Olivier Gendebien, the Red Baron



Olivier Gendebien was born on January 12, 1924 in Brussels. Born into a wealthy family, Oliver devotes himself to engineering school when World War II begins. The Belgian immediately took sides in favor of the resistance, first collaborating with British agents and later enlisted as a paratrooper in England. At the end of the Second World War, Olivier meets Charles Fraikin, a rally driver in the Belgian Congo.


A few years pass and the two strengthen their friendship, and over time Charles infuses Olivier with the spirit of racing, stimulating him and leading him to participate in a touring race at the Nurburgring in 1952, on a Veritas RS. Subsequently, the Belgian driver made his debut, as co-driver, at the Liege-Rome rally in 1952, aboard with Fraikin in a Jaguar XK 120.


Then, in 1953 he took part in the Mille Miglia with his friend Charles Fraikin and made his debut in a Ferrari 166 MM at the Coupe de Spa, winning on his debut. Taken by enthusiasm, Olivier decides to compete also in the glorious 24 Hours of Spa, the 1000 Km of the Nurburgring and the Tour de France, aboard a Panhard Dyna in the first two races and on a Jaguar XK 120 in the third, but failing to replicate the success achieved previously with Ferrari.


But Gendebien did not give up, and in 1954 he took a class victory at the Giro d'Italia, also participating in the Mille Miglia, the Tour de France, the Grand Prix of Spa and the 12 Hours of Reims, obtaining a third place in the latter. as the only prestigious result.


In 1955 Olivier returned to the wheel of Ferraris and participated in the 10 Hours of Messina and the Tourist Trophy: in the first race the Belgian driver was forced to retire, while on English soil he did not take part in the race, due to an accident in which he remained involved during free practice which causes him a concussion.


However, despite the two retirements, 1955 is a year to be framed for Olivier Gendebien, as he wins the Gold Cup of the Dolomites with a Mercedes 300 SL and finishes second in the Mille Miglia and - in class - at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.


In the same year, the Belgian driver was entered for his first Formula 1 Grand Prix by the Equipe Nationale Belge with a Ferrari 325, but did not participate in the event. The debut was however only postponed, given that the extraordinary results obtained the previous year earned Olivier the call of Scuderia Ferrari for the Argentine Formula 1 Grand Prix, in the 1956 edition. On board the Ferrari 555, the Belgian driver, after having qualified tenth, he obtained a great fifth place at his world debut, while in the Mendonza Grand Prix, not valid for the world championship, he repeats the good South American performance with a sixth-place finish.


In the 1956 vintage, the commitment with Ferrari was obviously also extended to sports races, and the Belgian won a second place at the 1000 Km of Buenos Aires aboard the 857 S, two second places with the Monza 860 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. and in the Coppa d'Oro delle Dolomiti, a third place aboard the 290 MM at the 1000 Km of the Nurburgring, a third place at the Tour de France on the 250 GT, and a third place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans aboard the 625 LM.


In 1957 he does not participate in any Formula 1 races, intensifying his participation in Sport races. Olivier is the protagonist of his best season ever: he wins five races, including the Giro di Sicilia, the Gran Premio Nuvolari, the 12 Hours of Reims, the Coupes du Salon and the Tour de France, all aboard the Ferrari 250 GT, while at the Mille Miglia he obtained a third place, and at the Nurburgring and RACB Grand Prix in Spa he obtained two third places aboard the 335 Sport.


The only blemish of an extraordinary year is the result obtained during the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans, as he is forced to retire as in 1954. In 1958 the Belgian returned to the wheel of a Formula 1, even though his career has now taken off mainly in endurance races. In the world championship, Olivier participates in only three events, obtaining a good sixth place on the demanding Spa-Franchorchamps circuit and two retirements at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza and the Moroccan Grand Prix.


In sports racing, however, Olivier continues to obtain those satisfactions that Formula One continues to deny him: the Belgian driver wins the three hours of Pau, the Tour de France and the twelve hours of Reims aboard the Ferrari 250 GT, while with Ferrari 250 TR obtained two second places in Buenos Aires and Sebring, a third place at the Nurburgring, and two victories at the Targa Florio and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.



In 1959 Olivier Gendebien also returned to the points in Formula One, after he obtained a sixth place in Monza and a fourth place in the French Grand Prix, aboard the Dino 246. In sports races, the Belgian driver gets a second place in the Ferrari 250 TR at the Nurburgring, a third place in the Tourist Trophy and a victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring, while in the Ferrari 250 GT he wins the Prix de Paris and the Tour de France: only the Sarthe circuit denies him the possibility of defending the victory he won the previous year.


1960 is however a very special year, given that the separation between the Belgian driver and Ferrari takes place, with whom he only races in the Formula One Grand Prix in Argentina, culminating in a retirement, and only three races in the sports world. winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the 250 TR and the success at the 1000 Km of Paris with the 250 GT. With the Ferrari 250 TR he also participates in the Tour de France, obtaining a final fourteenth place.


During the same year, Olivier Gendebien also got some satisfaction in Formula One, conquering third and second places in Belgium and France, aboard the Climax-powered Cooper T51. In 1961, a slight flashback between Olivier and Ferrari took place, given that the Belgian driver participated in almost all the tests of the sports world championship, winning success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring with the Ferrari 250 TRI, and triumphing in the Targa Florio with the Dino 246 SP. Third place at the Nurbrugring 1000 Km with the Dino 246 SP and second place at the Tour de France with the Ferrari 250 GT are the backdrop.


In the same year, Gendebien also participated in the Formula One Grand Prix in Belgium for advertising purposes, closing the race in fourth position after starting from third place on the starting grid, despite the contrary opinion of the mechanics and Enzo Ferrari, who was convinced on the occasion by Franco Gozzi: this will be one of the few and rare occasions in which a car from the Maranello house will be seen in a different color from the classic red, given that in this circumstance the Belgian driver's car is painted yellow.


At the end of the Grand Prix, the four entered Ferraris cross the finish line first. But since Olivier Gendebien comes last in the quartet, forty-five seconds behind the winner, Enzo Ferrari will decide not to let him run with open-wheel cars anymore.


But 1962 is the year of retirement for Olivier, who decides to heed his wife's advice and hangs up his helmet, after having obtained a second place in the 12 Hours of Sebring, aboard the Ferrari 250 GTO, and two victories. at the 1000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring and at the Targa Florio, with the Ferrari 246 SP.


Olivier achieved the last victory of his career on the La Sarthe circuit in a Ferrari 330 TRI/LM. The Belgian baron, nicknamed the squirrel of the Ardennes, for his qualities as a jumper in the cars during the starts at Le Mans, is considered one of the best drivers in sports-prototype races of all time.


Olivier Gendebien passed away in the South of France on October 2, 1998, the year in which he was awarded the honor of the Order of the Crown by King Albert II.


Andrea Rasponi

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