TeamsEcurie Siam: 1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Everything about Formula One is elite. It is the racing series with the greatest budgets, most elite performance, highest pay, largest viewing audience. Those who drive in Formula One mingle at times with royalty, especially when a driver wins the Monaco Grand Prix. But in the case of Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, royalty came and mingled amongst the common grand prix driver.
Prince Birabongse, better known as Prince Bira of Siam (which is now Thailand) didn't just race cars, but, was also an excellent sailor. Throughout the length of his life, he had competed in four Olympic games. While known to be a prince and an elite sailor, Prince Bira also has the distinction of being the only Formula One driver ever from Thailand.
Prince Bira came to Eton and Cambridge University in England to complete his education. While in England he was bitten by the bug to go racing and started in 1935 driving with his cousin. He had numerous residences throughout the European mainland, and therefore, became very active in smaller racing events throughout the continent, driving his pale blue and yellow (the colors of Siam) cars.
What kind of gift does one cousin give to another for a twenty-first birthday? In the case of the princes from Siam, Bira's cousin, Prince Chula, gave him a new ERA R2B voiturette racing car. From that point on, Prince Bira's life mostly consisted of grand prix event after grand prix event.
The gift wasn't some uncalculated kind of a tease. It was an investment. Prince Bira had proven himself to be quite talented when he competed in grand prix races for the first time in 1935. His first race of that year was the Grand Prix of Dieppe. Nineteen drivers started the race and Prince Bira started fourth on the grid having set a qualifying time twelve seconds slower than Richard Seaman. Bira battled throughout the 30 lap event and was able to finish 2nd in his very first race.
His result at the Dieppe Grand Prix wasn't an apparition. At his next event that year, the Swiss Grand Prix, he qualified 2nd. The race in Bremgarten was 20 laps in length. Prince Bira had nothing for Richard Seaman who went on to score the victory in his ERA B. However, Bira ran all alone in 2nd. Nobody could catch him as he would finished 2nd with a gap of almost a minute over Howe who finished 3rd. This made it two-straight second place finishes in his first two races.
The Donington Grand Prix was Prince Bira's worst showing of his first year in racing. England in October is almost a sure bet for some wet weather. This was the case, as fifteen starters prepared to battle it out in the wet weather for 120 laps of the 2.55 mile road course. The rain did let up right before the start of the race, however, there was a lot of standing water throughout the track. Prince Bira started the race from seventh place on the grid, which was the first position on the three car wide third row. On the wet track, everybody had to be careful. Prince Bira was rather inexperienced racing in this kind of weather. He took it easy and drove solidly to finish the race 5th.
Prince Bira completed his first year of grand prix racing by taking part in the 5th Mountain Championship race at Brooklands, England toward the later part of October. There were eleven starters for the 10 lap race. The Prince continued his good freshman run going as he would end up coming in 3rd in the race.
It was clear Prince Bira had the talent behind the wheel to be a major competitor. Therefore, the gift of the ERA R2B was a good investment. It was an investment that would pay off many times over.
In 1936, Prince Bira would suffer three failures to finish (DNFs). They came at the Coppa Acerbo voiturette race, the voiturette Swiss Grand Prix and the Junior Car Club 200 mile voiturette race at Donington Park. However, 1936 was by no means a year of failure as Bira would go on to win the Coupe de Prince Rainier voiturette race in Monaco. His margin of victory was over two minutes. He would also go on to win the Junior Car Club International Trophy handicap race at Brooklands, the voiturette Grand Prix of Picardie in Peronne, France in June and the voiturette Grand Prix de l'Albigeois in July. In addition to these four wins, Prince Bira scored a 2nd place finish at the RAC International Light Car voiturette race on the Isle of Man. He finished 3rd twice during the year. He followed Carlo Trossi and Tommaso Tenni home to a 3rd place finish at the ADAC Eifelrennen at the Nurburgring in June of '36. Then, he again finished 3rd at the Mountain Championship race at Brooklands in October. Besides the three DNFs, Bira's worst finish on the year was a 5th place he scored amongst twenty-three starters at the 2nd Donington Grand Prix. For that race, Prince Bira's cousin entered a Maserati 8CM for him. This would plant the seed for the love affair the Prince had for Maseratis. He would still race ERAs for a while, but once they started to become out-classed, Prince Bira would switch to the cars wearing the badge of Neptune's Trident.
