True grit

29th April 2020

Described by Niki Lauda as a “superwoman”, Michèle Mouton battled sexism to become motorsport’s most successful ever female driver – and her achievements behind the wheel of the revolutionary Audi Quattro are now the stuff of rallying legend.

Words by Peter Hall

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As sporting challenges go, there are few more formidable than the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb – a 12.42-mile sprint to the top of a Colorado mountain. The course starts two thirds of the way up, twisting through 156 turns as it climbs 4,724 feet to the 14,115-foot summit. Before it was resurfaced with asphalt (a 10-year process completed in 2011), much of the course consisted of loose gravel, and the vertiginous, unfenced drops with names like the Bottomless Pit were a terrifying prospect for all who attempted the “Race to the Clouds”.

From its beginning in 1916, the Hill Climb was won by good ol’ American boys in all-American cars. Then, in 1984, a German rally car with a Franco-Italian crew finished second. This might have been dismissed as a freak occurrence, especially as both the driver and co-driver were women, but when they returned the following year looking for a win, the Pikes Peak organisers began to get nervous. Had they been paying attention to events on the other side of the Atlantic, they might have been more prepared.

Growing up among the perfumed hills of Grasse, on the French Riviera, young Michèle Mouton might easily have become a successful dancer or skier. Although she enjoyed driving her father’s Citroën 2CV from the age of 14, she had no interest in motorsport until her early twenties, when a friend asked her to co-drive in the 1972 Tour de Corse. She was hooked, and gave up her law studies to concentrate on rallying. On the basis that she would be safer driving than navigating, her father then bought an Alpine A110 and gave her a year to prove herself.

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Top left: Michele Mouton and Fabrizia Pons in their Audi Quattro during the 1984 RAC Rally of Great Britain.

Höhe Pass without snow tyres, it won management backing. With its boxy coupé form and distinctive wheel-arches, the “Ur-Quattro” (Ur, the German for original and Quattro, Italian for four) appeared at the Geneva Motor Salon in March 1980. What made it unique was the combination of 4WD and turbocharging, with a 2.1-litre, five-cylinder engine producing 197bhp and an unmistakable exhaust note. A 300bhp rally version would not be eligible for the WRC until the following year, but it nevertheless proved to be a performance sensation, justifying Audi’s claim to Vorsprung Durch Technik (progress through technology).

Come 1981, Michèle Mouton and Italian co-driver Fabrizia Pons proved that they could hold their own among the sport’s established stars; they finished fourth in Rally Portugal and in Sanremo they became the first (and still the only) women to win a WRC event, beating Henri Toivonen and champion in waiting Ari Vatanen, who had earlier declared, somewhat foolishly, “Never can nor will I lose to a woman.”

The following year saw the introduction of Group B regulations, which allowed cars of unprecedented power. Still driving the Quattro, Mouton won in Portugal, Greece and Brazil. A series of mishaps robbed her of a commanding lead in the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire, where victory would almost certainly have clinched the World Championship ahead of Opel’s Walter Röhrl, a man who said he couldn’t accept coming second to Mouton, “not because I doubt her capabilities as a driver, but because she is a woman”. The loss might have bothered her more had she not just learned of the death of her father, and second place on the RAC Rally at least secured the manufacturers’ title for Audi, the first for a German marque. Further accolades included the Autosport International Rally Driver of the Year Award and the admiration of F1 hero Niki Lauda, who described her as a “superwoman”.

Mouton and co-driver Fabrizia Pons proved that they could hold their own among the sport’s established stars.

The Group B rally cars continued to get faster, and although Mouton recorded good results in the Quattro A1 and A2, she suffered reliability problems: in the 1982 Safari Rally she finished the first stage on three wheels and in Finland she managed to extinguish her burning car (and carry on) by driving into a lake. She ended the 1983 season fifth in the Championship. The following year (1984) was no easier; she finished 12th in the title race, one point behind new Audi team leader Röhrl.

The 1985 season was even more disappointing, with Mouton focusing on testing and development and entering only one WRC event. However, she was on hand for Audi’s return to Pikes Peak, where this time she would drive solo in the Sport Quattro S1, a short-wheelbase, lightweight Group B machine with almost 450 horsepower, and by her own admission the most difficult car she had ever driven. The patriotic Hill Climb organisers weren’t about to make things any easier; Mouton was accused of speeding at 35-40mph in a restricted area and summoned to a tribunal, as she later recalled at the Goodwood Festival of Speed: “They told me I could have killed a child if he was crossing the road – all this big story about safety and everything. So I was asked not to start from the paddock, to be out of the car, to go to the starting line, to jump into the car and to go up the hill. And I said no way.

“So we called a big press conference and I said, you know, my safety is also important. So finally I was allowed to stay in the car, belted in, but not touching any gear, so the mechanics were pushing me to the line; it was like a big show, you know – a movie could not have been better. Of course they didn’t know me, because in my mind I said, ‘Instead of trying to slow me down it will just make me the opposite way.’ And I was really flat-out all the way, very motivated. I had a hard time near the top because there are three flat-out corners but the second one is not quite flat-out… I decided to stay flat-out and I was going to the side, you know, when you look at the drop on the right side, it’s really hairy down there. I had the hardest time in my life, but I managed to do it and I won the race. It was a great time and I was very happy.”

Mouton and Pons also beat Ari Vatanen, who had earlier declared, somewhat foolishly, “Never can nor will I lose to a woman.”

Despite the attempts to handicap her chances, this French woman in a five-cylinder German car had climbed the mountain in 11m 25.39s, smashing American racer Al Unser Jr’s record by 13 seconds. It’s said that Al’s uncle Bobby was not too happy about this, and made his views clear, eliciting a withering response: “If you have the balls you can try to race me back down as well...”

Mouton left Audi to drive Peugeot’s 205 Turbo 16 in 1986, becoming the first woman to win a major rally title (the German Rally Championship, where she was known as “The Black Volcano” due to her hair colour and her temperament) and contesting two WRC events, the Monte-Carlo Rally and the Tour de Corse. In the latter she was running third behind Lancia star Henri Toivonen and Peugeot’s Bruno Saby when she was sidelined by gearbox trouble; the next day Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed in a dreadful accident that prompted the immediate end of Group B. It was time to stop. 

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Or slow down, at least. In retirement she started a family, co-founded the Race of Champions (in memory of Toivonen), and became the first president of the FIA’s Women and Motor Sport Commission, promoting greater female participation. A member of the Rally Hall of Fame, a knight of the Légion d’honneur and still the most successful woman in motorsport, Michèle Mouton remains an inspiration – for men and women alike.

The legendary Audi Quattro will be competing in the Rally Sprint event at the 78th Goodwood Members’ Meeting event, currently postponed.

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