading into the race. The main focus of attention would be the Mercedes-Benz team and their new W196 chassis. Seeing the Silver Arrows on English soil rekindled memories of the closest Germany actually came to ever being able to invade England. And with Juan Manuel Fangio as one of the drivers of the new revolution from Germany, it was likely the Silver Arrows would again reign supreme.
And in practice, Fangio would make many believers. Despite some visibility problems in the corners, Fangio would go on to set a new lap record and would end up being the first to average better than 100 mph around the 2.88 mile circuit.
Such a pace would ensure Fangio would start on the pole. His time of 1:45 would be about a second faster than his Fellow countryman and former Maserati teammate Jose Froilan Gonzalez. Mike Hawthorn would bring utter delight to the British faithful being just tenths slower than Gonzalez. The delight would grow into excitement as Stirling Moss would complete the front row in 4th position. Moss' 4th place starting position meant there would be three different manufacturers occupying the front row of the grid.
Enjoying the momentum and the confidence, Prince Bira would be quite fast in practice. He would be merely a few seconds slower than Fangio. His best lap of 1:49 meant he would start the race from the third row of the grid in 10th place overall.
Prince Bira had just turned 40 years of age. He would hope the end of the British Grand Prix would come bearing some gifts. The one gift the race would come bearing was a day of cold and wet weather.
Some 90 laps and 263 miles awaited the drivers. Bira would wheel his car out to his position on the third row of the grid. He would need to be careful at the start as he would be in the middle of his row and would have a large throng of drivers directly behind him.
Overcast skies would be poised waiting to drop its wet weather on the circuit as the cars positioned themselves on the grid. As the flag wove in the air to start the race, the roar of engines would fill the air. Gonzalez would appear to be shot out of a gun and would be clearly in the lead well before getting to Copse. Moss would get the better of Hawthorn and Fangio as well and would be in 2nd. Fangio's poor start would see Behra get squeezed out between Fangio and Karl Kling.
Prince Bira would be in a tough position at the start of the race. Even though he would make a decent start, there were those behind him that got an even better jump. Therefore, the field, right around him, would be very crowded heading into the quick Copse first turn.
This had the potential to be dangerous. However, Bira would be careful through the first turn and would continue on without too much trouble.
Another carrying on without too much trouble would be Gonzalez. He was clearly in the lead and slowly pulling away from Moss and Hawthorn, who were locked in a tight battle throughout the first couple of laps of the race. Finally, Hawthorn would get by Moss for 2nd place. Just about that time Fangio would be back on the pace and he too would also get by Moss for 3rd.
Gonzalez would continue in the lead of the race. Fangio would continue to harass Hawthorn for 2nd place. Finally, Fangio would get by Hawthorn leaving him to battle it out with Moss once again. A little further back, Prince Bira was still running well and was looking to be in a strong position for another good result.
Bira would drive the first 40 laps of the 90 lap race. He then would come into the pits in order to hand the car over to Ron Flockhart for the remainder of the race. Flockhart would take to the circuit still in a good position. He would complete a couple of laps, but then, would throw it all away. After 44 laps, Flockhart would lose control of the Maserati and would crash out of the race bringing an end to Bira's strong run of race finishes.
While an accident would bring about the end to Prince Bira's race, oil drums were bringing about the near end of Fangio's race. Ironically placed on the corners to aid in visibility, Fangio would still lose sight of the apexes and would continually clobber the oil cans with either fender until he had almost totally shredded the bodywork. This, and a pesky gearbox problem, would cause Fangio to lose out on his 2nd place and would even come under fire from Onofre Marimon.
As the rain fell and the circuit became wet, about the only one not under any fire would be Gonzalez. He was out front and would only continue to add to his advantage over the course of the race. As he had back during the International Trophy race, Gonzalez appeared to be in indomitable form. He would continue to use the wet conditions to his advantage putting more of those who were left from the thirty-one car field even further down.
Coming into the final laps of the race, Gonzalez was almost literally in a class unto himself. In two hours, fifty-six minutes and fourteen seconds Gonzalez would complete the 90 laps and take the victory. It had been such a performance by the Argentinean that Hawthorn would find himself a minute and ten seconds in arrears coming to the line in 2nd place. Onofre Marimon would finish the race in 3rd place but would be a lap down. It was a special victory for Gonzalez. Back in 1951 he had earned Ferrari's first World Championship victory by taking the British Grand Prix. And in 1954, back driving for Ferrari after two years with Maserati, he would do it again.
