1981. The year the World Rally Championship would change forever. Group B regulations were introduced. Ari Vatanen became the first privateer to win the title.
Audi introduced the first four-wheel-drive rally car, the Quattro, and a driver from the French Riviera would become the first (and so far only) woman to win a World Rally Championship event.
Michèle Mouton was born and raised in the beautiful southern French town of Grasse, and from an early age excelled in everything from skiing to ballet to academia. She was all set for a respectable career in law. That wasn’t to be.
Captivated by engine notes wafting from nearby mountain stages used for local rallies, and following a teenage go in her father’s Citroën 2CV, any thought of lawyering went out of the window.
By her early 20s, with that first taste of 2CV still fresh, Mouton experienced rallying, initially serving as a co-driver in amateur rallies, but soon assuming driving duties. Her father saw a spark of talent and bought her a Renault Alpine A110, telling his daughter that she had a year to prove her mettle or get back to the law.
“I never wanted or planned to be a rally driver. A friend was driving at amateur level. I went to watch him in Corsica and he didn’t get on with his co-driver so he asked me. It was pure chance,” remembers Mouton.
“Then my father said, ‘I know you like to drive. I will buy you a car and pay for one season. If you are good then you should get some results’.”
And get some results is what she did, winning both the French Ladies’ Championship and the French GT class championship, topping things off with a class win at the 1975 Le Mans 24 Hours. With French oil giant Elf’s backing, Mouton won national rallies as a Fiat works driver. Then came the call from Audi.
“When they called, it was a complete shock. When you are a French woman rally driver and they are phoning from Germany asking you to do the World Championship, you cannot believe it. I did not know where this was going, but there was no way I could say no. And my team-mate was to be Hannu Mikkola. He was always way up there for me – one of the greats. And now we would be team-mates!”
Paired with co-driver Fabrizia Pons, herself no mean driver, Mouton would debut the awesome Quattro in the 1981 WRC season – with the issue of gender not going unnoticed…
“I can see now the attraction because I was the only woman at the time in the championship. I would hate it when the journalist would come to me at the end of a rally and say, ‘Can you smile?’ I would say ‘OK, you go and find Blomqvist or Mikkola, ask them to smile and then you come back to me’.”
Back in the 1980s, rallies were more attritional than today, taking in the wilds of Africa and all imaginable terrains, combining perilous roads and questionable safety measures. If the cars didn’t break, the drivers sometimes would. Mouton’s debut season saw ups and downs but history was made in Italy at the Rallye Sanremo when she took victory for Audi, beating Henri Toivonen and eventual champion Ari Vatanen.
For 1982, Audi were ready to challenge for the title. In a year festooned with mind-boggling cars and some of the greatest drivers ever to grace the WRC, Mouton would be up against Walter Röhrl in the Opel, Audi team-mates including Stig Blomqvist and the super fast Lancia 037 driven by flying Finn Markku Alén.
In a dramatic year, Mouton tamed the turbocharged 350bhp Quattro, adding outright wins in Portugal, Greece and Brazil. 1980 champion Röhrl, the epitome of measured Teutonic guile looked odds-on for the title, playing it safe throughout the year – but not without being rattled and pushed by Mouton.
By the penultimate rally in the rough, dusty, car-breaking Ivory Coast stages, Mouton was just 19 points behind Röhrl and 30 ahead of her Audi team-mates, Blomqvist and Mikkola. She led the rally knowing a win would put her just two points behind Röhrl heading to the season finale in the UK.
It wasn’t to be.
At 4am on the rally’s final day, Mouton’s lead was a full 18 minutes. Then, heartbreakingly, prior to the day’s first stage her Quattro wouldn’t start. She eventually got going but with thick fog descending, she rolled the car into retirement. Röhrl was champion once more, and Mouton would be denied the ultimate triumph.