First lady of rallying
There is no doubt that Michèle Mouton has had as much impact on international rallying as the car she drives. Some would suggest her involvement is even more meaningful. Certainly there hasn’t been a woman as capable as Michèle of taking on, and beating, the men at their own game since Pat Moss. And even the legendary Mrs. Carlsson never managed to win as many premier events as has the French lady during her ten years in the sport.
The name of Mouton has become synonymous with the Audi Quattro, the car in which she sprang to world fame during 1981 when she signed for the Ingolstadt team. Two years later she has to date won four World Championship rallies (1981 Sanremo, 1982 Portuguese, Acropolis and Brazil rallies), and came within 12 points of becoming rallying’s first female World Champion.
She was finally beaten in last year’s series by Walter Röhrl, the then Opel driver who half-way through the season became involved in a press-inspired war of words with Mouton. Now the 31 year old from Grasse tries to play down her differences with Röhrl, but she still cannot hide the fact that her outlook is completely different.
Michèle explains that she has a cordial relationship with Walter, but adds that she finds it difficult to build up a rapport. She cannot accept a philosophy of going for championship points rather than outright victories, a ploy which Röhrl adopted last year. His reasoning was that in 1980 he had proved his speed by winning the championship for Fiat, two years later he could show the world what a master tactician he was by going for consistent results. The fact that he took the World Championship for the second time, the first driver to have done so, is ample proof that he was correct.
For Mouton such tactics are an anathema. She drives rallies as individual events. Winning a championship is purely coincidental. “I still feel it is like the first time I drive a car,” she says. “I drive from the heart. I feel like this. I cannot calculate. OK, maybe I would have to for professional reasons. If Audi told me I would do it, but if they didn’t I will drive like this.”
Her “love affair” with cars (it is difficult to describe her relationship in any other way) began when she was 14. It was then that she first felt the urge to drive, secretly borrowing her father’s car and taking it for jaunts along private, gravel roads. “It was only the pleasure to drive — to live with the car. I never, never, never, never thought about competition.”
Considering that her home was virtually on the route of the Monte Carlo Rally, her admission is something of a surprise, particularly when she adds that she never once went to see this classic event. She says she didn’t even know the sport existed!
By the time she was 18, Michèle was working in Grenoble (she started studying law before working in a home for the disabled and subsequently joining her father’s insurance agency), and in her Renault 4 would constantly try to carve time off the journey between work and home. “This time I need only four hours, the next it must be ten minutes less,” she recalls.
It wasn’t until she was 22 years old that she first stumbled across rallying. A boy friend had a Renault Gordini which he used to rally. Eventually he invited her to Corsica to see an event, she went and the flame was lit. Next thing she was competing in the Monte as a co-driver, subsequently taking part in a few French rallies in a Peugeot 304. She was still co-driving, but thought her driver’s efforts “nothing special”, and then on her fourth rally her father turned up and noticed that the rally car had virtually bald rear tyres. He was appalled, telling his daughter that either they could have the money to buy four new tyres, or he would try and help Michèle to start driving herself.
Not surprisingly Michèle chose the latter. They bought a Renault Alpine A110 under her father’s proviso that his support would last a year. If she showed promise she would carry on. If not she would stop.
Undoubtedly her father was a guiding light in her career, but contrary to popular belief he was not a rally enthusiast. Like his daughter he just loved cars and driving.
“He was 18, and was the only one to have a sports car in Grasse. I don’t remember the name of the car… it was like a circuit car with a big wheel… but it was difficult for him as it was the war, and afterwards he had two daughters. I am sure it was one of his dreams.”
Days before the start of last year’s Ivory Coast Rally he died suddenly. It was a severe blow to Michèle, but she nevertheless did the event, leading until she crashed in fog during the final leg. Her retirement brought an end to her championship hopes.
Despite her father’s initial stipulation, there seemed little doubt that Michèle would be rallying for some time. Come the 1975 season she was constantly winning the Group 3 category in French events. Success nevertheless brought its problems, allegations of an illegal car following her victories. It finally came to a head on the World Championship Corsica Rally in 1975. Again she won her class, and this time the engine on her Renault Alpine was stripped.
