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Robert Benoist


Delage 15-S-8 1.5 litre




II British GP, also known as the English GP (1 October 1927)


Looking at the situation nowadays it is hard to believe that in pre-war Britain motor racing interest was restricted to a small but well informed group of enthusiasts. "The right crowd and no crowding" was what they used to say about the Brooklands track.

When the Brooklands track at Weybridge, Surrey - 20 miles SW of London - opened in June 1907 it was the first permanent race track in the world. The track had been built at the expense of H.F. Locke King to provide a place for racing in a country which had a 20mph speed limit on all public roads. The track was designed by Col. Holden of the Royal Engineers and consisted of two elevated curves built with concrete on earth embankments, the Byfleet Banking with a radius of 1550 ft and the Members (or Home) Banking with a radius of 1000 feet. They were connected by the half a mile long Railway Straight on the west side. On the east side the straight went on to a finishing straight influenced by horse racing to connect after a sharp uphill to the middle of the Members banking. In the middle of the straight was the Fork bend that in a right-hander connected the track to the start of the Members Banking making a track that was pear-shaped with a slight bend in the middle to pass a factory building. The width of the track was 100ft. In typical British style a huge clubhouse with restaurant, billiard room, observation balcony and so on was built near the paddock. A huge steel bridge over the track at the Members banking connected the Members Hill and the pit complex with the outer world.

At Brooklands British motor racing developed its own style quite different from international Grand Prix racing. Instead of numbers, cars and drivers were often colour-coded like race horses (and you did not sit "in" a car but "on" it) and races were mostly run to various handicap systems. The races were run in an anti-clockwise direction and at the final lap the cars took to the left instead of to the right at the Fork to run up the finish straight. A great deal of record breaking also took part at Brooklands during the years, the most famous name possibly being John Cobb in his Napier-Railton, so special electric time keeping equipment was installed. The Royal Flying Corps took over the track during the First World War but after repairs racing was back in 1920 and went on until the Second World War when the estate was taken over by Vickers for aircraft manufacturing. So much of the track was destroyed that it would never be used for racing again.

In the 20s there were several long distance races for sports cars at the track but a highlight was when RAC permitted the English Grand Prix to be run on the track in 1926 and 1927 to the international GP formula.

A few words on Grand Prix racing in the era. The formula at the time was 1.5 litre with supercharger, 600kg minimum weight. The cars were still to be two-seaters but from 1925 onwards the accident-prone racing mechanics were no longer needed to take part and the drivers could race single-handedly.

16 cars were entered for the second English GP to be run on 1 October 1927, among them the Delage works team with three cars. Louis Delage was a wealthy man who lived his life to its fullest and who had been manufacturing cars since 1906. He was a great racing enthusiast and as he liked to spend his money in a flamboyant style, when he turned to conquer GP racing at its highest level his ambition was naturally to produce the best cars in the world. His 1923-25 V12 cars proved inferior to the Alfa P2s even if victory came for the team at the 1925 French GP.

For 1926 Albert Lory, who had previously worked for Salmson, was ordered to build a car on the "no effort spared" criteria. Lory decided to build a d.o.c. straight 8 engine (55.8 x 76.0 = 1488 cc) with two valves per cylinder. To reduce friction no less than 62 ball and roller bearings were included in the construction. With two Roots superchargers the engine gave 165bhp at 8400rpm to a 5-speed gearbox.

The chassis was of a low but traditional type not unlike the other cars of the era. Sparsely cross braced, the chassis was notably whippy as Prince Chula's White Mouse team would found out to their dismay in 1937, when a costly suspension rebuilding proved totally unproductive. The car first took part at the 1926 European GP at Lasarte and the effort proved to be a disaster. In the cramped cockpit the drivers spent the race trapped between the propeller shaft and the exhaust pipe that passed close to the right leg and arm and every Delage driver had to make pitstops to dip their badly burned feet in cold water while the mechanics desperately tried to cut new air holes in the cars. Similar problems occurred at the first English Grand Prix at Brooklands on 7 August 1926, the 110 laps lasting 4 hours, but here Robert Senechal/Louis Wagner managed to hold on to give the new Delage construction its first victory.