Prince Bira would continue racing up until the outbreak of World War II. His final race was the Campbell Trophy race in August of 1939. Up until that point in time, the Prince had been able to achieve some notable victories. He would claim victories at the Campbell Trophy race in his Maserati 8CM in 1937, the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace in 1937 and then again in 1938. He also scored another seven victories at races driving in either the voiturette class or under some kind of handicap rules. Besides the victories, he would also score a total of eight more top-five finishes throughout 1937 through '39. Not being backed by any major manufacturer, and with the presence of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, Prince Bira stayed away from the top levels of grand prix racing. He showed, without a doubt; however, that he had the ability to compete on any level.
After the end of the war grand prix racing resumed, albeit rather sluggishly given the limited amounts of money, resources and suitable places to go and race. However, Prince Bira was there. He took part in one of the first races after the war, the Formula Libre race Les Rues de Chimay. Bira started the race from the pole in his Maserati 8CM, but was only able to finish 6th.
However, two months after that first race back, Prince Bira took part in the 1st Ulster Trophy race in Ballycare, Northern Ireland and was able to score the victory. Bira had used his ERA to take part in the 12 lap race on the 4.14 mile road course and was able to hold off Reg Parnell in his Maserati 4CL and Bob Gerard in his ERA R2B.
In 1947, the Prince's results were rather mixed, but he was still able to score a couple of victories and top-five performances. The majority of his successes came racing in the voiturette class.
In August of 1947, Prince Bira was at the Isle of Man circuit to take part in two races on the same day. He sat on the pole for the 9th British Empire Trophy race. The race was 40 laps of the 3.87 mile street course. Racing in a Maserati 4CL, Bira wasn't able to hold back the more local gentry and ended up finishing the race 5th.
Results were different in the voiturette race that took place the same day. The voiturette race was only 12 laps. Bira raced for Equipe Gordini in a T11. Bira's practice times were such that he started the race from the pole. He wouldn't lose this race though. Prince Bira won the race having beaten T. Cuth Harrison in his Riley and Eric Winterbottom in an Emeryson/Lagonda.
Bira would drive for Equipe Gordini again later on that year in another voiturette race. In September, Bira took part in the 1st Coupe de Lyon driving the small T11 again for Equipe Gordini. Bira's teammate for the race, Jean-Pierre Wimille, had the pole in a Simca-Gordini T15. Eugene Martin ended up winning the 28 lap race. Prince Bira performed well on the 4.53 mile street course and was able to finish 2nd. Wimille finished on the podium in 3rd.
One month later, Bira was again driving a T11 for Equipe Gordini in the Grand Prix de Leman, held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Bira led home an Equipe Gordini one-two winning the 60 lap event over Raymond Sommer, driving another T11, and Piero Taruffi driving for Scuderia Ambrosiana in a Cisitalia D46. Bira's pace over the 2.01 mile road course was such that he had lapped all but Sommer in second place.
In 1948, Formula 2 came into existence as the groundwork was laid for a new, official grand prix series. Having purchased a Maserati 4CL, Prince Bira was poised to make a good showing in the elite grand prix series.
Racing his Maserati 4CL at the Jersey Street Circuit for the 2nd Junior Car Club Jersey Road Race in the later part of April, Bira started the race from the pole and squared off against such drivers as Luigi Villoresi and Reg Parnell. While he wasn't able to hold station and take the win, he was able to finish 4th.
In May of that year Prince Bira headed to Stockholm, Sweden to take part in the 1st Stockholm Grand Prix. Bira was back behind the wheel for Equipe Gordini for the race. The Formula 2 race was held on a 1.05 mile road course and would be contested over 67 laps. What was interesting about this race was the intrigue that was caused by one prince giving another a push start. Prince Bira had trouble right at the start of the race. He couldn't get his Equipe Gordini T15 going. The Prince of Sweden ended up giving the Prince of Siam a push start. This push start helped Bira go on and overcome Clemente Biondetti in his Scuderia Ferrari 166 and Harry Schell in an Ecurie Bleue Cistalia D46 to take the win. Initially, the prince was disqualified for receiving the royal treatment. However, the win was reinstated in 1949. Could there have been pressure from high up brought to bear?
Prince Bira had five top-five finishes, besides his two victories, during his 1948 season. Of his two victories, the highlight came in the early part of August at the Grand Prix of the Netherlands. Driving his Maserati 4CL, Bira was able to hold on through the 40 lap race to claim the victory over Tony Rolt and Reg Parnell. Bira averaged just over 73 miles per hour and finished the race in just under one and a half hours.
