Since the very early days of motorsport, heirs, royals and blue-blooded members of the aristocracy have played some part in the motorsport landscape.
That’s hardly surprising, particularly in the early days when racing was very much an environment for those with the nobility and wealth who could afford to buy themselves a racing car, let alone afford a car for everyday use. Formula 1 is no exception.
While the ranks of the royals have thinned along with their once-vast colonial empires, that hasn’t stopped a few enterprising, well-bred, and well-heeled souls from having a crack at making the Formula 1 grid.
What’s perhaps pre surprising is that a few of these exclusive individuals have managed to do so in the last thirty years.
So who are these heirs, counts, marquises and princes who have tried – with varying degrees of success – to try and make a name for themselves beyond the regal circles?
10. Jorge de Bagration y de Mukhrani (‘Jorge de Bagration’)
The son of the exiled Prince Irakli of George and an Italian countess (who died giving birth to him), Jorge was raised by Prince Irakli’s second wife, the daughter of the German Prince Ferdinand of Bavaria and granddaughter of King Alfonso XII of Spain.
The family wealth and title was the perfect launchpad to pursuing his motorsport interests, and the young Jorge started racing motorcycles in his mid-teens before switching to four-wheel competition, racing under the Spanish flag.
His first attempt at Formula 1 came at his home Grand Prix in 1968, but his Lola entry was refused.
Six years later came his second attempt, and again he was denied the opportunity to compete courtesy of a bizarre set of circumstances: the outgoing Spanish Motor Sport Federation president apparently misplaced de Bagration’s entry paperwork, and the redone entry list had him omitted entirely!
Despite this, de Bagration later turned to rallying, twice winning the Spanish championship before he retired from competition in 1982.
Upon his father’s death in 1977, Jorge became a claimant to the head of the Georgian Royal Family, although he had no hope of returning to the throne. He died in 2008.
9. Giovanni Lavaggi
Born into an Italian noble family, Lavaggi was a former management consultant and qualified engineer who only seriously began racing in his thirties when he competed in sports cars.
Despite the late start, he won the 1995 Dayton 24 Hours and then raised enough cash to buy a four-race stint at these uncompetitive Pacific team in the same year, fulfilling every amateur racer’s dream of making the Grand Prix stage.
He returned for another dose of F1 in 1996 when Minardi threw him a lifeline of a few more race outings, but he was again off the pace and ensured his cult status by baulking Michael Schumacher during the Portuguese Grand Prix as the German came up to lap him. Right behind, championship rival Jacques Villeneuve pulled off the passing move of the year by sweeping around the outside of Schumacher at the Estoril circuit’s daunting final corner to take the lead.
8. Emmanuel ‘Toulo’ de Graffenried
A Swiss baron, the impeccably-dressed ‘Toulo’ de Graffenreid was a regular sight at many Grands Prix in Europe for some forty years after he won the 1949 British Grand Prix, a crowning achievement that came one year before the Formula 1 World Championship began.
A Swiss baron’s de Graffenreid’s best racing days came immediately before and after the Second World War in his native Switzerland, mostly at the wheel of Alfa Romeos or Maseratis.
In the immediate post-war years, de Graffenreid teamed up with fellow ‘blue blood’ racer Prince Bira in the Enrico Plate Maseratis, and he remained with the Italian manufacturer for the rest of his career, with the exception of three outings for Alfa Romeo in 1951.
His last Grand Prix came in 1956, but he came out of retirement to act as the body double for Kirk Douglas for the action scenes in the film The Racers.
7. Rikki von Opel
An heir to the Opel automobile empire, von Opel started our in motor racing using the pseudonym ‘Antonio Bronco’, however he later reverted to his own name after he achieved success in Formula Ford in 1970.
Von Opel moved into Formula 3 the next year with a Lotus and showed plenty of flair, which translated into winning the 1972 Lombard North Central title in an Ensign.
Together with team founder Mo Nunn, the pair decided to move into Formula 1 in 1973. Not surprisingly given their inexperience, the project achieved little in the way of concrete results, and von Opel was (unfairly, in our opinion) tagged as little more than a rich playboy racer.
