The hot seat
International rally navigator extraordinaire, Fabrizia Pons, on making rally history.
Fabrizia Pons and Michèle Mouton made World rally history in the 1980s with Audi – now the famous navigator recalls those fast times that created a motorsport monster called quattro.
1 October, 2021
Pons and Mouton became the first female team to win a World Rally event
Those who get a little car sick trying to read on the go will shake their heads at the very thought of trying to read pace notes while airborne over blind crests or sideways at full noise. Placing your life in the hands of your driver as you calmly deliver directions requires a very special breed of person, and in the 1980s, Italian Fabrizia Pons was one of the best in the world. With driver Michèle Mouton and the now famous Audi Quattro, they competed at the very pinnacle of World rally and won. They also became the first female team to win a World Rally event – a title that remains to this day – and came tantalisingly close to winning the World Rally Championship into the bargain.
Now, with the approach of an all-new Audi five-cylinder, quattro monster just weeks away – the new Audi RS 3 – Fabrizia Pons talks about the years that cemented the quattro legend.
Fabrizia Pons, you were both a driver and a co-driver on the international rally stage. Which was more exciting for you?
I actually started as a driver in 1976 and I won in my class too. But despite that, I couldn’t find a consistent cockpit in the group 2 category. During that period, the opportunity came up to ride as co-driver with Luigi Battistolli, also known as ‘Lucky', who was a very successful Italian driver at the time. So my name turned up not only in Italian newspapers after winning in 1979 and 1980, but also in the press across Europe. That’s how Michèle Mouton noticed me. Of course, it also helped that I could read the pace notes in French.
Rally drivers say that the brain sits on the right, which is to say in the co-driver’s seat. Is that true? And what role did the Audi quattro play in that?
It depends. During special stages, like in the world championship rallies, the driver is the most important part of the crew. But if we're talking about long-distance competition like the Dakar Rally, which is about pure navigation, then the co-driver actually is the brain of the team. In 1981 and again in 1982, it was generally hard to beat the Audi quattro – we came just short of the world champion title in 1982. But I did get the Halda Trophy as the world’s best co-driver, which was a really great honour for me. To win, you need not only the best car, the best crew, and the best service team, but also a little bit of luck – everything has to interlock perfectly.
What constitutes the quattro mythos for you?
The quattro drive system has never lost its grip on me. It has been a positive influence on my career and my life. I am happy and grateful to be a small part of that myth. I came to Audi when the quattro was driving its first kilometres. I've been able to witness the concept’s development from the start up to the S1. For me, it’s been a gift to see how well and how energetically Audi has developed and propelled that concept and stayed on its path without wavering. Driving in a team for five years is like living in a big family. As a German team, Audi was very disciplined. I brought in a dash of Italian flexibility. Over the years, it was a fascinating and, above all, a successful mixture.
The quattro drive system has never lost its grip on me. It has been a positive influence on my career and my life
Today, I’m proud that we contributed to the fact that Audi has taken many components and insights from rallying and used them in quattro series production
To what extent did you participate in the technical development of the quattro drive system in particular back then?
In the beginning, we did a whole lot of tests. After that, we participated in a whole lot of rallies, which helped make the quattro better and better. Today, I’m proud that we contributed to the fact that Audi has taken many components and insights from rallying and used them in quattro series production. There were only a few manufacturers who had enough courage and tenacity to make that technological transfer so consistently.
What do you remember about the track at the Col de Turini and in San Romolo?
I have a lot of nice memories, especially of the Col de Turini. The fans were often there two days before the rally so they could occupy the best seats. It was always a huge party, a real happening. I’ll never forget the scenery, when we drove past the fans on the stage. That was unbelievable! It was an enormous challenge to choose the correct tyres for the Col de Turini. During the 22km stage, going from Moulinet to La Bollène, we were facing all sort of conditions, from asphalt, to snow, to ice. San Romolo is the heart of the asphalt stages of the Rallye Sanremo. I love that rally and have the best memories of it. I know every centimetre of the Ligurian hinterland. It's a wonderful place – partly because we won the rally for Audi there in 1981.
Is the quattro ageless?
There’s no question – the quattro is ageless. I’m glad and I’m impressed with what has come of the progenitor from that era for customers around the world today – namely a fascinating piece of technology. For me as a rally driver, the combination of dynamics and safety is unique. I think it’s particularly impressive that Audi transferred quattro technology into electromobility and keeps making it better and more efficient in the process.
Changing the subject, the upcoming RS 3 models feature a reworked five-cylinder engine. What memories and what kind of expectations do you connect with that engine?
For me, the five-cylinder is a very emotional engine. On the rally tracks of the world, it has given us critical seconds with its power and responsiveness through a great many special stages. Not to mention the sound. It's distinct. I look forward to hearing it even now!
Why are quattro and five-cylinder technologies so important for the brand?
With all-wheel drive and the five-cylinder, Audi opted for completely new and unique solutions at the time. When I look back, it was a very good idea and a courageous decision. Audi pursued this revolutionary path despite all the doubts that other people brought from the outside back then. The company also had a sense of the needs of drivers who don’t just want to go from A to B, but for whom a dynamic and safe driving experience is increasingly important.
For me, the five-cylinder is a very emotional engine. On the rally tracks of the world, it has given us critical seconds with its power and responsiveness
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