Olivier Gendebien

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Olivier Gendebien
FIA Super Licence Flag of Belgium Belgium
Formula One World Championship career
Active years1956 Formula One season, 1958 Formula One season - 1961 Formula One season
TeamsFerrari, Reg Parnell Racing, Emeryson
Races15 (14 starts)
List of Formula One World Drivers' Champions0
Career points18
Pole position0
Fastest lap0
First race1956 Argentine Grand Prix
Last race1961 United States Grand Prix
24 Hours of Le Mans career
Participating years1955 24 Hours of Le Mans-1962 24 Hours of Le Mans
TeamsEquipe Nationale Belge
Scuderia Ferrari
Best finish1st (1958 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans)
Class wins4 (1958 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans)

Olivier Gendebien (12 January 1924, Brussels, Belgium2 October 1998, Les Baux de Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, France) was a war hero and race car driver. He has been cited as "one of the greatest sportscar racers of all time".[1]



Born into a wealthy family, an heir to the industrial holdings of the Solvay family, Olivier Gendebien studied engineering at university. When World War II erupted and the Nazis occupied Belgium, he joined the Belgian Resistance movement. Fluent in the English language, he served as the liaison with the United Kingdom agents being parachuted into Belgium. Later in the War he went to England, serving with the British army as part of a Belgian paratrooper unit. When the war ended Gendebien switched to the study of agriculture, spending several years working in forestry in the Belgian Congo where he met a rally driver named Charles Fraikin.

Rally racer

On his return to Belgium, Gendebien entered a Veritas (automobile) sports car in the 1955 Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay. However, following this race he switched his focus, and teamed up with Fraikin to compete in Rally racing using a Jaguar Cars sports car.[2] Together with Pierre Stassen, Gendebien won the sixth running of the Tulip Rally in Zandvoort in April 1954. Their car was an Alfa Romeo.[3] The Gendebien and Fraiken partnership gained the nickname "the eternal bridesmaids", owing to their number of second-place finishes,[2] but after two previous attempts they triumphed in the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally and the Coppa d'Oro delle Dolomiti in 1955, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

Formula One driver

Gendebien's success in rally competitions brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who offered him a contract to drive a Ferrari in Sports car racing and selected Formula One. Much respected as a true gentleman by everyone who knew him, he remained a member of the Ferrari team until he retired from racing. Enzo Ferrari summed him up as "a gentleman who never forgets that Noblesse oblige and, when he is at the wheel, he translates this code of behaviour into an elegant and discerning forcefulness."[1] During his career he competed in only 15 Formula One races — most of the time he was Ferrari's spare driver, filling in only occasionally — he nonetheless scored points in five races, and was only one place away from a points-scoring finish on a further two occasions. He made his début at the 1956 Argentine Grand Prix, with the Ferrari team, but it was during a stint driving for the British Racing Partnership's Yeoman Credit Racing team in 1960 Formula One season that Gendebien scored his best finishes; he took second in the 1960 French Grand Prix and third in front of a home crowd at the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix. The second of these was a somewhat bitter-sweet success, as Gendebien's team-mate at the time, Chris Bristow, was killed in an accident during the race. Gendebien himself walked away with slight injuries in October 1961 after his Team Lotus-Coventry Climax failed to negotiate a turn during practice for the 1961 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, New York. The car flipped over and Gendebien's shoes were torn off by the impact.[4]

Sports car competition

However, it was in Sports car racing, particularly the long distance and endurance events, where Gendebien excelled. Piloting a 2.5-liter Ferrari, Gendebien teamed up with Maurice Trintignant to place third in the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans. They were seven laps behind the winners, privateer Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar Cars drivers Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson.[5] The 1958 Grand Prix of Buenos Aires was a 1,000 kilometer event in which Gendebien paired with Wolfgang von Trips. They finished second to a fellow Ferrari pairing Phil Hill and Peter Collins. In the race Argentine Maserati driver, Jorge Magnasco, died after his car skidded and turned over.[6]

The same year he partnered with Hill and won the prestigious 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans. Their victory came in a 3-liter Ferrari and secured the World Sportscar Championship for the Ferrari factory. They covered 2,511 miles with an average speed of 107 miles per hour. Hill became the first American to win the event and their Ferrari was the sole factory-sponsored car running at the end.[7] Ferrari drivers took the first three positions at the conclusion of the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans and, as they were to be again the following year, Hill and Gendebien were first, averaging 115.89 miles per hour, and establishing a race record.[8] The duo were a natural fit and together they won the Le Mans race three times in total, with Gendebien winning it a fourth time, partnered by fellow Belgian Paul Frère in 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gendebien's record number of Le Mans victories was not exceeded until 1981 24 Hours of Le Mans, when fellow-Belgian Jacky Ickx won for the fifth time.

Away from Circuit de la Sarthe, Gendebien also triumphed in the Targa Florio (1958, '61, '62), the 12 Hours of Sebring (1959, '60, '61), the 12 Hours of Reims (1957, '58) and the 1000 km Nürburgring (1962).[1] When asked about the key to winning as a race car driver, Gendebien responded: "It is a matter of taking the corners a little faster than one would want."[9] In honour of Gendebien's three wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the turn onto the Ullman straight is named after him.

