Losing this rally cost Michele an historic world title. But, she tells John Davenport, there was a far bigger battle to be fought and won
It was the tenth year of the World Rally Championship and only the fourth season in which the drivers had competed for their own title. And it looked as if something amazing was about to happen — the first female rally champion. But there was to be a sad twist to this tale.
With 10 of the 12 drivers’ rounds completed, and with outright wins in Portugal, Acropolis and Brazil to her name, Michele Mouton lay just 19 points behind Walter Röhrl and 30 ahead of her Audi team-mates, Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mildcola. Röhr’ had accumulated his total via eight scores compared with the six of Mouton, and WRC rules allowed only the best seven scores to count. Thus the German was already due to drop his worst score (10 points). Nor did the remaining rounds favour him and his two-wheel-drive Opel Ascona 400: Röhrl had never competed in the Ivory Coast and was known to heartily dislike the RAC Rally, the final round. Although Audi and Mouton herself had never been to the Ivory Coast either, the 100 per cent gravel roads and mud definitely favoured four-wheel drive. Both teams threw themselves, slightly unwillingly, into a West African event that had not previously featured in any of their plans. Röhr’ did not even practice; instead he sent his co-driver, Christian Geistdorfer, to do it for him.
Both teams entered chase cars: Audi’s was crewed by Mikkola and team manager/technician, Roland Gumpert, with Stig Blomqvist in another rally car; Opel ran an extra car, too, for Swedes Bjtim Johansson and Bruno Berglund.
“For Audi, the problems really started in the second of the four legs,” says Mouton. “First, Hannu had trouble. He broke the rear differential and tried to go in just front-wheel drive, but then the other differential broke. He and Roland had to be rescued from near the border with Guinea. I, too, had an oil leak in the rear differential, but I had it changed. Walter had lost a lot of time with his rear suspension so that, when we came to the end of that leg, I was leading him by 59 minutes.
“But I was uneasy. My gearbox was not correct. It was stiff and hard to engage, which normally meant trouble. I was so pleased to see Hannu and I asked him what we should do. He said I must have it changed and he and Roland decided it would be changed at the end of the next leg.”
This third leg was a real horror through the infamous Forest of Tai. Nearly all the cars suffered problems: Rtihrl’s starter would not work and his engine had an unhappy knack of cutting out under braking; Michele broke a driveshaft, but was able to have it changed and lost none of her lead. But the scheduled gearbox swap was not so wonderful.
“We changed the gearbox quite quickly, maybe 20 minutes or so. Then I jumped into the car to find that there was no gears, no clutch, nothing. I can still see those two German guys peering under the bonnet saying, ‘It should work, it should work.’ So I shouted, ‘Yes it should, but it doesn’t!’ Eventually they fixed it, but we lost nearly all my lead.”
By the time Michele checked in at the end of the leg, even taking into account Röhrl’s own problems, her lead was down to 18 minutes. And that included eight minutes of a disputed penalty given to the Opel for allegedly checking in early at a control. Ten minutes in an African rally of the severity of the Ivory Coast is a blink of the eye. Already, Michele’s total penalties came to just under seven hours — and she was leading! The sixth-placed Peugeot 505 was on 17 hours of penalty.
The start of the final leg was dramatic. It was four o’clock in the morning and a swirling fog wrapped everything in its chilly embrace. And its clammy fingers had penetrated the Audi’s electronics.
“The car would not start. There was water in the electronic box. We had to push it and, of course, we lost more time. Now we knew we had to hurry not to lose more time, but there was all the fog. There was a sort of parking place and I thought this was an open space where we had to turn. It wasn’t! We rolled the car. It was possible to continue but not everything was working correctly. We stopped later with the Audi service, but there was nothing to do and we had to stop. It was the end.
“But this Ivory Coast Rally was not so important for me. You see, maybe an hour or so before the start, when I was doing an interview with a TV crew, I took a telephone call from France. My father had just died. I wanted to go home immediately and leave the rally, but my mother told me I should do the rally for him. So I said nothing and just drove. But when all this pressure started with the gearbox and the penalties, all the rest for me was gone.
“I tried my best from the beginning, and while it was going well, everything was okay. Afterwards, I was sad to lose the rally and the title, but not so sad as to lose my father. He was everything to me and he was how! came to be in rallying. The championship did not seem so important any more.”