Some time ago, Vintage Racecar published ”Absent Friends,” my story of astonishing heroism of another kind. It involved three motor racing greats, Robert Benoist, William Grover-Williams and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Pierre Wimille. The story told of their selfless devotion to their country, their indignation at the theft of their land by the invading Germans and the great personal danger they endured as Resistance fighters. In the end, the SS hung Benoist with piano wire at the Buchenwald concentration camp and Williams disappeared, some believe killed on a Nazi death march from Sachsenhausen; nobody knows for sure. Wimille was the only survivor, but not for long. He lost his life in a little 1430-cc Gordini while practicing for the 1949 Grand Prix of Argentina near Buenos Aires early one morning.
I was only able to touch on the men’s motor racing careers in my tale of their outstanding wartime heroism. So, I aim to put that right, starting with Robert Marcel Charles Benoist, who was born on March 20, 1895, at Rambouillet, Ile de France, the son of Baron Henri de Rothchild’s gamekeeper. Robert volunteered for the French Air Force at the age of 20. He made it through the First World War and was looking for more excitement when he returned to Civvie Street. He got that by becoming a test driver for the French car manufacturer de Marçay, long since sunk without a trace. Things got even better when Salmson took him on to drive voiturettes for two years. During that time, he attracted the attention of Louis Delage, who signed him to campaign one of the constructor’s two-liter V-12s in Grand Prix motor racing, teamed up with veteran and Indianapolis 500–winner René Thomas and another upwardly mobile young man named Albert Divo.