In 1949, the competition was becoming much more difficult. The world seemed to be getting back to normal. Many places that had been badly damaged during the war in Europe had now been repaired or moved. In addition, economies had returned to some sense of stability. This meant there was more money available to go racing and to develop new cars. This meant that anybody without the backing of a major constructor would be fighting for merely good results, or, in essence, the scraps that happened to fall off the table. Bira experienced this first hand in '49. Prince Bira competed almost exclusively in the top level of grand prix racing during that year and was unable to score a victory. However, he was more than able to secure top-five, even top-three results. Throughout that year Bira was able to amass eleven top-five finishes. Of those eleven, seven were top-three finishes or better. Bira claimed second place finishes at El Torreon, a Formula Libre race; the Grand Prix of San Remo, driving his new Maserati 4CLT/48; the 4th Grand Prix of Roussillon, held in Perpignan, France; the Grand Prix de l'Albigeois, where he battled with Juan Manuel Fangio and was the only car Fangio wasn't able to put a lap down; and finally, the Grand Prix de France held in Reims, France.
Throughout 1950 Prince Bira drove almost exclusively for the Enrico Plate team. The costs of racing were such that even royalty couldn't stomach the investment that was necessary to remain going as a privately entered team. Therefore, Bira only raced in two events during the 1950 season while racing under his own name. Both of those races were Formula Libre races that took place at the very early part of the year.
Enrico Plate had been a very influential team in the first few years of grand prix racing after the war had ended. By 1950, the team's influence had begun to wane. Even though he was surrounded by a supported team, Enrico Plate's financial struggles made good results difficult to come by. In fact, while racing for the team during that year, Prince Bira was only able to finish in the top-five four times. Out of the fifteen races he competed in with Enrico Plate, all but the four races in which he scored top-five finishes, ended in DNFs! The best result he was able to achieve the whole year was a 2nd place at the 3rd Goodwood Trophy race at the end of September. Prince Bira at least showed he was still a solid performer given the fact that he ended each of the races he was still running at the end of in the top five or better.
The struggles at Enrico Plate meant there wouldn't be much of a chance at a good result going into 1951. Alfa Romeo's 158 Alfetta dominated the first Formula One World Championship during 1950 and was returning in '51 as the 159. In addition, Scuderia Ferrari was constantly improving their designs in order to take on Alfa Romeo. Driving for Enrico Plate wouldn't have been all that different than had the Prince started his own team. And that is exactly what Bira did.
Prince Bira drove in one race for Enrico Plate during the early part of March at the Grand Prix of Siracusa. Once again, Bira was unable to finish the race due to problems with the car. That was enough. Two weeks later, at the Goodwood Circuit, Prince Bira arrived driving under his own team name Ecurie Siam.
Bira had always been taken with the talents of the Maserati brothers ever since driving one of their designs toward the end of the thirties. When the Maseratis' contract with Adolfo Orsi was up, and they decided to leave their namesake behind and go start a new company, Bira was one of the first to come calling. Bira was interested in the V12 engine they were designing and building. Therefore, he had the Maserati brothers take his Maserati 4CLT/48's engine out and had it replaced with an OSCA V12. The switch ended up proving successful right away.
The Prince's second race of 1951 was the 3rd Richmond Trophy race held at the Goodwood circuit in Chichester, England. The race was rather short; it was only 12 laps in length. Bira took his newly powered Maserati 4CLT/48 and was able to do well enough to start the race on the front row of the grid in the 3rd starting slot. Ten cars roared away at the start. Ashmore, who started 2nd on the grid wasn't able to start the race in his ERA R12B due to mechanical troubles. This fact would benefit Bira without the race even having started. In the race, Bira was able to push past and into the lead. He would end up clicking off the fastest lap with his OSCA powered Maserati. In the end, he would end up winning the race by some fifteen seconds over Brian Shawe-Taylor and Duncan Hamilton. Just like that, Prince Bira achieved the fastest lap of a race and a victory. It seemed things would be brighter.
That brightness would dim quite a bit at Bira's next race, the Grand Prix of San Remo. The race, held in Ospedaletti, Italy, took place on a 2.07 mile road course and was 90 laps in length. The competition at the race was much tougher as Ferrari was present in full-force. In all, Scuderia Ferrari brought three of their new 375s to the race. The momentum still seemed to be rolling in Bira's favor during qualifying as he was able to start the race a very respectable 5th, or, in the middle of the three-car wide second row.
