On 2nd October 1998, Olivier Gendebien died at Les Baux de Provence in France. Born in Brussels on 12th January 1924, the Belgian was one of the most talented drivers of his time.
Olivier Gendebien was a paratrooper during the war and got his racing start in rallying. Ferrari signed him in 1956, and he became a star in sportscars. In his 7-year career, he won nearly every major endurance event, including the 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans. He also took part in the occasional Grand Prix, usually as a replacement driver. His final start came at the 1961 Belgian GP. Ferrari prepped a fourth 156 Sharknose for the home favorite. Unlike his teammates, Gendebien’s car was finished in bright yellow – the national racing color of Belgium. Gendebien starred, leading the opening laps. Eventually, he was passed by his 3 teammates and finished a respectable fourth. He was renown for his silky smooth driving style. He never crashed and knew how to nurse a car to the finish. While it was what led him to sportscar immortality, it did not translate as well to sprint-style F1. Gendebien retired at age 38 after Le Mans in 1962, under pressure from his wife to give up the sport that killed so many of their colleagues.
A yellow Ferrari was not a totally uncommon sight in Formula 1’s early years. Ferrari prepared yellow cars for Belgian drivers in their home race. The 1961 race was the instance, and the last time a factory-entered Ferrari wore anything but red. Sadly, all of the painfully gorgeous 156s were scrapped in the mid-1960’s. About 2 decades ago, Jan Biekens began a 12-year project to build an exact replica of the 156 using as many original parts as possible. It was finished in the exact specifications as Gendebien’s Belgian car, and is a regular at vintage events around Europe.
His talents were recognised by Enzo Ferrari in the book “Piloti, che gente,” even if the Founder did not hold back from having a pop at the Belgian’s ego: “Olivier Gendebien was able to transform the nobility of his background which could be felt in his life into elegant and shrewd impetuousness when in a car. On track, he raced and won, also in Formula 1, but his talent really came out in Sports cars in endurance races. His consistent pace allied to a fast racer, for example Phil Hill, proved for many years to be the key to success. Gendebien drove cleanly, doing a good job of looking after the car entrusted to him and he could be counted on to lap consistently and to drive with consistency, character and intelligence. However, you needed to be patient and let him speak when he won, which he would do at length. And patience was also needed when I read his memoirs, in which he was stingy in his acknowledgements unless they referred to himself.”