Bira's 40th birthday wouldn't prove to be as memorable as he had hoped. It had looked good until Flockhart's mistake on the 44th lap of the race. And while it would effectively slow the momentum he had built up, it was still his first retirement in weeks, months even. There was no reason to lose confidence.
The races just kept coming for Prince Bira during the middle of the summer months. One week after coming up short in the British Grand Prix, Bira would be back across on the European mainland. He would be back in France headed to Caen. For in Caen on the 25th of July was to be held the 3rd Grand Prix de Caen.
Bira wouldn't have to travel far into France. Situated right along the English Channel coast, Caen would be an important strategic objective during the Normandy D-Day landings. However, Caen would be an important objective commune throughout history. From the days of William the Conqueror through the Battle of Crecy, Caen would be at the heart of a number of battles and attacks throughout the region.
The first Grand prix de Caen would take place in 1952 and would be a non-championship grand prix. In that race, Maurice Trintignant would take the pole and the win.
The circuit used for the race would consist of streets and other public roads going around the La Prairie situated almost in the heart of Caen itself. Flat and relatively featureless, the Caen circuit measured 2.19 miles and boasted of a couple of straights with some fast kinks and a couple of slower corners.
Not surprising, the vast maority of the teams entered in the race would be French. Equipe Gordini and Ecurie Rosier would both be present. The Gordini team would bring three cars while Rosier's stable would bring two. Scuderia Ferrari would dispatch a single car with former race winner Maurice Trintignant. Officine Alfieri Maserati would also enter a single car, which was Stirling Moss' Maserati 250F. There would have been a total of four Maseratis entered in the 60 lap race but Roberto Mieres would not start the race due to an injury he would suffer.
In practice, Maurice Trintignant would show why he had won the race before as he would be fastest in his Ferrari 625 with a lap time of 1:26.0. This time would end up being four-tenths of a second faster than Stirling Moss in his Maserati.
Instead of a grid three or four wide, Caen's starting grid would alternate 2-1-2. That meant Jean Behra would start the race on the second row of the grid all by himself.
Given that there were only nine cars in the field, Prince Bira would struggle. It was clear Bira's car wasn't quite up to the pace it had been before the accident the week earlier. His best lap would be a few seconds adrift of the front runners. As a result, Bira would start the race from the fifth, and second-to-last, row of the grid. His 8th place starting position meant that he too would start second-to-last.
The field would break away from its standing positions on the grid and would pour around the fast right hand kink before setting up for the quick left and then right that took the cars out on to what is now called Cours General de Gaulle. Trintignant would have the lead over Moss while Jean Behra would be right up there with the two in his Gordini T16.
Bira would have his work cut out for himself. Starting at the back of the field he would need to carefully thread his way toward the front of the field. He would be back with Louis Rosier who was at the wheel of a Formula 2 Ferrari 500. Bira would have the horsepower advantage over Rosier and would use it to good effect to stay in front of the Frenchman.
Behra would look strong until 4 laps into the race when he would crash his car out of the event. But it would only be his car that he would take out of the event for Jacques Pollet would be ordered to give Behra his Gordini T16 for the remainder of the race.
Behra's crash would help Bira's movement forward slightly. But it wouldn't help as much as when Harry Schell fell out after 24 laps and when Robert Manzon departed the race some fourteen laps later. This would help Bira, who really couldn't make his way forward that well, make it further up the running order to be inside the top five. Of course, the fact that only five cars would be left in the running would be a big part of it. But Bira would take it.
All while other competitors were falling out of the race, Trintignant and Moss would be battling it out for the lead of the race. Trintignant would remain in the lead of the race but would only have about a second or two advantage over Moss. Moss would keep the pressure on the Frenchman by setting the fastest lap of the race with a time actually faster than Trintignant's pole-winning effort. His average speed during the lap would be greater than 92 mph. However, Trintignant would manage to weather the storm and would just keep in front of the Briton.
The way in which Trintignant stayed in front was by running consistently fast laps each and every lap of the race. And as the two men headed around the 2.19 mile circuit for the final time, Maurice would continue to hold onto a lead of a couple of seconds. The pace was certainly furious. And despite driving the same chassis, Bira could not keep up and would be looking at being a number of laps down by the end of the race. However, he was still running strong inside the top five, one lap ahead of Rosier. He would just need to hope he had enough gas left in his and the car's tank.