In 1927 the GP formula was changed so that the minimum weight for the cars was risen to 700kg. For 1927 the 8-cylinder Delage was completely rebuilt with the engine and shaft moved to the left of the center line to give more room for the driver. Also, the body was rebuilt with a new more streamlined radiator. 1927 was the third year for the manufacturers' world championship, Alfa Romeo having taken the first title in 1925 and Bugatti the second in 1926. Included in the championship were the Indy 500 and the French, Spanish, Italian and British GPs. Team drivers for Delage included Robert Benoist, Albert Divo, Edmond Bourlier and André Morel.

Robert Marcel Charles Benoist was born at Rambouilleton, 20 March 1895. His interest in cars made him become a mechanic. During the First World War he became a fighter pilot flying Morane-Saulniers, Nieuports and Spads on the Western front. After the war Benoist started his racing career in 1921 on a cycle-car competing in French long-distance rallies. The next year he joined the Salmson team and with the little 1100cc car took victory at the 200 miles race at Brooklands. Class victories followed in Provence and Spain and the next year in Italy, Spain and France. In 1924 Benoist became works driver for Delage, racing both hillclimbs and Grand Prix racing, his greatest achievement being a 3rd place at the European Grand Prix at Lyon behind his teammate Albert Divo, but the victory that day belonged to Giuseppe Campari racing for a team that made their international debut, Alfa Romeo. A year later Benoist drove an excellent race at the French GP at Montlhéry and took over the lead after Ascari's fatal crash had caused the Alfa Romeo team to withdraw. Later when the team's first driver Albert Divo retired his own car he took over Benoist's car and raced on to take the flag with Louis Wagner/Paul Torchy securing a double victory for Delage. The season ended with a triple victory for the team at San Sebastian, Benoist finishing second.

After the frustrating 1926 season 1927 started off well for Benoist and Delage, winning the French Grand Prix. Benoist followed it up with victories at the Spanish Grand Prix at Lasarte in July and the European Grand Prix at Monza in September and when the team came to Brooklands for the second English Grand Prix Benoist had in fact already secured the world championship for Delage.

For Grand Prix racing Brooklands was rebuilt to an artificial road course by adding several straw bale chicanes. An odd thing with the track were the demands on compulsory exhaust silencers and the Grand Prix race was no exception!

Works entries included three Delages for Benoist, Bourlier and Divo, three Bugattis for Conelli, Materassi and Chiron and three FIATs for Bordino, Salamano and Nazarro. However, FIAT's entry was withdrawn and that famous name would never again appear in the Grand Prix races except as a logo on the Ferraris. There were several privateers entered, some of the names are famous, other less so. George Eyston and Malcolm Campbell, both known for their speed record attempts, were racing Bugattis as was the far lesser known Prince Ghica-Cantacuzino.

Another speed record name can be found on the list as a car name: Thomas. Parry Thomas had tried to break the world speed record at Pendine near Carmathen in Wales on March 3rd with his 27-litre ex-Count Zborowsky monster car "Babs", an attempt that had ended in the worst possible way for the driver. His Thomas specials had now been sold and were raced by Bummer Scott and Harold Purdy. Souders in a Duesenberg and Harvey in an Alvis completed the entry list.

The cars started in Brooklands style: in line across the track. It was Materassi who took the start to lead for Bugatti but soon he was passed by the Delage trio of Divo, Boulier and Benoist. The Delages started to pull out a gap from the rest. Materassi was soon in the pits with problems and soon it became clear that Chiron's, Conelli's and Campbell's Bugatti T39As were no match for the leading trio. The Delages were racing more or less in formation with Divo leading with only the pitstops between laps 40 and 42 temporarily disturbing the orders. On lap 65 Conelli ran out of fuel and the driver had to push the car a considerable distance to the pits where he was relieved at the wheel by "Williams". With three-quarters of the race gone both Eyston and Campbell had to retire and the order of the Delages finally changed as Benoist moved to second. A few laps later Divo made an extra pit stop to check the exhaust, probably just to allow Benoist to take over the lead, and dropped to third.

The Delages continued without problems and Benoist could take the flag as winner of the British GP.

