Robert Benoist

Full Name:
Robert Marcel Charles Benoist
Born:
20th March 1895
Auffargis, Ile-de-France
Died:
12th September 1944 (Aged 49)
Buchenwald, Thuringia (D), executed in Prisoner of War camp
Nationality:
French
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

There are many facets to the life of Robert Benoist – Grand Prix champion, Le Mans winner, World War I fighter pilot and Resistance hero. He was a truly remarkable character who ultimately gave his life in the service of his occupied country.

Early life and motor racing debut

Born and raised in a humble country family south of Paris, his father had previously worked as a gamekeeper for Baron Henri de Rothschild. Benoist was an apprentice mechanic in a Versailles garage before being conscripted into the French Infantry during World War I. He volunteered for a transfer to the Air Force when that was the most dangerous of occupations. That was illustrated when Benoist crash-landed between the lines and crawled to safety.

Discharged in 1919, Benoist’s competition debut was in the 1921 Paris-Nice reliability trial. That led to two seasons with Salmson that included victory in the 1922 French Cyclecar GP and a dead-heat with team-mate Lucien Desvaux in the following year’s Bol d’Or 24 Hour race.

Grand Prix star with Delage

When Salmson withdrew from racing, Benoist was quickly signed by Delage and hillclimb success soon followed. Delage also gave Benoist his GP debut in the 1924 French GP at Lyon and he did not disappoint – finishing third. A maiden GP victory a year later at Montlhéry came with a Delage 2LCV and relief driver Albert Divo. It was France’s first victory in its national race since 1913 although the day was marred by Antonio Ascari’s death.

The 1927 season belonged to Benoist. There was a GP world championship for manufacturers at the time and Benoist won four of the five qualifying rounds (he did not enter the Indianapolis 500). That delivered Delage the title and despite there being no official drivers’ competition, there was no doubt as to who was the unofficial world champion.

Despite that success and resulting car sales, Delage were in financial trouble and it withdrew leaving the greatest driver of the day unemployed. When he did race, success followed with victory in the wet 1929 Spa 24 Hours when sharing an Alfa Romeo 6C-1750 with Attilio Marinoni.

The Bugatti years

In need of work and looking for his next GP opportunity, Benoist joined Bugatti as a Sales Manager in its Paris showroom. The marque returned to GP racing in 1934 with Benoist as lead driver but its type 59 was hopelessly outclassed by the new Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams. His fourth-place finishes in France and Belgium were at the tail of the field and unbefitting of his talent.

Unhappy at seeing those German teams dominate GP racing, the French authorities switched its races to sports car rules from 1936. Although out of luck in the French GP, Benoist won the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours after he, Jean-Pierre Wimille and a Bugatti T59G survived the torrential rain.

Hero of the Resistance

That was Benoist’s final race for he rejoined the French military in 1938 with storm clouds gathering over Europe once more. When the invading German forces overran France in 1940, Benoist and fellow GP veteran "W.Williams" were at the heart of the Resistance in Paris. Both would lose their lives at the hands of the Gestapo. Benoist led a charmed life as he dodged arrest before being betrayed in 1944, possibly by his own brother Maurice.

"Interviewed" at the infamous Avenue Foch Gestapo headquarters, Benoist apparently remained steadfast in his silence. He was eventually transferred to the Buchenwald Prisoner of War camp in Germany where he was executed on September 12 1944.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1935 European Championship
Usines Bugatti
2 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1927 World Championship
Automobiles Delage
4 0 4 4
100% win rate
0
1926 World Championship
Automobiles Delage
3 1 2 0
0% win rate
0
1925 World Championship
Automobiles Delage
2 0 1 1
50% win rate
0