Born near Rambouillet, Île-de-France, France, Robert Benoist was the son of Baron Henri de Rothschild's gamekeeper. As a young man, Benoist served during World War I in the French infantry, then as a fighter pilot in the new Armée de l'Air and ultimately as a flying instructor.
Grand Prix driver
Looking for excitement in the post-war world, Benoist joined the de Marçay car company as a test driver. He then moved on to Salmson and was very successful in cyclecar races before being signed to drive for Delage in 1924. The next year, teamed with Albert Divo, he won the French Grand Prix in the race that claimed the life of Italian racing star Antonio Ascari.
When the Delage company dropped out of racing, Robert Benoist was without a job and was appointed manager of the Banville Garage in Paris. He did occasional races for the Bugatti team, finishing second in the 1928 San Sebastián Grand Prix in Spain.
The following year he teamed up with Attilio Marinoni to win the Spa 24 Hours race in Belgium, driving an Alfa Romeo. At the end of the season he retired until 1934, when he made a comeback with the Bugatti team. He was soon made head of the competition department and masterminded the company's Le Mans programme. In 1937 he partnered with Jean-Pierre Wimille to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Following that victory, Benoist retired permanently, but continued to run Bugatti's racing department until called up into the French Air Force.
World War II
In addition to Jean-Pierre Wimille, Robert Benoist became good friends with another Grand Prix driver, William Grover-Williams. When World War II broke out and France was occupied, these three race drivers all escaped to Britain where they joined the Special Operations Executive as secret agents to return to France to assist the French Resistance. Benoist was commissioned into the British Army as a captain. Parachuted into France, Benoist helped organise sabotage cells and with William Grover-Williams moved weapons from air-drops in the Rambouillet forest to his home at Auffargis for storage and distribution.
In June 1943, the "Prosper" network in Paris collapsed and its leaders, Francis Suttill and Andrée Borrel, were arrested by the Gestapo. In August, Benoist's home was raided by the Gestapo and Grover-Williams was captured and executed with Francis Suttill at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Capture and escape
Three days later, Robert Benoist was apprehended in Paris. While being driven to Gestapo headquarters, Benoist leaped from the moving vehicle and escaped, eventually being smuggled back to Britain via the underground.
Benoist returned to France on a second mission, lasting from October 1943 to February 1944, after which he returned to London for a short time before going back to France in March to work in the Nantes area with fellow SOE agent Denise Bloch.
Following Germany's surrender, on 9 September 1945, the "Coupe Robert Benoist" automobile race was held in Paris in his memory.
Captain Robert Benoist is recorded on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey, Britain, and as one of the SOE agents who died for the liberation of France, he is listed on the "Roll of Honor" on the Valençay SOE Memorial in the town of Valençay, in the Indre departement of France.
In his honour, the village of Auffargis named a street after him and it is there in the churchyard cemetery on "Allée Robert Benoist" that fellow pioneer race driver, Ferenc Szisz is buried. Among the remaining grandstands still standing at the former Reims-Gueux circuit in France is one named "Tribune Robert Benoist".
Complete 24 Hours of Le Mans results
|1928||Itala SA Fabbrica Automobili||Christian Dauvergne||Itala Tipo 65 S||2.0||131||8th||1st|
|1929||Grand Garage Saint-Didier Paris||Henri Stoffel||Chrysler Six Series 75||5.0||152||6th||4th|
|1937||Roger Labric||Jean-Pierre Wimille||Bugatti Type 57G Tank||5.0||243||1st||1st|
- Au volant: Cours pratique de conduite automobile, Bernard-Précy, Robert Benoist, Paris, Ed. Tallandier 1933
- Foot, MRD: SOE in France (HMSO, London 1966)
- Ryan Robert: Early One Morning, Headline 2002 ISBN 0-7472-6872-X
- Pernod Alain: Grand Prix de France : Un siècle en histoires, ed. ETAI, 2006, ISBN 2-7268-8657-4
- Saward, Joe: "The Grand Prix Saboteurs", Morienval Press, London, 2006, ISBN 978-0-9554868-0-7
- Motor Sport, August 1945, Page 156.
- CWGC entry
- "Delage enlève brillammente les deux premières places du Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. avec R. Benoist et Wagner". L'Auto: 1. 27 July 1925 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "À Linas-Montlhéry, Robert Benoist, sur Delage, remporte brillammente le Grand Prix de l'A.C.F." L'Auto: 1. 4 July 1927 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "Robert Benoist, sur Delage, enlève the Ve Grand Prix d'Espagne". L'Auto: 1. 1 August 1927 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "Robert Benoist, sur Delage, fait triompher nos couleurs à Monza en enlevant le Grand Prix d'Europe". L'Auto: 1. 5 September 1927 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "À nouveau, à Brooklands, R. Benoist et la voiture Delage s'affirment invincibles". L'Auto: 1. 2 October 1927 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "Louis Chiron, sur Bugatti, triomphe dans le Grand Prix de Saint-Sébastien, après une belle lutte avec R. Benoist". L'Auto: 1. 26 July 1928 – via BnF/Gallica.
- "Jean-Pierre Wimille". Grandprix.com. Archived from the original on 30 January 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2007.
- Richard Armstrong. "A different danger – three champions at war". 8W. Retrieved 18 March 2007.
- "Special Operations Executive (SOE) files". The National Archives UK. Retrieved 17 March 2007.