1 Robert Benoist (Delage 15-S-8), 3:49:14.6
2 Edmond Bourlier (Delage 15-S-8), 3:49:21.6
3 Albert Divo (Delage 15-S-8), 3:52:20.0
4 Louis Chiron (Bugatti T39A), 4:17:50.0
5 Emilio Materassi (Bugatti T39A), - 7 laps

Benoist had won every championship race of the season (except Indy), an unbreakable feat, and had taken Delage to the world championship. For his achievements he received the Légion d'Honneur. Having reached the top Delage dissolved his team as 1928 was to be raced to a new formula. The cars were sold and later ended up in England to be raced as voiturettes for Earl Howe, Dick Seaman and Prince Bira. Benoist continued to race in GP and sportscars. He was second in Spain in 1928 driving a Bugatti and victorious at the 1929 Spa 24-hour race driving for Alfa Romeo. He more or less retired only to make a comeback for Bugatti during the 1934-37 seasons. He finished 4th at the 1934 French and Belgian GPs and took a victory at the minor 1935 GP de Picardie at Péronne.

Then in 1937 he ended his career in style at Le Mans. Lined up with Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti T57G "tank" the team survived a horrible multiple crash (see the SEFAC story) and a furious thunderstorm with rain falling in torrents to open up an 11-lap lead. Then with 4 hours to go Benoist made a mistake when passing a backmarker and went off and stalled. Just as Patrese at Monaco 1982 he was pushed to a "safe place" before being able to continue and there were some anxious moments in the pit before race director Faroux declared that everything was OK and Benoist could go on to end his career with a Le Mans victory.

Having retired from racing Benoist became a manager for the Bugatti showroom in Paris. Too old for the air force when the next World War begun he became an active member of French resistance. His adventures during the war are too numerous to be included here. We recommend you should try to find the April 1999 number of Motorsport for that interesting story. Shortly, he proved he had lost none of his fighting spirit or will to put his life at risk. In the end he lost out to the odds. He was betrayed, arrested by Gestapo and executed at the Buchenwald concentration camp on 14 September 1944.

One year later, on 9 September 1945, the first race of the post-war era was held in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. The first start was the Coupe Robert Benoist for 1.5-litre cars in memory of one of the greatest characters in Grand Prix racing.

Reader's Why by Josh Lintz

Oval tracks only exist in America, right? That might be the belief in modern-day motorsports, for NASCAR, CART, IRL and other lesser formulae in the United States favor the oval for most/some/all of their events in their respective series. Even the 2000 United States GP will be held on a modified-oval course, using Turn 1 as the last turn on the not-yet-used course. But the precursor to motorsports was horse racing, and when horses and jockeys competed for outright speed, they used an oval configuration. (Might the early steeplechases and later, equestrian competitions, be compared to road-course racing?)

The truth is, many nations built some fine oval courses after city-to-city racing was banned due to a variety of unsafe conditions. America had Indianapolis Motor Speedway, France had Montlhery, Italy had Monza, Germany had Avus, and Great Britain had Brooklands. Unfortunately, only Indy survives today as a usable racing oval, but Brooklands was to British motorsports as Silverstone or Brands Hatch is today.

Having been a fighter pilot during WW1, Benoist started racing in 1921 in rallies, racing Salmson cycle cars. He was the works driver for Delage during 1924-27, and will forever be associated with the Delage and the 1927 season. The splendid in-line 8-cylinder Delage 15S8 had a double head camshaft having 1487 cc, supercharged by a volumetric supercharger. (It is said to sound wonderful, for straight-8's are rarely heard today.) In his hands, the Delage 15S8 won the 4 out of 5 "national" events held in 1927: the Grand Prix d'ACF at Montlhery, the Spanish Grand Prix at LaSarte, the Italian GP at Monza, and the English Grand Prix at Brook lands (our 8w picture). Benoist won the English GP by a mere 7 seconds; a tiny gap considering he won the GP d'ACF by 8 minutes, 14.4 seconds; the Spanish GP by 2 min 17 sec., and the Italian GP by 22 min 32.8 seconds! (In earlier times, all competitors were expected to finish the entire race distance.) He claimed the constructor's championship for the French team and the Légion d'Honneur for himself.

Robert Benoist then went on to race for Bugatti in 1928-29. But then he retired from motorsports for a while. He made a comeback in 1934, finishing 4th in the French and Belgian GP's. In 1935 he won the Picardie GP and finished 5th in the Belgian GP. His last Grand Prix race was the Spanish GP at LaSarte, where he finished 6th. In 1937, he won the 24 Hours of LeMans in a Bugatti T57G, co-driving with Jean-Pierre Wimille. Retired from racing and became manager for the Bugatti showroom in Paris. As he had become too old for the air force during World War II, he instead became an active member of French Resistance, but was arrested by Gestapo and executed in Buchenwald in 1944.