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  • Peter MacKay

Michèle Mouton - The First Lady of Rallying

A warbling, five-cylinder Audi Quattro, dancing across a Portuguese landscape. Scything through a parting sea of kamikaze rally fans. This, for many, is the zenith of rallying. Audi’s revolutionary four-wheel drive machine changed the sport forever. Audi bagged two drivers and two constructors world titles, as the competition scampered to convert their machines to four-wheel drive to keep up.

Watching YouTube clips of an Audi Quattro rally car never fails to raise the hairs on my neck. However, for me, the Audi Quattro played a part in breaking a much greater barrier than the switch from two to four driven wheels.

In 1981, when the first Audi Quattro took to the stages, history was made. Michèle Mouton became the first, and only, woman to win a world rally championship event. On the twisty tarmac of the San Remo rally, a surface less suited to her cumbersome Audi, Mouton won the rally by over three minutes. Despite a loss of two and a half minutes to repair a seized brake caliper and broken driveshaft. An extraordinary achievement, but not out of the ordinary for this rapid French woman.

Mouton’s rallying life began at a rock and roll concert with a friend. With no previous experience and keen to discover a new adventure, she accepted her friend’s offer to navigate for him at the famous Rally Monte Carlo, in 1973. Quite the introduction to rallying, competing in the world’s most notorious event!

After observing his daughter occupying the navigator’s seat for a few rallies, Michèle’s father stepped in. Convinced that his daughter should be driving herself, he acquired a gorgeous, Alpine A110 for her. This elegant Dieppe built machine, kick started what would become a glorious career in motorsport, that continues to this day, nearly fifty years on.

Michèle’s Father’s suggestion to move to the driver’s seat, immediately proved correct. In her first season in 1974, Mouton won her class and finished twelfth overall at the gruelling Tour de Corse. Immediately on the pace, Michèle was able to attract sponsorship to keep the show on the road.

As Michèle’s rapid pace increased, so did the envy led rumours that she was cheating. Many couldn’t accept that this woman could drive so quickly. However, after a thorough inspection of her engine, nothing was found out of place. From then, no one would be so disrespectful to question her ability.

Like many budding racing drivers, no matter how good they may be, there is a constant battle to conjure new opportunities to keep on track. Mouton’s struggles were no different. Despite fantastic pace and support from Elf, by 1977, it looked like Michèle would have to park up and stop competing. Another special talent, lost, due to fiscal shortfall. Sadly, a worn-out story in motorsport.

However, from the brink of early retirement, this remarkable lady was about to go pro. In 1978, Michèle drove for Fiat, on a full professional contract. It was this opportunity that spring boarded her career, and then, into the cockpit of the revolutionary new Audi Quattro.

As is the case in many sports, no one remembers who finishes second. However, in the case of the 1982 World Rally Championship, history was agonising close to being made. With her Audi Quattro really into its stride, after a full season out on the world’s rally stages, Mouton began to notch up further rally wins. In the wild west freedom of Group B regulations, the ever more powerful Audi Quattro, needed a strong command. This Ingolstadt built monster met its match with Michèle Mouton. Wrestling the car to victories in Portugal, Greece and Brazil, Michèle fought into contention for the world title. Her rival for this title battle? Arguably the greatest of all time, Walter Röhrl.

This titanic battle for the world title played out on the Ivory Coast rally. Tragically, moments before taking the start, Mouton learnt that her beloved Father had suddenly passed away. Nevertheless, showing superhuman resolve, she pressed on. Sadly, a string of mechanical failures and a subsequent accident, when trying to recover lost time, closed a momentous chapter in rallying history. Röhrl went on to win the title, with Mouton runner up. However, Michèle Mouton had proven that a woman could fight, blow for blow, in the most brutal rally cars ever built. Against the very best. To the educated in the rally service park at the time, Mouton’s performances will not have been a surprise. But, I believe, the greater message of her ground-breaking achievements, should be more widely spread.

Always looking for challenges and adventures, much like her fellow trailblazing female driver, Janet Guthrie, Michèleset her sights on the infamous Pikes Peak hill climb in the United States. In 1984, with assistance from her navigator, Fabrizia Pons, Mouton won her class convincingly and second overall. Not good enough for this perfectionist.

In 1985, she returned. This time, driving solo, committing the entire course to memory, in pursuit of the outright record on racing’s most famous hill climb. Conquering a course that has claimed seven lives to date, requires immense strength of will, but that’s exactly what Michèle Mouton did. In her snarling, wild, Audi Quattro, Mouton drove flat out. Rallying’s first lady obliterated the record, climbing the mountain in a scarcely believable 11 minutes and 25 seconds. Anyone still unconvinced that a female can become a successful racing driver, should look up footage of Michèle smashing the pikes peak record. You won’t be unconvinced for much longer.

Very few drivers, male or female, have matched the achievements of Michèle Mouton in rallying. Some fail due to lack of ability; many more fail due to lack of financial backing. Females make up a tiny percentage of those embarking on a career in motorsport. Therefore, the numerical probability of a female world champion is tiny.

If her heroic performances behind the wheel of the most brutal machines in rallying history weren’t already enough, Mouton is still not finished inspiring future female racing drivers.

In her role as President of the FIA Women in Motorsport commission, Michèle works tirelessly to create opportunities for more females to get involved in motorsport. From training camps for children in go karts, to supporting full time sports car racing projects. All in the name of encouraging more females to get behind the wheel and compete in motorsport.

Today, on International Women’s Day, raise a glass to the first lady of rallying- Michèle Mouton.

To learn more about Michèle Mouton, and her legendary Audi Quattro, subscribe to The Peter MacKay Motorsport Podcast via Podbean. Look out for the Audi Quattro special episode on 12th March 2020!

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