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Olivier Gendebien


Ferrari 246 Dino




1958 Belgian GP


A yellow Ferrari?

Well, we all have heard stories about these special occasions where our beloved red icons became personalised by wearing completely unfamiliar colours. Apart from the French blue 500 driven by Rosier and the American white and dark blue Dino 246 in Phil Hill's hands at Sebring in 1959, there seem to have been quite a couple of occasions where the colour scheme has been altered (see the story of the NART entries). Not all of them are beyond doubt, as we still maintain a certain degree of scepticism over Mike Hawthorn's alleged green 500 in the 1953 Argentine GP.

Whatever the technicalities, it is certain one colour appeared several times on a works Ferrari during Grand Prix meetings in the fifties: Belgian yellow. The most prominent example is that of Belgian sportscar ace Olivier Gendebien, who raced a yellow Ferrari at his 1958 home Grand Prix. Born from a wealthy Belgian family (some sources actually convert his wealth into aristocracy) in Brussels on 12 January 1924, Gendebien was a paratrooper in World War II before spending some four years in forestry in the Congo, where he met a rally driver named Charles Fraikin. Legend goes that Fraikin was lamenting the lack of a co-driver with whom to compete when he would return to Europe. So, after their journey back to Belgium and racing a Veritas in the GP des Frontières at Chimay, finishing sixth, Gendebien joined Fraikin, initially to drive a Jaguar in rally events.

They stayed together until 1955, but by then Gendebien had full well proven himself as a driver in his own right. By the time they split up they had become known as 'the eternal bridesmaids' due to the number of times they had to be content with second place. Twice they just missed winning the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally but in 1955 it was third time lucky with a Mercedes 300SL. Without his partner, Olivier had great success, winning his class with a Plymouth in the Round Italy Rally, the Tulip Rally and the Northern Roads Rally in a Porsche, all in 1954.

His career then gathered pace. Such was the impression made that he was offered a contract to drive a works Ferrari in sportscar events and selected Grands Prix. His first race for the team nearly ended in disaster, when in late 1955 he crashed heavily in practice for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, suffering concussion. He was fit for the start of 1956 and, with virtually no single-seater experience behind him, finished fifth on his Grand Prix debut at the Argentine GP, followed by sixth in the Mendoza GP. The season also saw a splendid run of finishes in sportscar races, including second places at Buenos Aires, in the Supercortemaggiore at Monza and in the Nürburgring 1000kms (with Alfonso de Portago), third at Le Mans (with Trintignant) and the Targa Florio. Having found his way into Jacques Swaters' Ecurie Francorchamps (by then renamed Equipe Nationale Belge), Gendebien managed to cause a stir by the end of 1956 finishing third with a 250GT in both the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally and the Tour de France. It had been a great season, and six more in Ferrari's great sportscar team were to follow.

In April 1957, with his cousin Jacques Washer as a passenger in the ENB 250 GT, Olivier scored a brilliant victory in the Tour of Sicily and then was a stunning third overall in the last Mille Miglia. He subsequently won, with the same car, the Reims 12 Hours (with Paul Frère) and then wrapped up the season with a win in the Tour de France (with Lucien Bianchi). Belgium had a new star, and Olivier was starting to get on a roll. He won again at the Reims 12 Hours in 1958 before starting off on a string of victories at the Targa Florio (with Musso), to be followed by the 1961 edition (with Von Trips) and finally the 1962 one (with Mairesse and Ricardo Rodriguez). Other famous wins included the Sebring 12 Hours editions of 1959 (with Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Chuck Daigh), 1960 (this time in a Porsche, with Hans Herrmann) and 1961 (again with Phil Hill) and the Nürburgring 1000kms in 1962.

His most remarkable achievement was his unbeaten run of four wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962, after the last of which he retired. Three times he shared the glory with Phil Hill, whilst 1960 was the year that Paul Frère co-drove. Gendebien's sportscar success overshadowed an impressive Grand Prix record. Although he managed just 14 starts between 1956 and 1961, he scored points in half of them. For most of that time he was Ferrari's spare driver, filling in in odd races (here trailing Trintignant's Cooper at Monza in 1959), but he scored his best results with BRP's Yeoman Credit Cooper T51 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 season's nine GPs, he earned a creditable sixth place in the World Championship.

In 1961 Gendebien was back with Ferrari for what was his last GP drive at Spa, when he was the fourth man on the team for the Belgian Grand Prix. He was given a 156 "shark-nose" but unlike his team mates, who had the latest 120-degree V6 engines at their disposal, he had to contend with the less powerful 65-deg unit (see the Baghetti story). Again, his car was painted yellow for the race and entered by Ecurie Francorchamps (ENB having recovered its original name by then). He gloriously led in the opening laps, but was overwhelmed by his team mates and finished fourth.

As said, Gendebien retired in 1962, at 38 years of age, after his fourth Le Mans success. A look at a list of former co-drivers (Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso and Wolfgang von Trips) perhaps helps to explain his decision to get out at the top, with his head, body and limbs all intact. Aged 74, he died on 2 October 1998. 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. He drives without hurting the car, taking care of it and one can always count on him to drive with the precision of clock machinery. One has to let him talk, however, when he wins, and that happens quite frequently."

Reader's Why by Don Capps