Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The second part of my series looking at Motorsport's greatest women throughout history.
For my next set of features, I thought I would look at great women of motorsport, ranging from drivers and team members of all disciplines who have achieved success at the top level as well as women who are the top of their game throughout the industry, such as the media, press relations and photography.
My second feature is on a driver from the world of rallying, and is certainly the most successful female rally driver in history.
Michele Mouton competed in the World Rally Championship for twelve years, making her debut in 1974 before retiring in 1986. During this time, she proved that she was more than capable of fighting it out with the best in the business, throughout one of the most competitive eras in the WRC’s history. During her career she drove for manufactures such as Audi and Peugeot and to date she is the only woman to have won a WRC event outright.
Mouton was born in the small French Riviera French town of Grasse, in the South East of the country on the 23rd June 1951. The area is known for its glamour, particularly in the perfume industry, however Mouton always had her sights on rallying, dropping her education practising law to focus on the sport.
Her first taste of cars came at the age of 14-years old when Michele drove her fathers’ Citroen 2CV around the grounds of their house, before taking an interest in rallying seven years later at the age of 21, when her friend, Jean Taibi asked her to accompany him during practise for the Tour de Corse.
This was Mouton’s first experience of competitive rallying, later co-driving for Taibi at the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally, the first ever event for the inaugural World Rally Championship season. She would complete a few more rallies as a co-driver during 1973 however her father suggested she switched to driving if she wanted to continue her career in rallying.
Mouton’s father promised to buy her a car, a promise he kept. Mouton’s father was never too keen on Taibi who he felt was too cocky, so midway through 1973, he withdrew the family savings and bought Michele an Alpine-Renault A110, one of the best rally cars of the time. He even set up a team set up of friends and neighbours named “Groupe Compétition Grasse”.
Her debut rally coming at the Rallye Paris – Saint-Raphael Feminin, a rally held exclusively for women, prior to contesting the Tour de France Automobile at the end of 1973.
Soon after, Mouton also contested in the Ile de Beaute, finishing eighth. It would prove to be her last event of the 1973 season before making her WRC debut at the 1974 Tour de Corse, finishing the rally an impressive twelfth. At the time her competitors concluded her eye catching performances were down to a trick engine, however this was dismissed when her Alpine A110 passed all WRC scrutineering tests.
As well as her impressive form at the Tour de Corse, 1974 also saw Mouton become both French and European Woman’s champion in her first full season of competitive rallying. What an incredible feat and a sign of how promising Mouton was behind the wheel.
For 1975, Michele expanded her horizons, making her circuit racing debut as well as her WRC commitments, after her impressive performances caught the eye of French oil giants Elf who offered to sponsor her. As part of the deal Mouton made her 24 Hours of Le Mans debut alongside Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner in an all woman line-up driving a Moynet LM75 chassis powered by a ROC-Simca 2.0L I4 engine. It proved to be her only appearance at the great race, finishing 21st overall, claiming the two litre class victory.
The unpredictable rainy conditions suited Mouton perfectly, leaving many of her rivals struggling on slicks. Michele started the race and used her rallying skills to her advantage, staying out on slicks in the wet despite her team’s wishes for her to come in. She felt at home as it rained, driving the sports car similar to how she would a rally car and even found herself overtaking cars in classes above her. In a previous interview Mouton recalled, “I started the race, I remember, and it began to rain. I had a lot of fun out there. My pit crew told me to stop but I carried on and passed even some of the big cars! The conditions suited me to a tee. In fact, it was as if I were rallying at Le Mans!”
It was a race which saw her being encouraged to compete in further circuit racing, most notably in Formula 3 however this was not to be as Mouton always preferred rallying to circuit racing.
As well as her exploits at Le Mans, Mouton continued to rally in the WRC and regional competitions around Europe, entering the 1975 Tour de Corse. This time Michele went five better and finished seventh, also retaining her French and European Woman’s titles.
1976 saw her compete at the Monte Carlo Rally, her home event, for the first time as a driver, having co-driven the rally previously, finishing a very respectable eleventh place. She would continue on the WRC circuit throughout the season, competing at the Rallye Sanremo however she sadly failed to finish either that or her home Tour de Corse event due to reliability issues, the later being in the newer Alpine A310.
Although she suffered these setbacks, she still retained her European and French Woman’s Championship ensuring for 1977 she joined Fiat alongside Jean-Claude Andruet as a factory driver. Despite becoming a factory driver for the first time she was not impressed by the way the Fiat 131 Abarth handled stating it was “like a big truck, not a car”.