Making his way through the final left-hand kink and onto the start/finish straight, Trintignant was still in front. And after one hour, twenty-nine minutes and one second, Maurice would take yet another victory in the Grand Prix de Caen. Just about three and a half seconds would be the difference as Moss came across the line to finish in 2nd.
The pace of Trintignant and Moss had been a torrential one. Jean Behra would take over Jacques Pollet's Gordini T16 for the remainder of the race and would put in a fantastic driving performance to finish in 3rd place. But he would still finish two laps down.
Prince Bira would do just fine and would recover from the unfortunate British Grand Prix. In spite of needing some help, he would still make his way through the 131 miles without any problems. And once again, his smooth, mistake-free, driving would reward him. Although he would finish three laps down, he would still manage to finish a strong 4th.
June and July had been a couple of incredible months for Prince Bira. With the exception of the British Grand Prix, which was actually going well until an unfortunate accident ruined a possible strong result, the months of June and July had produced a victory, a couple of top fives, and a couple of other incredibly strong performances. But now the calendar turned. It was now August. He had recovered well after the British Grand Prix, but had the momentum left him? Perhaps a partial answer to the question would be realized on the 1st of August.
Circuits like Spa and Reims were tests of horsepower and sheer outright speed. But the sixth round of the Formula One World Championship would test all facets of a car's performance, from speed to handling. The race was the German Grand Prix and it would take place on the notorious 14 mile long Nordschleife, or, the northern loop of West Germany's Nurburgring.
Resting ominously in the Eifel mountains of Western Germany, the Nurburgring was considered the ultimate 'Green Hell'. Constantly rising and falling, tree-lined, steep drop-offs and barely any kind of barriers to keep cars on the circuit, the 14 mile long Nordschleife was an absolute gauntlet with danger and death lurking around just about every single one of the more than 170 corners.
This was by no means an understatement. While the Nurburgring had been purpose-built as an alternative to a public road course that was considered too dangerous, the Nurburgring would be about as dangerous and deadly as they came and in practice for the 1954 German Grand Prix all would be reminded of this fact.
All eyes would be on Mercedes-Benz. They had dominated at the French Grand Prix but had come up well short in the British round of the championship. Now they would be on home ground and would be desperate for a victory. However, in practice, every single driver and member of a team would be reminded of what was truly important.
In practice, Onofre Marimon was pushing hard through the steep downhill section of the course just before the bridge at Adenau. Flying around a right hand corner, Marimon would be going a little too fast and would plow his way through some hedges before dropping off into a field. By the time the car had come to a rest it had cut a deep swath out of the foliage and had mortally wounded Marimon. This would deeply overshadow the fact that Fangio had set the fastest lap time in practice with an updated version of the W196.
Death had very much become a part of grand prix life. And while Marimon's death would cause a dark shadow to come and rest over the event it would still go on as it had been planned. But it would not go on as planned for the factory Maserati team. Out of respect and honor for its fallen driver, Officine Alfieri Maserati would withdraw the remainder of its team. That meant Luigi Villoresi and Ken Wharton would not take part in the race at all.
As stated, Juan Manuel Fangio would go quickest in practice. In the W196 he would set a lap time of 9:50.1. This would end up being a little more than three seconds faster than Mike Hawthorn's time of 9:53.3. Stirling Moss would make up the final spot on the three-wide front row after he set a time of 10:00.7.
Prince Bira had only taken part in the German Grand Prix once before and that was the previous season. In practice for the 1953 German Grand Prix, Bira would be driving a Connaught A-Type and would end up setting a best time that placed him almost squarely in the middle of the field. One year later, and with one of the best chassis available at the time, he would fare much worse. He would struggle to set a really fast time around the arduous circuit. The best lap time he would set would be one of 11:10.3. This was over a minute and twenty seconds slower than Fangio's pole-winning effort. In fact, his best time in the Connaught the year before was better , and by eight seconds! As a result, Bira would end up starting the race from the seventh, and next-to-last, row of the grid. Out of the twenty car field, he would start 17th.
The race distance would be increased from the previous season. Instead of 255 miles, the race distance would be increased to 311. This would make an already severe test all the more difficult.
One advantage heading into the race was the fact the weather was warm and dry. On a circuit like the Nurburgring, the driver needed all the help he could get and a dry track was certainly welcome.
