Photo: Getty Images

Michèle Mouton could have been anything. From a young age, her athletic ability was unrestricted: she was a dancer, a gymnast, a skier. She began attending law school with her eyes on a prestigious law degree. The world was hers for the choosing, and Mouton decided that her fate laid with rallying.

Mouton was born in 1951 in the French town of Grasse, as well known for its hills dressed in roses and jasmine as it was for hosting French rally stages. At age fourteen, in and amongst the countless other activities that kept Mouton busy, she started driving her father’s Citroën 2CV. Before long, any thought of a career as domesticated as a lawyer ended, not when the sound of the engine was so intoxicating.

Mouton didn’t actually find her love for racing proper until 1972, according to Hemmings, when her friend Jean Taibi asked her to help him practice the Tour de Corse. Co-driving was a thrilling experience for her, one she kept up with throughout the most of 1972-73.

But Mouton’s father wasn’t content to see his daughter anywhere but behind the wheel—if she wanted to continue rallying, he told her, then she’d need to switch to driving, and weirdly, it was because he felt she was safer as a driver than as a co-driver, as Hemmings notes:

Mouton’s father would buy her a 1600cc Alpine-Renault A110, and she would have one year to prove her ability or move on to more sensible pursuits. Challenge accepted, Mouton began racing in local rallies and hillclimbs, and very quickly demonstrated that she was just as fast as those with far more experience. By the time her “probationary year” was up, Mouton had completed her first international rally at the Tour de Corse, and had captured both the French Ladies Championship and the French GT Class championship. A return to her studies was no longer a consideration.

Advertisement

Photo: AP

It was enough to spur her on for the following season.

Which also meant Mouton teamed up with the World Rally Championship for the 1974 season, aiming to finish as high as she possibly could. Her consistently great finishes drew scrutiny: it couldn’t be Mouton herself, it had to be her engine. But when the WRC checked it out, scrutineers ruled that it was perfectly legal. The talent was all in the driver—the very driver who took home both the French Ladies’ championship and the French GT Class championship. It’s safe to say that Mouton proved to her father that she was more than capable of being a success behind the wheel—there was no way in hell she’d give that up to memorize law.

Advertisement

In 1975, Mouton decided to upgrade her 1600cc engine to a 1800cc engine—which helped her secure her first ever class win at the Tour de Corse (which equated to a seventh place overall). She retained her ladies’ title. And she even delved into the world of circuit racing, teaming up with Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner to make a rare all-women driver lineup for the 1975 24 Hours of Le Mans. She wasn’t going to stop, she said in an interview with Rallysport Magazine:

“It started to rain I remember, and I started to pass everybody. I was running on slicks. In the pits they were saying ‘Michele you must stop’, but I did not want to because I was passing everyone.”

Needless to say, that kind of badassery in the face of adversity turns heads at a race as legendary as Le Mans. But Mouton turned down more circuit racing, as she recounted to Le Mans organizers years later. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” Mouton explained. “I loved racing alone, against the clock. My character wasn’t cut out for circuit racing.” She went back to rallying for 1976, securing an enviable Elf oil sponsorship, too. That year, unfortunately, was less successful. She was still driving the same A110 for much of the season, and even an upgrade to the new A310 proved fraught with disaster.

So in 1977, Mouton came back behind the wheel of a Fiat 131 Abarth—which she hated even more than the Renault. The old car at least handled well, as RallyGroupBShrine.org notes:

She was reportedly not impressed by the handling of the Fiat 131 Abarth, stating it was “like a big truck, not a car,” and “terrible to drive.”

Advertisement

But despite it being a beast to drive, she finished eighth in the Tour de Corse in 1977 and fifth three years running, from ‘78 to ‘80. The Fiat also took her to a seventh place at Monte Carlo in 1979 and 1980. And she was using both the Abarth and a Porsche Carrera RS during those years outside of the WRC, securing some damn fine results.

It may have been her consistency in the face of adversity that turned Audi’s heads, because her results weren’t quite as shocking as they had been at first. Mouton herself was certainly shocked, according to Red Bull’s official rally blog:

Then came the call from Audi. “When they 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!”

Advertisement

An established team like Audi had passed over plenty of more-experienced men in her favor, choosing Mouton to be their representative in their new WRC effort. It may also have been the novelty of hiring a woman. Whatever the case, Mouton was prepared to prove to Audi that she was worth their support.

Mouton started with her Audi Quattro in 1981, the first rally car to have over 300 hp, a turbocharger, and four-wheel drive. She’d used races the previous year to get a handle on the new car, learning how to left-foot brake and tackle questionable road conditions, as she told Rallysport Magazine in a 2008 interview.

