January 12, 1924 - October 2, 1998
Born in Brussels, Belgium.
During his career he competed in only 15 Formula One races as most of the time he was Ferrari's spare driver, filling in only occasionally. He nonetheless scored points in five races, and was only one place away from a points-scoring finish on a further two occasions.
However, it was in sports car racing, particularly the long distance and endurance events, where Gendebien excelled. He was often called "one of the greatest sportscar racers of all time", winning the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans 4-times.
He entered a Veritas sports car in the 1955 Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay. However, following this race he switched his focus, and teamed up with Charles Fraikin to compete in rally racing using a Jaguar sports car. Together with Pierre Stasse, Gendebien won the sixth running of the Tulip Rally in Zandvoort in April 1954. Their car was an Alfa Romeo 1900 TI. The Gendebien and Fraiken partnership gained the nickname "the eternal bridesmaids", owing to their number of second-place finishes, but after two previous attempts they triumphed in the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, the Coppa d'Oro delle Dolomiti and Rally Stella Alpina in 1955, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Gendebien's success in rally competitions brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who offered him a contract to drive a Ferrari in sports car events and selected Grands Prix. Much respected as a true gentleman by everyone who knew him, he remained a member of the Ferrari team until he retired from racing. Enzo Ferrari summed him up 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."
In 1958 he partnered Hill and won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. Their victory came in a 3-litre Ferrari and secured the World Sportscar Championship for the Ferrari factory. They covered 2,511 miles with an average speed of 107 miles per hour. Hill became the first American to win the event and their Ferrari was the sole factory-sponsored car running at the end. Ferrari drivers took the first three positions at the conclusion of the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans and, as they were to be again the following year, Hill and Gendebien were first, averaging 115.89 miles per hour, and establishing a race record. The duo were a natural fit and together they won the Le Mans race three times in total, with Gendebien winning it a fourth time, partnered by fellow Belgian Paul Frère in 1960. Gendebien's record number of Le Mans victories was not exceeded until 1981, when fellow-Belgian Jacky Ickx won for the fifth time.
He also won the Dolomites Cup, a one-lap sportscar race that took place on a 188 mile circuit in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy, the Tour of Sicily in 1957, the Tour de France Automobile in 1957, 1958, 1959, the Reims 12 Hours in 1957, 1958, the Targa Florio in 1958, 1961, 1962, the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959, 1960, 1961 and the 1000km at the Nürburgring in 1962.
Married with three children, Gendebien’s wife pressured him to get out of the dangerous sport of automobile racing where more than two dozen of his competitors had died at the wheel. At 38 years of age, in 1962 Olivier Gendebien retired following his fourth victory at Le Mans. Independently wealthy, and an avid skier, tennis player, and equestrian rider, he devoted the rest of his life to running a variety of businesses. In 1998 King Albert II awarded him the Belgian Order of the Crown.
Olivier Gendebien died in 1998 at his home in Les Baux-de-Provence in southern France. He was 74 years old.