With a Silver Arrows starting on the pole for the 22 lap race, the event was bound to draw an incredible sea of fans coming to cheer on the Mercedes-Benz team. And that is exactly what would happen. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people would assemble all around the Nurburgring to watch the events unfold before their very eyes.
But while the crowd was certainly biased, when the flag waived to start the event, it was clear that none of the other drivers were going to give the Mercedes team a free pass, especially not Gonzalez. The Argentinean would be quite distraught over the loss of Marimon, but he would still start the race nonetheless. And at the start he would make a get a great jump off the line and would lead the field through the first few turns, even the first few miles. And while Karl Kling, in one of the four Mercedes-Benz, would be quickly making his way up through the field, Bira would still remain toward the back of the field doing his best to stay out of trouble and keep from putting a wheel off the circuit, but obviously not ascending the order with anything like the speed of Kling.
Although Gonzalez would get the jump at the start, over the course of the first fourteen miles of the race, Fangio would recover to take over the lead of the race. And by the end of the first lap it was Fangio in the lead.
It would be Fangio in the lead of the race over the first 196 miles, or, 14 laps. Just in those 14 laps a number of the competitors would come to find themselves out of the race. Andre Pilette wouldn't even complete the first lap of the race before suspension failure ended his race. Stirling Moss, who had started on the front row, would be out after just one lap due to wheel bearing problems. Another couple of big retirements would come in the form of Mike Hawthorn after 3 laps due to transmission failure. And Hans Herrmann after 7 laps due to a fuel leak within the car. In all, nine of the twenty starters would be out while Fangio held onto the lead.
Fangio's lead would come under fire from the very man that had started dead-last, Karl Kling. Within just a lap or two Kling had made his way from the back of the field all the way up to 4th behind Fangio, Gonzalez and Lang. However, on the 10th lap of the race, Lang would make a mistake and would end up spinning off the circuit and out of the race. This would promote Kling. But he wouldn't need much help. He would soon dispatch Gonzalez for 2nd place and would be all over the back of Fangio. Then, finally, on the 15th lap of the race, Kling would make it all the way from worse to first. It had been an incredible drive over one of the most demanding circuits in the world and against one of the best drivers, a world champion no less.
But it wouldn't last long. After 28 miles in the lead, Kling would have problems. He had pushed himself and his car hard over the course of the first 200 miles. Unfortunately, it would end up being that he perhaps pushed a little too hard as suspension failure would force Kling to abruptly make his way to the pits.
Just before Kling's problems arose Ferrari had problems of their own. Gonzalez had started the race but the wound of Marimon's death was too deep and too fresh for him to effectively deal with. Distraught in the car, Gonzalez would finally just come into the pits and would hand over the drive of his car to Hawthorn for the remainder of the race. Immediately, Hawthorn would snap up, jump into the seat and take off after Fangio. Hawthorn was certainly down to Fangio and Kling but Kling's problems, and subsequent retirement, would lead to Hawthorn running in the 2nd place position despite the unscheduled stop.
It was a very quiet and uneventful race for Bira, which meant he too wasn't all that inspired to fight. He continued to circulate the track quietly and was still looking to be on course for yet another decent finish.
Had the race distance remained the same as that used in 1953, Bira would have made it to the finish of the German Grand Prix for the first time in his career. But sure enough, after completing 18 laps, it would all come apart for the Prince of Siam. Steering problems would lead to Bira having to retire just 4 laps from the end of the race. This would be bitterly disappointing after Bira completed a little more than 252 miles, more than the race distance the year before.
When Kling departed the race there was little anyone else could do to combat Fangio. And although he hadn't turned the fastest lap of the race, he was still averaging nearly a mile per hour faster each lap than Hawthorn in 2nd place. There would be a difference in average speed of nearly 2 mph between Fangio and Trintignant, who found himself in 3rd.
In spite of the increased race distance there would still be ten cars still running at the end of the race. And unlike the dominant Formula 2 years of Alberto Ascari, half of the remaining field would be on the lead lap with Fangio. But while it was clear more remained on the same lap as Fangio, it was also clear Fangio knew he need not push too hard to take the victory.
The increased race distance would translate into a race that would take nearly four hours to complete. The drivers and the cars were pushed to the limits of their endurance. Toward the end of the event the race became more about endurance than outright speed. But in spite of the long, tough day of racing, Fangio would come through the victor completing the race distance in three hours, forty-five minutes and forty-five seconds.
