As each F1 weekend passes, it becomes increasingly clear that Ferrari is no longer the racing team it was in the 1940s through the 1960s. While the Prancing Horse will surely get its mojo back at some point, for now we can celebrate the past. This time we’re taking a look at Olivier Gendebien and his 24 Hours of Le Mans career.
Born into a wealthy family in 1924, Olivier Gendebien began studying engineering at Brussels University. However, when the Second World War broke out, he joined the Belgian army and helped British paratroopers land on Belgian soil.
When the war ended, he continued his studies but switched to agriculture. He then spent many years in the Belgian Congo, where he met rally driver Charles Fraikin. Filled with passion, Gendebien started competing in rallies when he returned to Belgium, and together with his co-driver, Pierre Stasse, they scored a fair amount of second-place finishes after winning one rally driving a Mercedes 300 SL.
Before he was known as one of the greatest sports car racers of all time, Olivier Gendebien caught Enzo Ferrari’s attention around 1956. Il Commendatore was impressed by the Belgian’s rally driving skills and offered him a contract to drive a Ferrari in select car events and Grand Prix. In one of the last rallies he competed in, Gendebien and his co-driver piloted a Ferrari 250 GT Europe to an overall third-place finish in the Liege-Rome-Liege stage.
The first Formula 1 race he entered was the 1956 Argentine Grand Prix, driving a Ferrari-Lancia Ferrari 555 (#38). With Enzo’s backing and encouragement, Gendebien qualified 10th and finished 5th, scoring two championship points. Fourteen races, 16 points and 2 podium finishes later, he decided to dedicate the rest of his career to endurance racing.
Olivier Gendebien first entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, where he and Ecurie Belgie drove a Porsche 550 RS Spyder to a fifth overall finish. From 1956 onwards, he clinched an impressive number of wins exclusively in Ferraris. For many years, Gendebien was the most successful driver to ever race at Le Mans, claiming four victories.
Below, an overview of all the 24 Hours of Le Mans Editions he entered with Ferrari.
1956 saw the 24 Hours of Le Mans returning to the French track after the previous year’s terrible accident, which killed 84 bystanders and injured 120. Various safety measures were taken to avoid another disaster, such as a redesign of the pit lane, main straight and Dunlop curve.
Ferrari entered the race with the 625 LM – a car that was put together in quite a hurry, as the race organizer Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) placed a 2.5-L limit on prototype cars. The engine was placed in a 500 TR chassis, resulting in a power output of 225 bhp and top speed of 230 kph. During the race, Gendebien and his second driver Maurice Trintignant did not experience any malfunctions and finished 3rd.
1957 was, without a doubt, the year of the Jaguar D-Type at Le Mans, as the British manufacturer swept the race with a 1-2-3-4 finish. The 3.4-L straight-six engine proved strong enough to blow away the competition. Ferrari’s highest finish was set by Stuart Lewis-Evans and Martino Severi driving a Ferrari 315 S: 5th overall.
While holding strong in third place, Olivier Gendebien and Maurice Trintignant were forced to retire their Ferrari 250 TR in lap 109 because of a defective piston.
Ferrari was committed to achieving great results at the 1958 24 Hours of Le Mans and showed up with 11 cars, nine of which eventually entered. Olivier Gendebien partnered with the American Phil Hill to drive a Ferrari 250 TR/58 powered by a 3.0-L V12 engine. This car was previously used in the 12 Hours of Sebring (DNF) and the Targa Florio, where it finished third overall.
The race itself was subject to relentless rain – 15 hours to be exact. Hill drove during the night and later said: “The volume of rain was amazing, but I discovered that if I sat on the tool roll to prop myself up – no, we didn’t use seatbelts – and then tilted my head back and looked just over the tip of the windshield and under the bottom of my visor, the view wasn’t too bad. To get an idea of the approaching Mulsanne corner at the end of the long straight, I listened to the sound of downshifting gears from cars ahead.”
This method of racing he so casually describes seemed so normal then, yet horrifying to modern ears. Towards the end, the track dried up and Phil Hill crossed the finish line in first place – overall and in his class – marking the third win for Scuderia Ferrari and the first win for Gendebien.
We currently have for sale a beautiful art print of Olivier Gendebien driving the Ferrari 250 TR/58 to victory.
Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill were back the following year and entered with a factory-prepared Ferrari 250 TR/59. Unfortunately, they had to retire in the 20th hour because of overheating. At that point, they had completed 263 laps.
The overheating was first notices in hour three of the race, when the Belgian/American duo had to pit, dropping them to 8th position. Due to issues with competing cars and a solid drive, they were able to lead the race and even extend the gap to two laps. They held their position through the night and increased their lead to three laps. At 11 am the following day, Gendebien pitted again with overheating issues. Both the team and driver did everything they could do – such as cooling down the engine and driving slow laps – but after just two more laps, the engine gave up, resulting in a disappointing DNF.
Even though Gendebien was not able to set an official result, Jean Blaton and Leon Dernier drove a Ferrari 250 GT LWB Tour de France to third place overall.
The 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans edition saw the beginning of Olivier Gendebien’s three-year domination. This time he teamed up with fellow Belgian Paul Frère to drive the Ferrari 250 TR/59/60, a further development of the successful Ferrari 250 TR. Early in the race, the duo took the lead, which they would hold until the race ended. Keeping position through the night, the duo had a five-lap lead by Sunday morning, which was reduced to four as the race finished. This was the second time Olivier Gendebien won the prestige endurance race in the overall and class rankings.
They were never really threatened with failures, proving that this version of the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa was quite reliable.
As mentioned at the outset, the 1960s were part of Scuderia Ferrari’s glory days. The 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans proved this with a 1-2-3 Ferrari finish. Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill came in first driving the Ferrari 250 TRI/61, second place was won by Willy Mairesse and Mike Parkes, also driving a 250 TRI/61, and a privately entered 250 Short Wheelbase finished third.
The new and very fast Ferrari 246 SP also appeared in this race. It was Ferrari’s first mid-engine racecar and had quite a few advancements compared to the front-engine cars, one of which was that it was able to run up to 15 minutes longer before refuelling. In the long run, this proved to be a downside, as the car – driven by Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther – retired in the 17th hour because it ran out of fuel.
The 1961 edition resulted in a fifth win for Ferrari, equalling Bentley and Jaguar in terms of victories.
Designed by Carlo Chiti and finished by Mauro Forghieri, the Ferrari 330 TRI/LM was powered by an enormous 4-L V12 with a power output of 390 bhp. This year, Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien partnered up for a last time, resulting in a fourth 24 Hours of Le Mans win for the Belgian driver. 1962 was also the year Ferrari debuted its now-iconic 250 GTO.
Early in the race, Gendebien overtook competing cars to take the lead, but throughout these early stages and into the night, both drivers pushed the car to its limits to keep position. Once Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez’s Ferrari 246 SP retired due a transmission failure, the Belgian/American duo were able to ease off and allow the car to rest a bit.
Apart from a near-miss in the early morning when a backmarker spun into the middle of the road, Gendebien and Hill piloted their car to a five-lap lead ahead of the Ferrari 250 GTO driven by Pierre Noblet and Jean Guichet. As it would turn out, this 1962 victory would be the last win for a front-engine car.
Although unexpected, Gendebien used this high point to announce his well-deserved retirement from racing. The Belgian driver not only won multiple 24 Hours of Le Mans, but was also victorious in the Tour de France Automobile, Targa Florio and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Written by Max Lammers. Join our email list if you’re interested in receiving the latest on our online magazine and store.