Prince Bira’s 100th Anniversary Honoured with Celebration at Pattaya’s Bira Circuit
by Edd Ellison
Thai motorsport has honoured the 100th anniversary of the birth of Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, a towering figure who went out into the world to fly the Thai flag high, enjoying much on-track success and becoming the only Thai to ever drive in Formula 1.
Everyone involved in motorsport, including many drivers from past to present, gathered to celebrate the life of this iconic figure during a ceremony at Pattaya’s Bira International Circuit that was hosted by the Royal Automobile Association of Thailand under Royal Patronage (RAAT).
Better known as ‘Prince Bira’ – or, to motorsport fans across the world, as ‘B Bira’ – he was quite simply the one person who gave birth to the sport here.
The VIP guest list for the celebration was led out by Chawal Sinthukeaw, CEO of Bira Circuit One; Chanat Ruangkritya, one of the founders of Bira Circuit then under the name of ‘Pattaya Circuit’ and the Chairman of Toscana Valley; Thailand Super Series President Sontaya Kunplome; Anothai and Peeraphong Eamlumnow from the automotive-focused media publishing group and Bangkok Motor Show organiser Grand Prix International; Suphot Kasikam; Kriangkrai Limnantarak; Preeda Tantemsapya; Thanong Leeissaranukul; Somchai Srijirarat; Prutirat R. Serireongrith; Thongchai Wongsawan and Chaivudhi Pungthong.
Highlight of the event, which included a religious ceremony, was an auction at which the central lot was ‘Mini Romulus’, a working model replica of Prince Bira's famous ERA racing car of the same name.
The ‘Mini Todrod Thailand’ company created ‘Mini Romulus’ especially for the 100th anniversary occasion; the project involving two of the race series organisers here, GPI Motorsport and Only One, and it was fully donated without any expenses deducted. It is the final example of a limited edition run of 200 working model cars by Mini Todrod Thailand, all of which have been sold.
‘Mini Romulus’, however, has its own special characteristics having been given a unique stamp that includes scooped out cockpit sides, yellow and black wheels, a ‘White Mouse’ logo on the engine cover, a Thai flag decal on the petrol tank and ERA-style leather engine cover straps. It is also the only one of the batch of model cars built by Mini Todrod Thailand to have been finished in the light blue Thai national racing colours devised by Prince Bira.
It’s fully working too – under the hood is an 110cc, 4-stroke engine mated up to a gearbox with 3-forward and 1-reverse gears. The wheelbase is 200cm, track is 100cm and it stands 80cm high while there are disc brakes on the rear. Mini Romulus, along with a flotilla of its sisters, has even been for a test run around Bira Circuit.
‘Mini Romulus’ was the focus of the auction, with all the proceeds raised going towards the cost of producing the special commemorative 100th anniversary book on Prince Bira and distributing it to schools across Thailand – where students will be able to study the legend of Prince Bira. The remaining funds were donated to the ‘Drink Don’t Drive’ campaign.
Born on 15 July 1914, Prince Bira first fell in love with motorsport when he journeyed to the UK to complete his higher education at Eton College. His long and successful racing career is now the stuff of legends and his most famous mounts – ‘Romulus’ and ‘Remus’ – are quite simply icons in the motorsport world.
“He’s always been our inspiration and role model,” said Thailand Super Series Race Director Preeda Tantemsapya at the ceremony. “He took part in motorsport when no one in Thailand knew what motorsport was and he went out on his own [to England] where nobody even knew who he was.”
Preeda points out that not only does motorsport owe a huge debt to Prince Bira, but he also raised the profile of the whole country in an era when it wasn’t well known internationally – and that he was certainly not just a talented racing driver. “Back then, no one even knew where Siam is,” he notes. “He really put Siam on the map, especially for motorsport, but much more than that he put the Siam name on the map. So we have a huge gratitude to him. He wasn’t an ordinary person, he was a prince.”
Prince Bira’s exploits were extraordinary and the legend climbs into top gear when he was gifted a new ERA ‘voiturette’ racecar for his 21st birthday by his cousin, Prince Chula. Just five days later, and across the Channel, Prince Bira finished second in the 7th Grand Prix de Dieppe – and that was despite stopping midway through the race to change the spark plugs.
The legend had been born. Amongst his accolades, Prince Bira was also awarded the prestigious BRDC Road Racing Gold Star in 1936, 1937 and 1938 – and these three famous medals provided part of the backdrop for the 100th anniversary celebrations.
At the same time as Prince Bira was building a reputation in the heart of global motorsport – Europe – during the 1930s thanks to his exploits behind the wheel, he was also laying the foundation stones for the birth of the sport in Thailand.
Those plans were topped by an ambitious dream for a ‘Bangkok Grand Prix’ in 1939. The onset of World War II abruptly ended that dream, but the momentum was unstoppable. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Thai motorsport grew and grew. “What he did back then was unheard of. He took motorsport in his own hands and he opened the way to the RAAT and he’s never been forgotten by any Thai racers,” affirms Preeda. “He was the one that made everything happen.”
After the war, Prince Bira went on to race in Formula 1. He is the only Thai driver to ever do so and, in fact, was the only driver from South East Asia to reach the top until Malaysia’s Alex Yoong made the grade in 2001. After his spectacular racing career drew to a close, he went on to represent Thailand at the Olympic Games on several occasions.
It’s not just in Thailand where Prince Bira is so well remembered, but across much of South East Asia he is still a towering figure while in the UK and around Europe the dashing ‘Prince of Siam’ is also fondly remembered for his exploits. Preeda also points this out. “Many foreigners feel the same way,” he says. “They feel immense respect for what he achieved by himself.”
Drivers present during the celebration included Vattana Motorsport owner Chonsawat Asavahame, Only One series owner and Eco car racer Boonlit Wongwisutthirat, Toyota factory drivers Nattavude Charoensukhawatana and Manat Kulapalanont, Innovation Motorsport Mazda’s Michael Freeman, Paul Kenny from The Pizza Company, Super 2000 driver Jakthong Navasoopanich, Tor Graves who has raced at Le Mans 24 Hours and Pattaya’s well-known historic racer, Dr Iain Corness. Toyota Team Thailand Team Manager Suttipong Smittachartch and Vattana Motorsport Team Manager Santi Sukcharoenkijkul also attended.
The event itself was a great success as many people came to fondly remember Prince Bira and pay their respects.
As well as the showpiece scale model built to commemorate the 100th anniversary, there was another racecar on show, this time a full scale pukka track winner – and that really joined up the long line of dots in the timeline of Thai motorsport. That car was the #28 Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 GT3 that Chonsawat Asavahame used to win both races at the most recent round of Thailand Super Series, held at Bira Circuit earlier in August.
This highly sophisticated machine, built to exacting FIA GT3 standards by Reiter Engineering in Germany, was brand new and flown into Thailand just in time to excel on the racetrack – and its presence really demonstrated that Thai racing stands on the threshold of a new golden era.