Hawthorn would put in a valiant effort in relief of the grieving Gonzalez. He would push hard and would never slow over the remaining 6 laps of the race. In the end, Hawthorn would finish a minute and thirty-six seconds behind.
The final podium position would go to Trintignant. He would drive steady in the race but would never really push as hard as he was capable. Nevertheless, he would be rewarded for his steadiness earning a 3rd place finish, albeit five minutes and eight seconds behind.
The German Grand Prix certainly had to be bitterly disappointing for Bira. After completing so many miles and still coming up short, it had to be an incredible let-down, especially after having never finished the race before. The frustration had the potential of eating away at some of the confidence Prince Bira had built up over the previous couple of months. It would all come down to how he regrouped and responded in his next race.
Prince Bira would finally have something of a break. And he would need it too. There would be a break of two weeks between races for the man from Siam. This would give him time to repair the steering problems he developed toward the end of the German Grand Prix. This would be important as he would next race at another incredibly long circuit where there were many miles in between laps. On the 15th of August, the city of Pescara, Italy would host its 23rd Circuito di Pescara, which took place on a 15.96 mile circuit that had just about every kind of road imaginable.
Also situated along the Adriatic coast like Bari, just a few hours further to the north, Pescara lies in the Abruzzo region of Italy and is a mixture of stunning coastline and some hilly terrain. This would make for a public road course measuring around 16 miles in length but featuring some incredibly long, flat straights and some very difficult twisting winding bits that would make car handling of utmost importance. And with an average temperature of the middle 80s for August, it was clear the cars would be thoroughly punished on each every lap of the 16 lap, 255 mile, race.
Still just a couple of weeks after the tragic death of Onofre Marimon, the Officine Alfieri Maserati team would enter the race but would have some drivers rather uninvolved in the incident under their hire. Luigi Musso would be at the wheel of one of the cars while Stirling Moss would be at the wheel of another. Prince Bira would repair his Maserati 250F and would have it entered in the race, but he would enter the event under his own name. Scuderia Ferrari would enter just one car in the event and that single car effort would be driven by Umberto Maglioli.
The teams would prepare for practice. And as the drivers and cars headed out onto the enormous circuit it would become abundantly clear that Stirling Moss enjoyed long drives out in the countryside. He would use the power of the 250F to great advantage and would end up setting the fastest lap of practice with a time of 10:23.0. This time was incredible in its own right but it would be all the more impressive when put up against the time of Robert Manzon's effort.
Manzon would end up being the second-fastest in practice and would put together an impressive lap himself. However, when compared to Moss' time, there really was no comparison. Manzon's best time over the miles would come out to be 10:44.3. That meant a difference of over twenty-one seconds. However, the gap between Manzon in 2nd on the grid and Clemar Bucci, who would start 3rd, would be much smaller. Just a little more than a second and a half would be the difference between the final two positions on the front row.
While his specific time would not be known, an even larger gap existed between Moss' effort and the best Bira would manage to put together in practice. Prince Bira's best time around the circuit would enable him to only start the race from the 9th position on the grid, which was the first position on the fourth row of the grid. Harry Schell's best lap in practice would be a minute and fifty-three seconds slower than Moss' best, and Schell would start 8th on the grid.
As the teams began to roll its cars out to line up on the grid it was noticed there was a car missing from the grid. Umberto Maglioli would not be out on the grid as a result of Umberto leaving because of a family illness. All of the rest of the cars would be on the grid, set to go.
As the field roared away down the long start/finish straight to start the race, very few would realize that one wild race had just begun.
The first lap of the race would conclude pretty much without issue. But the issues were just about to start. Moss was looking strong still. Robert Manzon would be pushing hard to try and stay with him. He would end up pushing a little too hard as his Ferrari engine would let go after just one lap completed. This would remove one of the favorites from the race with 15 laps still to go. Andre Guelfi, driving a Gordini T16, would be out after just the 1st lap of the race as well as a fire would engulf his car. Then, after Jacques Swaters' retirement on the 3rd lap of the race, one of the biggest retirements of the race would happen.
Moss was looking strong. However, after having completed just 3 laps of the race, an oil pipe on his Maserati would break causing him to have to retire from the race after looking like the outright favorite to win. This threw the door to the race wide open.