Nevertheless, the car was fast, seeing Mouton finish consistently, ending the 1977 Tour de Corse eighth in what proved to be her only outing in the WRC that season. Away from the WRC, Mouton had swapped her Alpine A310 for a Porsche 911 Carrera RS, making her debut in the European Rally Championship, also known as the ERC.
Mouton immediately impressed on the full European stage, winning the RACE Rallye de Espana, her first major triumph. She also finished three other rallies second ending the year second in the standings behind Bernard Darniche.
It was a hugely impressive season in which she once again won the French and European Woman’s Championship titles.
Her continuously impressive performances saw her remain with Fiat until 1980, now competing for Fiat France. She raced in the Monte Carlo Rally and Tour de Corse each year, finishing seventh and fifth respectively each year.
Throughout her time with Fiat, Mouton continued to score consistently, finishing on the podium regularly however ahead of the 1980 season, Audi contacted Mouton, with whom she signed for as a test driver ahead of a future campaign with the German manufacture. The call came as a complete shock to Mouton who was preferred to plenty of male candidates and gave Audi a lot of publicity following the announcement. When Audi debuted in 1980, they arrived to the series with the first four-wheel-drive and turbo charged car the WRC had seen, however the car had not been homologated by the FIA, so they competed without being officially recognised.
It was immediately clear that Audi would be the class of the field, fellow Audi driver Hannu Mikkola would have won the Algarve Rally by thirty minutes had his times been officially recognised throughout the event, such was the car’s dominance against its rivals.
Mouton made her Audi debut later in the year at the final round of the 1980 Finish Rally Championship. Although she initially found the car to understeer, she was able to change her driving style to left foot braking as advised by Mikkola, seeing her back on the pace. For 1981 Audi announced they planned to enter eight rounds of the season, although Mouton was only entered for seven, excluding Sweden as she was not experienced on snow.
Nevertheless Mouton was able to showcase her class in 1981, making history in the process winning the Rallye Sanremo, becoming the only woman in history to win a WRC event. Her other finish that season came in Portugal where she finished fourth ensuring she ended the season eighth in the standings, despite only scoring twice that year.
She remained with Audi for 1982 as the German manufacture committed fully to the series for the first time in their history, although they still planned on missing the African rounds in Kenya and the Ivory Coast. Mouton was joined by teammates Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist and Franz Wittmann.
The season started poorly for Mouton who crashed heavily out of the Monte Carlo Rally resulting in injuries for both herself and co-driver Fabrizia Pons. Mouton injured her knee in the crash while Pons suffered a concussion however they would bounce back strongly, finishing fifth on her Rally Sweden debut.
She was running as high as third before a slide into a snow bank halted her charge. At round three in Portugal however Mouton dominated, winning eighteen stages on her way to victory, her second at WRC level. Audi did not compete in the fourth round of the season in Kenya and come their return at the Tour de Corse Michele could not match the pace of the leaders, ending the rally seventh.
It was her lowest finish of the season, the next round of the season seeing Michele dominant once more in Greece, taking her second win of the season, propelling herself into title contention, beating championship rivals Walter Rohrl and Henri Toivonen in the notoriously difficult rally.
The next round of the season was New Zealand, and Michele was looking strong, trading the lead with Rohrl, Mikkola and Bjorn Waldegard throughout, however she retired on stage twelve with a broken oil pump, a retirement that in hindsight cost her dearly.
She would win again in Brazil next time out however she missed out on the championship by twelve points, ending the season second behind Rohrl clearly beating teammate Mikkola.
It was an agonising end to the season to miss out on the championship by such a small margin, however this would pale into insignificance as during the penultimate rally of the season, Michele learnt that her father had succumbed to cancer, his final wish that his daughter continue to rally. Although little consolation to the loss of her father and finishing second in the standings, she did win the International Rally Driver of the Year at the inaugural Autosports Awards gala.
It would prove to be her most successful season in the WRC. Mouton remained with Audi for 1983 however her season was thwarted by reliability issues with Audi’s faster Quattro proving fragile. Despite heading into the second half of the season second in the championship, she ended the year fifth.
Despite her strong performances throughout 1983 she became part-time for 1984 as Audi signed now two-time champion Rohrl alongside Blomqvist and reigning champion Mikkola, in what proved to be a dream team for the German manufacture.
