The first woman to win a round of the World Rally Championship, Michele Mouton and Audi quattro changed the face of motorsport forever.
18 September, 2020
Back in the 1980s, the dynamic sport of world rallying was about to undergo the most dramatic changes in its history up to that time – or since.
It was the time when Audi introduced its revolutionary quattro permanent all-wheel drive technology and proceeded not only to rewrite motorsport history, but change the driving dynamics of series production cars forever. It was a time when rally cars become flying monsters, capable of staggering speed unheard of before before, and it was a time when a young woman from France would destroy gender stereotypes in male-dominated motorsport, to become the first woman to win in the World Rally Championship.
The young woman from Grasse in France, turned the world of rally on its head, not only winning rounds of the WRC, but coming within a hair’s breadth of winning the whole championship. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Michele Mouton could have done anything she wanted to do in life, but from her early 20s, all she wanted to do was drive rally cars. Early successes in amateur competition as a co-driver sowed the seed, and then climbing behind the wheel herself put it beyond any doubt that she had a wealth of natural talent.
Very quickly she won the French Ladies’ Championship and the French GT class championship and then went on to win her class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1975.
Such was Mouton’s success in rallies in her native France, that she ultimately caught the attention of Audi and received a phone call that changed her life and ultimately the sport in the process.
“When they [Audi] called, it was a complete shock,” Mouton told RallySportMag.com.au.
“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!”
And so it was that in season 1981, Mouton and her co-driver, Fabrizia Pons, campaigned the Audi Quattro, taking on the best drivers in the world and behind the wheel of what would come to be known as one of the greatest rally cars of all time. In that very first season at the top level, she did what no one thought possible and won a round of the championship – the Rallye Sanremo in Italy – the first time a female driver had won a round of the World Rally Championship. It would not be her last.
In case anyone was in doubt, the Mouton/Pons pairing continued to impress against some of the most revered names in the sport. In the 1982 season, the Mouton/Pons juggernaut added wins in the Portuguese, Greek and Brazilian rounds of the WRC, and as the season progressed, Mouton cemented her position at the top of the pack, running second only to the great Walter Rohrl, who had won the championship in 1980.
As the championship headed into the final rounds, Mouton found herself well within striking distance of Rohrl, opening up a massive lead in the gruelling Rallye CÃ´te d'Ivoire in Africa, when simple engine trouble ended her campaign.
Walter Rohrl went on to win the championship again that year, but perceptions and stereotypes had been changed for good, and Mouton’s place as a motorsport hero and icon were cemented.
In addition to her WRC heroics, Mouton found time to win the world’s ultimate hillclimb – 1985 Pikes Peak in Colorado – ending her driving career in 1986 by winning the German Rally Championship (the first woman to win a national championship) and amassing four WRC victories, nine podium finishes and 160 stage wins throughout her career.
Leaving motorsport, Mouton turned her significant talents to the administrative side of the motorsport, becoming the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission in 2010 and the FIA's manager in the World Rally Championship in 2011.
To this day, Mouton remains active in motorsport circles as well as mentoring young drivers. Her exploits are the stuff of motorsport legend and she remains an inspiration to drivers and motoring enthusiasts the world over.
A motorsport and Audi legend, Mouton remains the only woman to ever win in the World Rally Championship.
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