All of the distractions caused by the early retirements of such favorites as Moss and Manzon would cause many to overlook one driver who had been on an absolute tear from the very start of the race. Then, all of a sudden, he would be right up there causing many to wonder how that happened. Prince Bira had made a great start from his 9th place starting position on the grid. He would very quickly rise up through the running order. He would work his way by a struggling Jean Behra and Clemar Bucci and he would even find himself in a strong position to take over the lead of the race were more problems to strike the field.
Bira was absolutely flying in the race. While he would start well down in the field, his lap times were commensurate with those that had started the race on the front row of the grid. Aided by the early retirements of some favorites, Bira would be up inside the top three and looking quite strong.
Bira was in one of his moods again. Focused and fast, Bira would go on to set the fastest lap of the race with a time that would have been good enough for him to have started the race 4th. He was giving it everything he had to try and track down Luigi Musso who was in the lead of the race with a couple of minute advantage over Bira.
Although Musso had what could have been considered a comfortable lead, Bira was pushing hard and could not be taken for granted. This would require Musso to keep his pace up throughout the whole of the race.
Musso wouldn't set the fastest lap of the race. However, he would be consistently fast one lap after another. This would help to counter Bira's attacks. It would also, therefore, help to maintain Musso's advantage over the Prince.
Six cars remained in the race coming down to the final 16 miles. Musso would still be in the lead of the race with a couple of minute advantage still over Bira. But Bira was still pushing hard. And if Musso's machine failed, Bira would be in a very strong position to take the surprise victory.
Unfortunately for Bira, Musso's Maserati 250F wouldn't miss a beat. Averaging nearly 87 mph, Musso would cross the line in two hours, fifty-five minutes and fifty-four seconds to take the victory. Not surprisingly on a circuit the size of Pescara, it wouldn't be seconds but minutes separating Musso and Bira. Then, finally, Bira would come into view. It had been an incredible race for the Prince. And he would cap it all off with a 2nd place finish two minutes and fifty-seven seconds behind. A minute and fifty-one seconds behind Bira, Harry Schell would complete the podium finishing in 3rd position.
Bira had responded strongly after the late retirement in the German Grand Prix. He was focused and got a good start off the line. It would just carry on from there. The fastest lap of the race would prove just how determined he was and the surprising 2nd place result would be a very nice reward for the effort and performance.
It was just the middle of August but the grand prix season was quickly coming to an end for the 40 year old Bira. He had run from event to event for a couple of months and had survived grueling races at the Nurburgring and Pescara. But they certainly had to take their toll. Therefore, very little would be seen or heard of from Prince Bira in grand prix racing over the next month and a half.
Bira would forego the Swiss Grand Prix and the Italian Grand Prix. It would be surprising that he would skip the Swiss Grand Prix after he had scored his best result in the Formula One World Championship at the very same Bremgarten circuit. But beside the world championship rounds, Bira would also pass up on a number of non-championship rounds, even back in his adopted home of England.
Bira would take a long break from grand prix racing. Avoiding non-championship events, Bira would not take part in any grand prix events throughout the whole of September. It would almost be November before he would finally take part in one more race on the season. But, on the 24th of October, Prince Bira would be at the Pedralbes Circuit near Barcelona, Spain in order to take part in the Gran Premio d'Espana.
It was clear Bira was considering that it was time to step away from motor racing. The spell during the summer was, in essence, a farewell tour. But the rapid pace in which the races kept coming would be as good a reason as any for why Bira was considering it was time to step away. The pace and travel had taken its toll. But he would save up his energy to enter one last World Championship race. It would be fitting, therefore, that it would also be the last round of the championship for the 1954 season.
The last time the Spanish Grand Prix had been a part of the World Championship was back in 1951. In that race, which was also the final round of the World Championship that year, heat and tire issues would result in Juan Manuel Fangio taking his first World Championship over Alberto Ascari.
As the World Championship returned to the Pedralbes circuit in 1954, the circumstances would be quite different but the result would be the same. The battle for the World Championship had been decided well before the race, but once again, it would be Fangio that was to be World Champion.
For the first time since 1951, the World Championship would return to the Pedralbes circuit. Although a street circuit located to the southwest of downtown Barcelona, the circuit would drive much like the Autodromo Nazionale Monza.
