OCTOBER 5, 1998

Olivier Gendebien

OLIVIER GENDEBIEN, who died on Friday at the age of 74 at his home in Baux de Provence, led a life which if written in a novel would barely be believed. Brought up in Brussels in a wealthy family, Gendebien was a passionate and very successful horseman. When the war came he fought with distinction with the Belgian resistance. Trained as an agricultural engineer he then spent four years in the Belgian Congo, clearing jungles to make way for development and it was there in the early 1950s that he met Charles Fraikin, who was looking for a co-driver in European rally events.

When he returned to Europe the 30-year-old Gendebien began competing, initially in a Veritas at the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay, where he finished sixth and then as co-driver to Fraikin in a Jaguar. The partnership continued until 1954 when Gendebien decided to turn his hand to driving. He soon began to win and his first major success was the Liege-Rome-Liege race in 1955. That same year, driving a privately-entered Mercedes 300SL on the Mille Miglia he caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari and was asked to drive for the Ferrari sportscar team. His debut was not a great success. He crashed heavily in practice for the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod and suffered a nasty concussion and a wrist injury.

Despite his lack of experience in open-wheel racing Ferrari sent him off to Argentina to make his Grand Prix debut in January 1956 and he finished fifth (and last). Ferrari then decided that he should concentrate on sportscar racing and that year he scored a number of good placings. His first major win for Ferrari came the following season at the Reims 12 Hours. Between 1956 and 1962 he won a remarkable series of sportscar races including four Le Mans 24 Hours (1958-60-61-62), three Sebring 12 Hours (1959-60-61), three Targa Florios (1958-61-62) and three Tours de France (1957-58-59).

His Grand Prix outings with Ferrari were largely a reward for his sportscar successes and he raced twice in 1956, three-times in 1958 and twice in 1959. He finished in the top six in four of the seven races. His F1 career was more successful in 1960 when he drove a Cooper for the Yeoman Credit Racing Team, finishing second at the French GP and third in Belgium. That year he placed sixth in the World Championship.

He went on racing until 1965 and then retired. After his wife died he moved to the United States where he became involved in the cattle business.

Earlier this year he was awarded the Order of the Crown by Belgium's King Albert II for his services to Belgian motor racing.