Major race victories

  • Tour of Sicily : 1957
  • Tour de France (auto) : 1957, 1958, 1959
  • Reims 12 Hour race : 1957, 1958
  • Targa Florio : 1958, 1961, 1962
  • 12 Hours of Sebring : 1959, 1960, 1961
  • 24 hours of Le Mans : 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • 1000km Nürburgring : 1962

Post race life

Married with three children, Gendebien’s wife pressured him to get out of the dangerous sport of automobile racing where more than two dozen of his competitors had died at the wheel. At 38 years of age, in 1962 Olivier Gendebien retired following his fourth victory at Le Mans. Independently wealthy, and an avid skier, tennis player, and equestrian rider, he devoted the rest of his life to running a variety of businesses. In 1998 Albert II of Belgium awarded him the Belgian Order of the Crown (Belgium)

Olivier Gendebien died in 1998 at his home in Les Baux de Provence in southern France.

Complete F1 World Championship results

(F1 driver results legend 2)

Year Entrant Chassis Engine 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 WDC Pts.
1956 Formula One season Scuderia Ferrari Ferrari Ferrari 555 Ferrari Straight-4 1956 Argentine Grand Prix
1956 Monaco Grand Prix
1956 Indianapolis 500
1956 Belgian Grand Prix
23rd 2
Lancia in Formula One-Ferrari Lancia-Ferrari D50 Lancia in Formula One V8 1956 French Grand Prix
1956 British Grand Prix
1956 German Grand Prix
1956 Italian Grand Prix
1958 Formula One season Scuderia Ferrari Ferrari Ferrari Dino 246 Ferrari V6 1958 Argentine Grand Prix
1958 Monaco Grand Prix
1958 Dutch Grand Prix
1958 Indianapolis 500
1958 Belgian Grand Prix
1958 French Grand Prix
1958 British Grand Prix
1958 German Grand Prix
1958 Portuguese Grand Prix
1958 Italian Grand Prix
1958 Moroccan Grand Prix
NC 0
1959 Formula One season Scuderia Ferrari Ferrari Ferrari Dino 246 Ferrari V6 1959 Monaco Grand Prix
1959 Indianapolis 500
1959 Dutch Grand Prix
1959 French Grand Prix
1959 British Grand Prix
1959 German Grand Prix
1959 Portuguese Grand Prix
1959 Italian Grand Prix
1959 United States Grand Prix
15th 3
1960 Formula One season Yeoman Credit Racing Cooper Car Company Cooper T51 Coventry Climax Straight-4 1960 Argentine Grand Prix
1960 Monaco Grand Prix
1960 Indianapolis 500
1960 Dutch Grand Prix
1960 Belgian Grand Prix
1960 French Grand Prix
1960 British Grand Prix
1960 Portuguese Grand Prix
1960 Italian Grand Prix
1960 United States Grand Prix
6th 10
1961 Formula One season Equipe Nationale Belge Emeryson Emeryson Mk2 Maserati Straight-4 1961 Monaco Grand Prix
1961 Dutch Grand Prix
14th 3
Scuderia Ferrari Ferrari Ferrari 156 Ferrari V6 1961 Belgian Grand Prix
1961 French Grand Prix
1961 British Grand Prix
1961 German Grand Prix
1961 Italian Grand Prix
British Racing Partnership Team Lotus Lotus 18 Coventry Climax Straight-4 1961 United States Grand Prix
Preceded by
Ron Flockhart (auto racing)
Ivor Bueb
List of 24 Hours of Le Mans winners
1958 24 Hours of Le Mans with:
Phil Hill
Succeeded by
Carroll Shelby
Roy Salvadori
Preceded by
Carroll Shelby
Roy Salvadori
List of 24 Hours of Le Mans winners
1960 24 Hours of Le Mans with:
Paul Frère
Succeeded by
Olivier Gendebien
Phil Hill
Preceded by
Olivier Gendebien
Paul Frère
List of 24 Hours of Le Mans winners
1961 24 Hours of Le Mans-1962 24 Hours of Le Mans with:
Phil Hill
Succeeded by
Ludovico Scarfiotti
Lorenzo Bandini


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Cooper, A. 1998. Obituary: Olivier Gendebien. Motor Sport, LXXIV/11 (November 1998), 4
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Driver: Gendebien, Olivier". Autocourse Grand Prix Archive. http://www.autocoursegpa.com/driver~driver_id~11763.htm. Retrieved on 18 November 2007. 
  3. Belgians Win Auto Race, New York Times, May 1, 1954, Page 20.
  4. Belgian Racing Ace Crashes, Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1961, Page A1.
  5. Flockhart and Sanderson Take Le Mans Auto Endurance Race, New York Times, July 30, 1956, Page 26.
  6. Auto Race Driver Dies of Injuries, New York Times, January 27, 1958, Page 31.
  7. Hill of California and Gendebien Triumph With Ferrari in Le Mans, New York Times, June 23, 1958, Page 30.
  8. First Three At Le Mans All Ferraris, The Times, June 12, 1961, Page 4.
  9. Life in a Sports Car, Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1961. Page C1.

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