Von Opel grabbed the opportunity to driver a works Brabham in 1974, reckoning this would be his opportunity to prove his worth. But after a pair of ninth-placed finishes, two retirements and two failures to qualify, he turned his back on the sport, having tried and failed to make the top-flight grade.
He is also the only Formula 1 driver to have hailed from the European microstate of Lischtenstein.
6. John Colum Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquis of Bute / John Bute (‘Johnny Dumfries’)
While most of the drivers on this shortlist have been rather proud to show off their noble lineage, this Scottish aristocrat led a fascinating double life on the Formula 1 grid. Today he prefers to be known today by his more ‘common’ pseudonym of John Bute, but he’s also the Marquis of Bute, the Earl of Windsor, Viscount Ayr, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar and Cumnock, Viscount Kingarth, Lord Montstuart Cumbrae and Inchmarnock, Baron Cardiff, and Viscount Mountjoy.
In motorsport circles he went by the name of Johnny Dumfries, trying to pass himself off a London painter and decorator in the hope his identity would remain a secret in motorsport circles!
Trying to compete without the need of the family connections, Dumfries scraped together enough money to get into Formula Ford, before making the jump to the British Formula 3 championship in 1983.
He gained prominence after an exciting battle with Ayrton Senna during one of the rounds at Silverstone, and that earned him a call-up to Dave Price Racing for 1984, and Dumfries stormed to the British title and finished runner-up in the European championship.
That earned him a Ferrari test drive gig for 1985, before Senna’s decision to vetoe Derek Warwick’s appointment at Team Lotus led to Dumfries getting the ‘number two’ driver role for the 1986 season.
In a season where “even the portaloo was set up for Senna” (as Clive James dryly noted), Dumfries remained in Senna’s shadow all year long and claimed just two points finishes before he was quietly dropped at the end of the season.
He turned to sports cars and proved he’d lost none of his speed, winning the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours for Jaguar.
5. Jonkheer Karel Pieter Antoni Jan Hubertus Godin de Beaufort (‘Carel de Beaufort)
Born into a well-heeled aristocratic family famous in banking and political circles, de Beaufort’s family acquired the Maasbergen Castle, near Amersfoort, in the late 1800s.
His interest in motorsport was apparent in his teenage years, when a young Carel was repeatedly caught taking joyrides in the cars belonging to the family’s guests when they visited Maasbergen.
After starting out in rallying, Carel acquired his first Porsche racing car, kicking off an association with the German carmaker that would last the rest of his life. He made his Grand Prix debut in the F2 class at the 1957 German Grand Prix.
The next few years saw Carel make occasional Grand Prix outings until 1961, at which point he acquired a four-cylinder Porsche 718 – previously raced by Stirling Moss – and made the full-time lap into F1.
De Beaufort was one of the last true full-time amateurs in F1, and succeeded in countering the perception that he was little more than a rather flabby ‘rich boy’ racer by turning in a series of competent performances in his bright orange Porsche, entered under the Maasbergen Castle name.
With the 718 getting decidedly uncompetitive (not to mention long in the tooth) by 1964, Carel attempted to qualify for the German Grand Prix once again. Alas, in qualifying, Carel crashed at the Bergwerk corner and succumbed to the head injuries he suffered just 24 hours later in his hospital bed at Cologne. Fittingly, this popular man was buried on the grounds of Maasbergen.
4. Lawrence Graf von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow (‘Lance Reventlow’)
Lance Reventlow certainly grew up in wealthy circles. He was the son of Count von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow and stepson to actors Cary Grant and Prince Igor Nikolayevich Troubetzkoy, the very first Ferrari Grand Prix driver in the pre-modern era. His mother – who almost died giving birth to him – was Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton.
Fittingly, it was during Hutton’s marriage to Troubetzkoy that the young Lance took up motorsport, starting out with a Mercedes until he got his hands on an 1100cc Cooper to race in the United States in 1956.
After a brief sojourn to Europe to race in a Maserati and a F2 Cooper, he returned home and decided to build his own Grand Prix racer, founding the Scarab F1 team in 1958.
Trouble was, the front-engined car, as beautiful as it was, took so long to build that by the time it made its Grand Prix debut in 1960, it was hopeless out-of-date and outclassed by the rest of the field.