To have any hope of a good result Bira would have to push, and yet, stay out of trouble. The Prince pushed, but, failed to take care of the second part of that equation. On the fifth lap of the race, Bira pushed a little too much and crashed. He tried to keep his car going but was forced to retire from the race due to the damage his car sustained.
Bira's bad result at San Remo had a silver lining to it. At least it was his fault and not a failure with the car that had caused him to retire from the race. He, therefore, had confidence in what he could achieve with his OSCA powered Maserati.
Bira took part in only a few races during the 1951 season. Five of the six races he would contest took place before the month of June. His fourth race of the season happened at the end of April and was the 1st Grand Prix of Bordeaux. Having multiple residences helped the Prince to be able to take part in the smaller non-championship grand prix. While not an official Formula One event, the Grand Prix of Bordeaux was by no means an easy affair. The race took place over 123 laps of a short 1.52 mile street course. The engines and the transmissions would be sorely tested throughout the entirety of the event.
Neither Alfa Romeo nor Scuderia Ferrari was present for the race, and this provided many an opportunity at a good result. Having repaired his 4CLT/48, Bira started the race 7th, in the middle of the third row on the 3-2-3 arranged grid. As expected, a number of cars dropped out during the race due to problems of all sorts. Louis Rosier and Rudolf Fischer were in a class all unto themselves as they lapped the field up 3rd place. Bira too had been lapped some four times, but, he would end up finishing the race 4th.
The fifth non-championship race in which Bira took part was the 3rd BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone, England. It would be hard to tell what would be a good result at this race. The race would end up being stopped after only 6 of the scheduled 35 laps. Torrential rains and flooding covered the track.
Prior to the flood-shortened final race, there were two 15 lap heat races. Bira was in the second heat and ended up being the highest running finisher next to the Alfa Romeo 159s of Giuseppe Farina and Consalvo Sanesi.
The grid for the final race was established by the fastest times set in practice prior to each heat race. Neither of Bira's laps were all that great during his practice before the second heat race. Therefore, the Prince of Siam started the race a lowly 26th. This was the first position on the second-to-last row of the grid.
The rain and flooding was absolutely terrible. Many just crawled around the track, barely holding onto their cars. Being from what is now Thailand, it could have been assumed Bira was used to heavy rains due to the monsoons that rip through that region every year. However, even Bira was pretty much neutralized in the weather. By the time Parnell had been brought to a stop at the end of the sixth lap, Bira had already been lapped and would finish, still running, in 17th.
There was a long span of time between Bira's fifth and sixth races. His final race of 1951 under his Ecurie Siam banner was the Spanish Grand Prix at Pedralbes, Spain in the latter part of October. The majority of the races throughout the summer months were official Formula One championship races. And Alfa Romeo and Scuderia Ferrari usually showed up with at least three cars apiece. This meant the chances of finishing in the points were very slim. Ever more-slim were the chances of earning some decent prize money. However, the royal prince had racing blood in him and couldn't sit out the rest of the year.
Prince Bira was in Barcelona to take part in the 70 lap final round of the championship. The race was a scorcher, not so much in pace, but due to the incredible heat. Twenty cars qualified for the race. From where Bira started the race, things weren't looking so good. Bira was on the front row of the wrong end. He started the race 19th.
The incredible heat emanating from the 3.92 mile street circuit meant attrition would be high. In fact, half of the field would not finish the race. Prince Bira would, unfortunately, not only be one of those who failed to finish, he would be out after only one lap. Engine overheating was a big problem in the heat. Four of the ten who failed suffered from engine problems. Bira was one of those. His engine expired on him after completing only one lap. Given the failure, it just would have been better had he stayed home. This was the only Formula One event Ecurie Siam took part the whole year. Prince Bira had not scored a victory, led any laps, or even scored any points.
It is an amazing revelation that a prince of a country could not truly afford grand prix racing even in the early days of Formula One. The pinnacle of motor sports truly is an elite series that has and seemingly always will face the crisis of keeping itself affordable. Prince Bira, at least, was one of those of royalty in both blood line and in ability as a racer. Despite the lacking budget and the few number of races in which he competed, 1951 was still rather successful; shadowed only by the costs and effort necessary to be considered amongst those in contention to be a champion.