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Olivier Gendebien

12th January 1924
2nd October 1998 (Aged 74)
Tarascon, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (F)
Most recent race (in database):

One of sports car racing’s most successful drivers, Olivier Gendebien was a multiple winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Targa Florio. Always immaculately dressed and aristocratic by birth, he had an uncanny mechanical sympathy which helped him excel in endurance racing.

World War II and early rallying career

World War Two interrupted University studies in engineering and Gendebien served as a paratrooper and in the Resistance. He settled in the Belgian Congo after the conflict and it was in Africa that he impressed a compatriot with his driving skills on its unpaved roads. So much so that he started rallying on his return to Europe driving the aforementioned Charles Fraikin’s Jaguar and Gendebien was second in the 1953 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally.

He also started circuit racing at the time but it was victories on the 1955 Dolomite Cup and Liège-Rome-Liège rallies with a Mercedes-Benz 300SL that were most notable. That brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari and he was included in the Scuderia’s line-up for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod only to crash during practice.

Formula 1 and sports cars for Ferrari

Gendebien started 1956 by finishing fifth on his Grand Prix debut in Argentina and second in the Buenos Aires 1000Kms. A retiree from the French GP, he finished third in sports car races at the Nürburgring, Targa Florio, Le Mans and the Tour de France Automobile in a successful first full season for Ferrari.

Promise turned to victory in 1957 with the Reims 12 Hours (sharing with Paul Frère) and Tour de France Automobile (with Lucien Bianchi) his first major racing wins. He won those events again in 1958 and added both the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours to an increasingly impressive c.v. that year – the latter the start of a successful partnership with Phil Hill.

However, 1958 ended with injury during the Moroccan GP. Gendebien’s sixth placed Ferrari Dino 246 spun on oil and François Picard hit his car at speed. The Frenchman was seriously injured (although he would recover) and Gendebien suffered broken ribs.

Sports cars switch to Porsche

Despite victory in the Sebring 12 Hours and fourth position in the French GP during 1959, Gendebien decided to move to Porsche for the 1960 World Sportscar Championship. He shared Hans Herrmann’s winning Porsche 718RS in the Sebring 12 Hours and was third on the Targa Florio and second at the Nürburgring.

F1 success and return to Ferrari

That 1960 season was also his best as a GP driver when driving Yeoman Credit’s Cooper T51-Climax in five rounds. Third in Belgium and second in the French GP were his best results and sealed sixth in the world championship. But he returned to Ferrari for that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours when he shared the winning 250TR with compatriot Frère.

Reunited with Phil Hill for the 1961 race, Gendebien repeated that success just a week before his final GP for Ferrari. That was the Belgian GP and he qualified his yellow Dino 156 in a career-best third position before finishing fourth.

But again it was in sports cars that he starred during 1961 by winning at Sebring for the third year in a row and successful in the Targa Florio once again. A third Le Mans victory followed although Gendebien was growing tired of Ferrari politics. He won the Targa Florio, Nürburgring 1000Kms and Le Mans 24 Hours (the latter despite a slipping clutch from the start) during a remarkable 1962 season.

Gendebien had won three-quarters of the world championship endurance races in 1961 and 1962 but promptly quit the sport.