In 1961, Reventlow shut down the F1 team, but continued race a rear-engined Scarab sports car back in the USA before he hung up his helmet. He was killed in a light aircraft accident in 1972 when his plane was taken down in bad weather over the Rocky Mountains.
3. Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, Marquis of Portago (‘Alfonso de Portago’)
Born in 1928, this tall, French-educated, multi-lingual Spaniard was born into one of the richest families in Spain. Blessed with countless ‘boy’s toys’ to keep himself amused, ‘Fon’ won a $500 bet at the age of seventeen when he flew his aeroplane under a bridge.
He twice entered the Grand National Steeplechase race as a gentleman jockey, and also went on to form Spain’s four-man bobsled team for the 1956 Olympic Games (pictured above), which incredibly missed out on a medal placing by just 0.16 seconds!
He took to motorsport in 1954 racing sports cars, and a year later he was a member of Ferrari’s works team. Entered in his first World Championship Grand Prix in 1956, he and Peter Collins shared the car that finished second at the British Grand Prix.
Described as a ‘two-car man’, de Portago often needed multiple cars to finish endurance events, such was his ability to wear out the brakes and transmissions of his cars.
Tragically, it was during the 1957 Mille Miglia that he, co-driver Edmund Nelson and ten spectators were killed when de Portago’s Ferrari blew a tyre while he was driving at over 150mph. He was just 28 years old.
2. Wolfgang Alexander Albert Eduard Maximilian Reichsgraf Berghe von Trips (‘Wolfgang von Trips’)
Until Michael Schumacher hit the Grand Prix scene, Wolfgang von Trips – a Count from a noble Rhineland family – was Germany’s most successful Formula 1 driver.
A Robert Redford lookalike nicknamed ‘Taffy’ by his peers, von Trips had to shake off an early reputation for crashing. His first Grand Prix appearance ended in practice when he crashed after a steering failure at Monza. Two years later and at the same circuit, he collided with Harry Schell and broke his leg. He also triggered a multi-car accident at the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix, which took out the entire Formula 2 class field.
By 1960, he started to emerge as a quick and reliable driver in Ferrari’s works team, where he picked up a string of points finishes in the Dino 246. Driving the new ‘sharknose’Ferrari 156 in 1961, von Trips took his maiden Grand Prix win at Zandvoort, and then took a second win in wet/dry conditions at Aintree to extend his championship lead.
With a pair of second-placed finishes in his pocket, von Trips headed to Monza with the title virtually in his pocket, needing just a third-placed finish to claim the crown. It was all going to plan: he claimed pole position on a two-by-two grid, conveniently arranged by local organisers to keep Ferrari’s rivals at bay.
But he made a poor start as the field was waved away, and trying to fight his way back through the field on the second lap, he collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus. The contact flipped him in the air and into a barrier behind which fourteen spectators who were standing met their fates. Von Trips was thrown from his car and killed instantly, leaving team-mate Phil Hill to claim a bitter championship crown.
1. His Highness Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh (‘B. Bira’)
‘Prince Bira’ is the true Formula 1 aristocrat. A nephew of the King of Siam (now Thailand), the Eton and Cambridge-educated prince was part of London’s social scene in the 1930s with his cousin, Prince Chula.
After a few exploratory outings in racing cars, he was given an ERA by Chula for his 21st birthday. Bira established the wonderfully-named White Mouse Racing team, and he won many a pre-War race in the ERA, becoming one of the marque’s most famous drivers and winning the BRDC Gold Star for three successive years between 1936-8.
The success continued after World War II, winning the 1947 Chimay Grand Prix and picking up a string of second-placed finishes in a host of Grands Prix in 1949.
His World Championship career, which ran from 1950-1954, proved rather less successful, often on account of not having the best available equipment at his disposal. His best finishes were a pair of fourth-placed finishes, although he continued to show plenty of speed in a host of non-championship races until he retired from competition in 1956.
Post-F1, ‘Bira’ switched to competitive sailing and represented his country at four Olympic Games and also turned his hand to sculpture, having studied it during his university days. One of his works can be found at Silverstone.
He continued to live in London and Switzerland until his death, aged 71, from a heart attack at Baron’s Court tube station in 1985.