Olivier Gendebien, without doubt one of the greatest sportscar racers of all time, died on October 2, aged 74.
From a wealthy Belgian family, Brussels-born Gendebien came to motorsport relatively late. His colourful early life included service as a paratrooper in WW2, and a spell as a forester in the Belgian congo.
Upon his return to Europe, his rally driving friend Charles Fraikin encouraged him to try his hand at motorsport, and it was in rallies that Gendebien first found success. That led to a sportscar racing contract with the Scuderia Ferrari in 1955. Although he also drove for Porsche in 1960, he was associated with Maranello for the rest of his career. In My Terrible Joys Enzo Ferrari memorably described Gendebien 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.”
Gendebien is best remembered for scoring a quartet of wins at Le Mans in 1958-60-61-62 – sharing victory three times with Phil Hill, and once with countryman Paul Frere His record of four wins was finally eclipsed by Jacky Ickx in 1982, but Le Mans was just the most famous of his wins; Olivier also triumphed in the Targo Florio in 1958-61-62, the Sebring 12 Hours in 1959-60-61 (the middle success coming in a Porsche), the Reims 12 hours in 1957-58, and the Nurburgring 1000Km in 1962.
Gendebien’s sporstcar success overshadowed an impressive Grand Prix record. Although he managed just 14 stats between 1956-61, he scored points in half of them. For most of that time he was Ferrari’s spare driver, filling in odd races, but he scored his best results with a Yeoman Credit Cooper in 1960, finishing third at Spa (where team-mate Chris Bristow was killed) and then a fine second to Jack Brabham at Reims. Despite missing four of the nine GP’s, he earned a creditable sixth place in the World Championship. His last top six finish came at Spa in 1961, when he drove a ‘sharknose’ Ferrari 156 to fourth place.
Gendebien retired in 1962, after his fourth Le Mans success. A look at a list of former co-drivers (Peter Collins, Alfondo de Portago, Luigi Musso, Wolfgang von Trips) perhaps helps to explain his decision to get out at the top, and with his health intact. Adam Cooper