Five Belgian Endurance Heroes
Belgium has produced some amazing endurance racing talent over the years.....
For a relatively small geographic country, Belgium has excelled in sports generally over the years with the likes of Eddie Merckx, Justin Henin, Kim Clijsters, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne gracing the world stage and excelling in their fields of cycling, tennis and football respectively.
Motorsport has also seen some sensational drivers and personalities also enjoy success, particularly in endurance racing.
Here we take a look at five of the most decorated and revered in sportscar racing and select some memories of their greatest achievements on the World and European stages.
Jacky Ickx, 1945-
The undisputed Belgian racing legend is still a familiar face in racing, visiting the last WEC event at Sebring and turning heads in admiration wherever he went.
Jacques Bertrand Ickx is one of the most decorated endurance drivers of all time and his achievement of six Le Mans victories is just one part of his remarkable racing record.
He won the big race for Porsche four times, once so memorably for Ford in 1969 and in 1975 he won in a Gulf Mirage with his natural endurance partner, Derek Bell.
But it was the 1977 Le Mans 24 Hours that was Ickx’s day of days when he cut through the field after his own car failed and he had been forced to move into Porsche 936 entered for Jurgen Barth and Hurley Haywood. Ickx’s mesmeric display wowed the fans and media alike throughout the 24 Hours.
From eight laps down, Ickx put in a remarkable initial three hour long stint, breaking the lap record and somehow bringing the car to sixth position by the end of it!
He consolidated the magic throughout the race and re-defined what was possible in a sportscar at Le Mans to spearhead a magical win.
If that were not enough, Ickx also scored eight Grand Prix wins in an F1 career that stretched from 1966 to 1979 and he took countless other endurance wins, F2 victories and even a Paris-Dakar win in 1983.
His skill hinged on phenomenal natural speed allied to his potent power and desire to win.
Ickx had a sublime skill in wet and changeable conditions that set him apart as one of the most gifted drivers that has ever lived.
Thierry Boutsen, 1957-
The quiet and studious nature of Thierry Boutsen out of the cockpit contrasted to the brilliance in it, as he carved both a sportscar and F1 career out of the 1980s and 1990s.
His endurance story started in 1981 but it didn’t start well. That was when he suffered an enormous accident on the Mulsanne Straight in a WM-Peugeot P81 and lucky to not be seriously injured.
Two years later he was back at La Sarthe in a Rondeau with Henri Pescarolo but again failed to finish.
Despite scoring several top results in the Group C era, it wasn’t until his F1 career ended in 1993 that he tasted real success at Le Mans.
He was category runner-up three times between 1993 and 1995 with Peugeot, Dauer-Porsche and Joest-Porsche, before winning the GT1 class in 1996 with the controversial factory Porsche 911 GT1.
Sadly, his Le Mans story ended how it started with a major accident in 1999 when his Toyota went off just before the first chicane. The back injuries he suffered spelt the end of his professional career but helped to begin another as a successful private plane businessman.
Olivier Gendebien 1924-1998
Gendebien was a successful rally driver before he hit the tracks in the early 1950’s where he soon carved a reputation for a quick and reliable racer.
In 1956 he signed his first factory deal with Enzo Ferrari and was soon tasting success, including a fine drive, with teammate Maurice Trintignant, to third in only his second appearance at Le Mans.
But Ferrari’s faith in Gendebien’s abilities paid off handsomely between 1958 and 1961 when he took an exceptional run of four Le Mans wins. Three of these were with Phil Hill in 1958, 1961 and 1962.
His success in 1960 came in the all-Belgian victory with compatriot Paul Frere, in what was arguably one of Belgium sports greatest days as they headed the field in the sleek Ferrari 250.
Gendebien also took three overall Sebring wins and a trio of successes in one of endurances toughest competitions, the Targa Florio.
Just before he died in 1998 Gendebien was awarded the special Belgian honour – The Order of the Crown.
Paul Frere 1917-2008
Frere was a much loved racer and journalist for six decades in a fascinating career which saw him become one of only five Belgians to conquer Le Mans (Ickx, Gendebien, Bianchi and Gachot the others).
A true sportsman, he was a national rowing champion before he took up racing.
Frere was most successful in sportscar racing in the 1950s where he won Le Mans with Gendebien in 1960. However, prior to that he had already won his class three times in 1953, 1955 and 1958 for Porsche and Aston Martin.
He became a respected journalist after his racing career and was the European editor of Road and Track magazine for many years.
Frere remains the oldest person to drive a contemporary sportscar when he tested an Audi R8 during the break of the official test day at Le Mans in 2003 aged 86.
Eric Van de Poele
Van de Poele was destined to be a racing driver after being born and raised in Liege close to the Circuit Spa-Francorchamps.
A successful junior single-seater career landed him a Formula One seat in 1991 and he had drives both as a racer and tester up until the end of the 1993 season.
But perhaps being abnormally tall for a racing driver meant Van de Poele would eventually drift away from single-seaters and that is what happened in the mid-1990s as he forged an excellent career in both endurance and Touring Cars.
His peaks were significant, including three class wins at Le Mans with Doyle-Risi and Bentley from 1998 to 2002.
But his biggest successes came at his home track of Spa where he claimed four Spa 24 Hours wins, the first being in 1987 with a BMW M3 and the final one being in 2008 with a Maserati MC12.
Van de Poele also won the Sebring 12 Hours twice and the Petit Le Mans race at Road Atlanta.
Photos: Jakob Ebrey, Audi Media, Le Mans Archive