“They said it was correct. So this time I said now you have nothing to say against me. Afterwards it was much better, but until then it was not good.” She pauses and adds with an impish grin: “Normally men have to have an excuse, so they say I must have more horsepower than them!”
By 1976 she had turned “half professional” driving a Group 4 Alpine A310 with Elf backing. The following year she drove an Almeras Brothers Porsche 911 (she won her first international rally that season in Spain), and in 1978 joined Fiat France in a two car team driving a 131 Abarth alongside Jean-Claude Andruet. Already she was making the Coupe des Dames award on the Monte her own property, and had made her mark on the international scene by being runner-up in the European Rally Championship.
Of the three cars she drove in those formative years, the Porsche was her favourite. The Fiat suffered from mechanical problems, and she found herself not liking the rather highly-strung handling of the Italian car: “With the Fiat you have to drive hard, not sort of loose. The Porsche was a great pleasure. It was really like myself. It was fantastic… I would like to drive again one day this kind of car. A good memory.”
Not liking change, and preferring to work amongst friends, she settled down to a three year period with Fiat France. By the end of 1980 she was getting a yearning to compete in more rallies outside her native country, but was happy to entertain thoughts of a fourth year with the team. Then out of the blue came the offer from Audi to drive the Quattro alongside Hannu Mikkola in World Championship events.
Surprisingly, perhaps, she says it was a difficult time, the choice between driving for friends and taking up with a full manufacturer’s team not coming easily. “I can do everything when I have friends. Then it was to decide professional or friends. It was very, very difficult for me. Of course, now I have no regrets, not at all. If I wanted to progress it was the only chance. If I forgot this one it would be finished,” she explains.
She literally burst onto the World Championship scene, a breath of fresh air, and whilst finding her feet managed to become the first woman to win a World Championship Rally (Sanremo), and come fourth in Portugal.
It was however not that historic Sanremo victory which for her was her best performance. That came on a rally in which she rolled out of contention whilst just in the top five placings — last year’s 1000 Lakes. Michèle explains: “The time in Finland was good last year. I know my car was not the best one, and I had different tyres, but I was very near to Hannu and Stig (Blomqvist). For me I can only dream to be near them. Especially there. I was very happy because after one year I was not thinking I can do this.”
There is no doubt that she has a lot of respect for both Mikkola and Blomqvist, particularly the former. This respect is mutual, and Mikkola treats his female team-mate as his equal. Both are at their best within a happy team, thriving in an atmosphere which lacks rancour. However, Michèle does have the occasional outburst, particularly when she feels things aren’t going as well as they might.
“People say I am nervous but it’s not true. If I’m not happy with someone then they know immediately. It is my character. I think for the Audi mechanics it was maybe a long time to understand me. They were thinking I was always shouting,” she explains, conscious that this is a criticism which has been levelled at her in the European press.
Mikkola is amazed at she way she has adapted her driving style to suit the Quattro, left-foot braking a mystery to her until the 1981 Monte when Hannu pointed out that such a technique made the four-wheel drive, turbocharged car much easier to control. Now she has mastered the art completely, confiding that as a matter of course she now even left-foot brakes when behind the wheel of more conventional cars on the road.
Her detractors say that the Quattro flatters her talents, but she counters this by pointing out that her times are usually the same as those of Mikkola or Blomqvist. Those who will not accept her for what she is, and for her talents, are now dismissed as being simply “jealous”. She has a point, and you don’t need to convince Mikkola of her speed and tenacity.
When she finished second to him on last year’s RAC Rally, Hannu quipped that he thought he’d better get in his record fourth win because next year it wasn’t going to be no easy with Michèle around. Everyone laughed. but Mikkola later said he wasn’t joking. Mouton at only her third attempt at the RAC would be a major threat to his supremacy, he said. You can’t pay Rallying’s First Lady a greater compliment than that. MRG