Measuring 3.91 miles, the Pedralbes circuit was just a fraction longer than Monza. Nonetheless, the fact that it was a street circuit was cause many to wonder how the average speeds around the circuit could run so high? And the answer to the question was rather simple. The race would take place on streets that were multiple lanes wide. It would be these wide streets that would enable drivers to careen around the circuit barely taking their foot off the gas, except for when entering the tight hairpin at the end of the long start/finish straight.
The Spanish Grand Prix, however, would see a renewed battle between Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari. Finally, after a season of great expectation, Lancia would make its Formula One debut with its new D50. This radical design was to enable Ascari to take the fight back to the Mercedes-Benz and Fangio. And in practice, it would seem as though the team achieved its task.
The fastest time recorded in practice would belong to Ascari in the D50. His best time around the circuit would be 2:18.1. This would end up being exactly a second faster than Fangio's time in the W196. A second and a half would be the difference between Fangio in 2nd and Mike Hawthorn in 3rd. The final spot on the front row would go to someone that would be something of a bit of a surprise. Setting a best time of 2:20.6, Harry Schell would garner the final spot on the front row.
Prince Bira would be mere seconds slower around the circuit. But at a place like Pedralbes, a few seconds was akin to an eternity. In spite of being exactly eight seconds slower, Bira would start the race from the 15th position on the grid, which placed him down on the fifth row of the starting grid.
As one would expect in Barcelona, the day of the race would break with sunny skies and a completely dry circuit. Twenty-one cars would be rolled out onto the grid in preparation for the 80 lap, 313 mile test. Just one more long day in the sun awaited Bira for 1954.
And as the final round of the Formula One World Championship got underway, Schell would keep the surprises coming. The American-Parisian would make the best start of everyone and would be in the lead of the race. Schell would be closely followed by Mike Hawthorn, Ascari and Maurice Trintignant, who had started from the third row of the grid in 8th place. Being further down in the field, Bira would again have to take it easy through the first few turns and over the course of the first couple of laps just to make sure he had the best chance possible of finishing what was likely to be his final Formula One World Championship race. Therefore, Bira would be in no hurry.
Unlike Schell. Harry was still in the lead of the race after the first couple of laps of the race but he certainly would find it almost impossible to hold onto the lead throughout the whole of the 80 lap race. Sure enough, Alberto Ascari would regain his composure after a poor start and would take the lead away from Schell one the 3rd lap of the race.
Two laps would end up being two laps too many for more than one of the competitors. Robert Manzon would be out with an engine failure. Then, Luigi Villoresi, Ascari's teammate, would be out of the race with brake problems. This would not be a good sign for the then race leader.
Sure enough, after waiting all season long for Lancia to make their debut, it would all be over after just 10 laps. Luigi Villoresi was already out of the race with engine failure. But then, after 10 laps of running, Alberto Ascari would be forced out of the race with clutch failure. This would hand the lead of the race back to Schell, but he was closely pursued by Maurice Trintignant and Mike Hawthorn.
Prince Bira had more than his share of last minute failures throughout his career and 1954 season. Therefore, he would not be setting any speed records during the race. He would be rather content to sit back and let the race unfold before him instead of push a bad situation. He would sit back and let the race come to him. The problem was his race was such that the race appeared to be running away from him instead of toward him. Nonetheless, he was still out there running.
While Bira was taking the race at a tortoise's pace, Schell would be going at it like the hare, and with good reason. Schell was in the lead of the race but he had Trintignant all over him. In fact, over the course of the next ten laps of the race an incredible battle between Schell and Trintignant would develop and the two of them would battle wheel-to-wheel. It would be very entertaining while it lasted. However, neither Schell nor Trintignant would continue on to the end of the race.
After Schell retired from the race on the 29th lap, and Trintignant 18 laps later, Mike Hawthorn would take over the lead of the race and would be running all by himself. Fangio had been expected to mount a challenge. But when the race began, the threat never materialized. This would leave Luigi Musso all alone in 2nd.
Over the course of the race there would be more that could be said in favor for how Bira approached the race. In spite of the fact it seemed he was traveling at a snail's pace in order to make it to the end, the race would seem to take pity on the man and would seem to stop every now and then to help him catch up.
The once intriguing battle up at the front of the field that included Harry Schell, Alberto Ascari and Maurice Trintignant would all come to naught. And what would be left would be Mika Hawthorn running all alone in the lead of the race. Just when it seemed the last round of the season would end with a titanic battle between the bigger factory teams and the little privateer, it would all come to an abrupt end and everyone would be left with Hawthorn leading the race more than comfortably over the remainder of the field.