Her teammates Blomqvist and Mikkola dominated the season while Mouton only contested five events. Despite this she still finished the year twelfth, only one point behind double champion Rohrl. The season included a single podium at Sweden behind teammate Blomqvist, in which proved to be her final rostrum of her WRC career.
As well as her WRC commitments, Michele made her Pikes Peak debut in 1984, a famous hill climb in Colorado, USA, competing with her usual co-driver Fabrizia Pons. Her debut saw her win her class, the open rally category, in record time, finishing an overall second, an amazing achievement. She would return to the hill a year later in 1985 where astoundingly she went one better and in the process beat Al Unser Jr’s 1988 record time by thirteen seconds despite slippery conditions caused by an earlier hailstorm.
The win was a fantastic achievement and irritated some of her male competitors. Away from her Pikes Peak triumph, Mouton stepped away from a the WRC, only competing in the Ivory Coast rally towards the end of the season, spending most of year testing Audi’s new developments.
1985 proved to be her final year with Audi, breaking her contract late in the year to join Peugeot, contesting the German Rally Championship as well as contesting two rounds of the 1986 WRC season. At the time, Peugeot were hugely successful having just won their first drivers and constructor’s titles in 1985 with Timo Salonen.
During her time in the German Rally Championship she was nicknamed “der schwarze Vulkan” (The Black Volcano) due to her temperament and her long black hair.
1986 also saw her contest both the Monte Carlo and Tour de Corse rallies, however she failed to finish either. Sadly the death of Henri Toivonen in the Tour de Corse rally ultimately ended her career. With Group B regulations already under pressure following a series of accidents resulting in fatalities, Toivonen’s passing proved the final straw and days after the crash, Group B was banned for the 1987 season.
Five months later at the end of October, two weeks after winning the German Rally Championship, Mouton announced her retirement, citing the end of the Group B regulations as her reasoning. She stated at the time that it was “a good time to stop”. Later that month, she capped her career off behind the wheel by winning the final round of the German championship, beating future WRC star Armin Schwarz. It was a fantastic season as she won six of the eight events, winning the championship, becoming the first woman to win a major rallying championship.
During her career, spanning from 1974 to 1986 she competed in 50 WRC rallies winning four of them and finishing on the podium a further five times. She also has 160 stage wins to her name, and a total of 229 points, a fantastic record from the most challenging era of the WRC.
Although retired from competitive competition in 1988, Mouton and Fredrik Johnsson co-founded the Race of Champions, in memory of Henri Toivonen and to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first Driver’ Rally World Champion. The event was originally included the top rally drivers of the time however it has grown to include the biggest stars in motorsport from all disciplines, including Formula 1, NASCAR, Le Mans, and MotoGP, all competing head to head in identical machinery via a knockout format until the ultimate champion is crowned.
Mouton continued to rally in a non-competitive capacity throughout the late eighties as well as competing in rallies such as the London-Sydney Marathon in 2000 in which she finished second. The rally has only been hosted six times since it debuted in 1968.
Away from driving Mouton has had a fantastic career. In 2010 Mouton became first President of the FIA Women’s and Motor Sport Commission, aiming to encourage and develop women in motorsport. Upon her appointment Mouton said, “For many years people have asked me why there have been no women following in my footsteps. I really hope the Commission can help answer that question and that we can attract and support women in all areas of our sport”
A year later she was appointed FIA’s manager of the WRC Championship and also serves in the nomination committee of the Rally Hall of Fame, in which she is inducted into. The year she was shortlisted Michele stepped away from nomination proceedings to avoid a conflict of interests however this did not affect her rightful inclusion as she was inducted alongside fellow rally legend Carlos Sainz.
This cemented her place in the motorsport history books, in which France recognised. In 2011 she was made knight of Legion of Honour the equivalent of being made a Dame in France by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is not just me who feels she is one of the greatest Women in motorsport history, Stirling Moss regarded as “one of the best” while Niki Lauda describing her as a “superwoman”. She also received plaudits from within the WRC community during her career with both Rohrl and Mikkola respecting her as both a competitor and person.
What Mouton achieved behind the wheel and what she has achieved since her retirement from full time driving is nothing short of phenomenal and should be considered an inspiration to not just women, but anyone aiming for the top in their sport. Mouton always stressed she was not aiming to beat the men, but to compete equally and prove she was worthy of being at the top. That she managed in abundance.
Pictures: www.motorsportimages.com, www.biznews.com, www.rallyeteca.wixsite.com, www.skoda-motorsport.com, www.lemans.org