The first woman to win a world championship rally, Audi’s Michelle Mouton caught the publics imagination. Liz Turner talks to her.
Living legends were thick on the ground at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed and the paddock was full of cars powerful enough to shatter the eardrums of anyone who got too close. The fastest cars to tear up the narrow, twisting hill were Jonathan Palmer’s F1 Williams FWO7B and Mark Surer’s F2 March BMW, but the third fastest car of the whole weekend was an Audi — an ex-works rally Quattro driven by Michele Mouton.
The devil with the face of an angel, the gentle savage, the woman with more tabloid nicknames than a British snooker player, gave the eager Festival crowd a glimpse of a golden age of rallying in the early 1980s.
In 1981 Audi Sport burst into the unsuspecting two-wheel-drive world with new technology, a new team and a beautiful, talented female driver. At Sanremo that year Michele became the first woman to win a World Championship rally and, with that, became a superstar. Crowds pushed forward to touch her and her co-driver Fabrizia Pons even on the start line.
These days she lives back in the town where she was born, Grasse in southern France, with her partner Frederik Jonsson and 10-year-old daughter Jessie. “Goodwood was fantastic,” she says. “Not just driving; seeing all the cars and the other drivers. I’m looking forward to it this year.”
With Frederik, she is already using her tremendous energy to organise the 10th annual Race of Champions, a knock-out series of sprints for the world’s top drivers, to be held in Gran Canaria in December. “It will be special this year,” she promises. “Every year we want it to be better.”
This could be a mantra for her entire life, always to work, improve and be the best. It didn’t have to be in rallying.
“I was never interested in rallying. I could drive at 14, I taught myself, but to me driving meant independence and freedom. But my character is always competitive. I went skiing and wanted to be best; I played tennis, and I wanted to be best.”
At 22 she was asked to co-drive by a friend in some amateur rallies. “My father loved cars, he wasn’t involved in motorsport, but he watched us do a stage on rather worn tyres. Afterwards he said if I was going to continue, it would be in a good car and with me sitting on the right side – meaning the left, of course – for you in England it really would he the right side.” She laughs. “I thought why not? That doesn’t look so difficult. He said he would buy me a car and pay my expenses for one year and by the end of the year, if I was any good I should have a result. That inspired me, I thought, I’ll show you I am good.”
The car was a Renault Alpine A110. It was 1973 and the next year Michele drove off with a trophy from the French Ladies’ Rally Championship. Her first big win was at the RACE Rally of Spain in a rented Porsche 911, and she won the prestigious Tour de France in 1978 at the wheel of a Fiat Abarth 131.
She continues: “In 1980, Audi ‘phoned me. They said they had a new car. This was my chance I didn’t even know it was 4WD. They took a real risk as they had a world-famous driver (Hannu Mikkola) and an unknown French woman.”
It was a risk well taken. In 1981 at Sanremo the Porsches, Lancia Martinis and Opels were blown into the dust. An Vatanen was fighting for a win to take the Drivers’ World Championship in his Rothmans Escort, and a tense battle developed with Mouton, but in his desperation Vatanen overcooked it on the last stage and hit a rock. Michele kept her cool, and she and Fabrizia Pons became the first women to sit on top of their rally car spraying champagne.
She says: “After a while you realise that if you can win once, you can win twice and you’re fighting all the time.”
Suddenly it was Quattro-mania. Enormous crowds swarmed to the sport. They huddled round the cars and pushed to get close to the drivers Mikkola, Blomqvist and Mouton.
Mouton recalls: “I remember this guy reached through the window to touch me as we were counting down to go. It disturbed me a bit, but in rallying people are part of the game.”
It’s easy to forget, looking back at the record of the all-powerful Audis that they were not perfect machines carving through the opposition. Rallying is a punishing sport at the best of times, but in 1981 four-wheel-drive was a new concept, the team was new and the cars suffered the inevitable teething troubles. Driveshafts frequently broke, and on several occasions Mouton had to complete critical stages in two-wheel drive. On the Corsican Rally her seat simply parted company with its mountings.
She always drove with determination and a hunger for victory. “When you are doing something like that, you don’t think. I wanted to win. Sometimes at the end of a stage you realise that you could have hit that tree, or that corner could have been your last, hut it’s always before or after.”
As 1982 progressed Audi looked certain to snatch the manufacturers’ championship and Mouton was closing on Drivers’ Championship leader Walter Rohrl, driving for Opel.
The duel was decided on the Ivory Coast Rally, a gruelling event which took rallying back to its roots of simply getting from A to B. At one point Mouton lead Rohrl by more than an hour, but she says: “I could hear a noise in the gearbox and to be safe we decided it should be changed.”
This should have taken 17 minutes, and after 25 minutes the new ‘box was in, but she had no gears. “They lost all my time,” she declares, the hurt still in her voice. The next morning the car wouldn’t start and had to be pushed out of parc ferme to the mechanics. Assistance to get it out cost a further 10 penalty minutes. She began the day 20 minutes behind, driving into thick fog. Far worse, an hour before she was due to start, Michele heard that her beloved father had died. “My mother said ‘You have to do it for him’.” He meant everything to me. I didn’t care about winning the Championship, I wanted to win for my father.’ But it was not to be.
“I attacked it a bit too much, it was foggy and! made a mistake on the corner and rolled the car.”
Rohrl took the laurels and the 1982 Championship. The next year Michele’s car was plagued by mechanical problems and engine fires. Of the most serious Mikkola was heard to suggest she drive the car into a nearby lake to extinguish the flames.
Much has been made in the press about personal animosity between Mouton and Rohrl, who later joined the Audi team after he made a remark in 1982 that a trained monkey could win rallies in an Audi Quattro, and his perhaps tactless comment that he hadn’t even been driving fast to win the Ivory Coast Rally.
Mouton dismisses the rivalry story as a juicy nugget made up by the press: “When he said it wasn’t difficult to drive the Quattro, he didn’t say it for me, he was never trying to attack anyone he is a nice person. I have great respect for him because he is a great driver, and he will be at the Race of Champions this year.”
What of her co-driver?: “Fabrizia and I were great friends. She was so professional, someone you could rely on. She played a big, big part in this.” In 1984 and 1985 Michele tackled the infamous Pike’s Peak Hillclimb in Colorado. In 1985, driving an Audi Sport Quattro, she not only won, but smashed Bobby Unser’s record. She remembers this as her most terrifying drive. She says: “They call it the Race in the Clouds because that’s all you can see. It’s very high, very flat and very fast. On one corner I thought it was my last, I thought I was off; but I caught it and went on to win.”
The death of her friend Henri Toivonen in the Lancia Delta S4 confirmed what she had been thinking for a while. It was time to stop, live life and have a family: “It is hard to stop. When you are doing well there are many opportunities, but I’d always told myself ‘don’t forget to stop”‘.
Jessie is now 10 and can already drive. Michele says: “She has my character, it’s just a matter of finding a direction, though she prefers music and dancing to cars. You must recognise the potential of your children and my father did. He knew I had a fighting character, he knew me very well.
“Some people drive because they want to be famous, some just because they love it, and some want to prove something to themselves. I never cared what anyone else thought. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Fabrtzia Pons is back co-driving again, and has just won the Monte Carlo Rally