Hawthorn's average pace would remain a little faster than Musso in his Maserati. However, Hawthorn's pace was more than fast enough to put the remainder of the field at least a lap behind. Even Juan Manuel Fangio would end up a lap down before the end of the race.
In the case of Bira, his focus was certainly on finishing what was likely to be his last World Championship race. He would run into some problems that would actually cause his race to come into question. However, he would continue on at a much slower pace just to ensure that he would finish the race.
Coming into the final laps of the race, Hawthorn still held onto the lead by a large margin. There were only nine cars still running out on the circuit. And despite some concerns, Bira would be that last car. Circulating with an average speed nearly 16 mph slower than Hawthorn, Bira was miles behind, but he was still out there going around the circuit. But Bira wouldn't be the only one that would be a number of laps behind. Even talented drivers like Ken Wharton and Louis Rosier would happen to see Hawthorn go by them a half a dozen times by the end of the race.
Hawthorn continued to run some fast-paced laps. He continued to edge out a lead over Musso despite already having a comfortable advantage already. Coming out of the final corner and powering his way toward the line, Hawthorn was a minute and thirteen seconds ahead of Musso as he crossed the line to take the victory. Juan Manuel Fangio would finish up a spectacular season with a quite 3rd place result one lap adrift.
Bira would manage to make it to the end of what was to be his last Formula One World Championship race. And if he wanted to he could have waved to more than just the spectators lining the circuit. Bira would finish the last World Championship race of the season, and his career, in a very quiet 9th place. Before he crossed the line to finish the race, Bira would have the opportunity to wave farewell to Hawthorn a dozen times, but he would still make it to the finish.
Prince Bira would end his World Championship career in a less than spectacular fashion but at least he would manage to make it to the end. There would be a number of drivers throughout the history of grand prix racing that would take part in just one race, or a number of them, and never have the opportunity to make it to the end of one of them. And while he would not do so in spectacular fashion, Bira would still end his World Championship career with one last top ten result.
Prince Bira's final World Championship season would be one of his best. His World Championship career would start out strong and it would end strong. Considering the fact he was never considered to be as talented as Fangio or Ascari, even Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Bira's 3 points earned at the French Grand Prix was certainly impressive for the 40 year old prince. At the end of the season, those 3 points would place him 17th in the drivers standings. And in his final season in the World Championship, the strong performances would cause him to finish up higher in the standings than Luigi Villoresi, Jean Behra and even Alberto Ascari.
Bira wasn't quite finished, at least not in his mind, and at least not after the conclusion of the Spanish Grand Prix in 1954. In 1955, Bira would start out the grand prix season on a bright note. In January of 1955, Bira would be in New Zealand. While there he would take part in the New Zealand Grand Prix. In that race he would show his true talent coming through to take the victory.
He would continue to take part in a number of non-championship races throughout the season and would even score a 3rd place result in the BRDC International Trophy race. He would have an entry in the Belgian Grand Prix but would end up not attending the race. And by the middle part of the 1955 season, Bira would be seen no more. His racing career had come to an end.
Over the course of his life, Prince Bira would be married some six times. Just a couple of years after his final grand prix he would marry. He would be married to two more wives before 1980.
Also, in 1956, Bira would turn his focus from motor racing to sailing. He would end up taking part in the Olympics four times in sailing. His final entry would come in the 1972 Munich games. And while he would fare well as a sailor he would never achieve the acclaim and results he had as a racing driver.
Bira's racing career would spill into three decades. He would be there during the golden era when the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union dominated and he would be there at the end when the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz made its return to grand prix racing. He had seen and experienced a lot over the length of his racing career. He remained the only Southeast Asian driver in Formula One history until 2001 and remains the only Formula One driver in Thailand's history.
Then, just a couple of days before Christmas in 1985, an aged man would be found having a heart attack at Barons Court Station in London's underground. No one knew who the man was until a letter had been found in his coat identifying him. This was the man that had raced against some of the best grand prix drivers in history, ever. This was the man whose grandfather had been the inspiration for the musical comedy 'The King and I'. And yet, no one recognized him. But on that day in December in 1985, the man that had been so well known for his light blue and yellow racing cars, His Highness Prince Birabongse Bhanudej, died.