But the first race at Monte Carlo didn’t look promising. Mouton withdrew before the event, with the official reason for the withdrawal being given as “sand in fuel.” By Rally Portugal, the problem had been sorted, and Mouton had begun a long-term partnership with co-driver Fabrizia Pons. After seven stage wins and a career-best fourth place finish, Mouton had proved herself.

Advertisement

Anyone claiming that Audi had hired a female driver solely for publicity reasons were silenced.

Michèle Mouton could drive.

That season also brought Mouton her first ever WRC overall win, which was subsequently Audi’s first win, the first win for an all-wheel drive car, and the first win for a woman in the WRC series. This was coming at a time when her competitors openly spoke against her as a woman. “A monkey could have been fastest in a Quattro,” her rival Walter Röhrl once declared. Even Ari Vatanen, the otherwise beloved rally legend, told the press, “I can never, will never lose to a woman.” Mouton proved him wrong at the Rallye Sanremo in Italy, a mixed surface event.

Advertisement

Now, it’s easy to forget that the Audi Quattro did not start out as a completely enviable car. It was unreliable and kind of a pig—heavy, with a big engine right in the nose of the car. We think of the Quattro now as storming through the WRC on its debut, but it struggled on many rallies, particularly on tarmac and in the dry, when it had less of a traction advantage. That Mouton won in Sanremo... it proved her mastery of her car after a season of mixed results and teething problems. Still, she finished in eighth place in the drivers’ championship, while Audi finished fifth.

It was proof that Audi could retain her as a factory driver for the following year—one that began in spectacular fashion. At the Monte Carlo Rally, she slid off the road and crashed into a stone wall at 70 mph. Mouton and Pons were both injured—a complicated knee and a concussion, respectively—but were cleared to drive at the Swedish rally. Mouton hadn’t competed there the previous year due to her lack of experience in the wildly snowy conditions, and she had to learn the hard way after some slides into a snowbank.

Advertisement

It was a rough season, albeit a successful one, for Mouton. She was recording stage win after stage win, securing victories far ahead of her competitors. But spectators and drivers were being killed as a result of the racing, and Mouton had suffered accidents that saw her rolling the car.

Still, she was consistent during the entire season and found herself in contention for the championship as the season wound down. The penultimate race at the Rallye Cote d’Ivoire would be the deciding factor—would it be Mouton or Walter Röhrl, an Opel driver?

Röhrl didn’t take kindly to the idea of losing to a woman. “I would have accepted second place in the championship to Mikkola,” he said, “but I can’t accept being beaten by Michelle. This is not because I doubt her capabilities as a driver, but because she is a woman.” He gave that quote to the goddamn news.

Advertisement

Audi hadn’t intended to participate in the grueling African events that favored simple, tough cars (rather than Audi’s more tech-forward Quattro), but the title battle forced them into contention. Paired with that, Mouton received news that her father had died after a long battle with cancer, and his last wish was for her to start the race. Since the rules at the time only counted a driver’s seven best results—and despite the reliability issues and excessive heat—she would only need to secure a third place finish, even if Röhrl were to win. It was a promising event.

Until the final day. She had managed to keep the car ahead even with numerous mechanical issues holding her back against her more old-school competition, and had done so in punishing heat. With a mere 600 kilometers to the end, Mouton rolled her car. She managed to drive the Audi for five more kilometers, but that was it. There was no chance of recovering. Audi finished the year with the manufacturer’s world title in part due to Mouton’s success, and she was awarded the International Rally Driver of the Year award at the first ever Autosport Awards gala. In and amongst the disappointment, there were still moments to celebrate.

1983 saw the beginning of the Group B era, featuring cars of 600+ hp, single-purpose rallying chassis, and all-wheel drive spreading across the field. Mouton was back with Audi, but it was a year to forget. Her record was marred with crashes, DNFs, and errors on her team’s behalf. Her teammate Hannu Mikkola claimed the championship, and new Audi driver Stig Blomqvist finished ahead of Mouton in the championship by 36 points. Things weren’t looking good for Mouton, as you can see here, with a crash:

Which meant that she returned in 1984 and ‘85 with Audi, but only for partial seasons, as Audi had added two-time champion Walter Röhrl to the mix. It was the first time in nine years that she didn’t enter the Rally Monte Carlo.

She finished second in her first rally of the year in Sweden, but her success was tamped out by the Safari Rally, where her team simply didn’t complete repairs on her car. They were time-consuming and Blomqvist needed parts from Mouton’s Quattro.

Advertisement

In 1985, Mouton was relegated to testing and development duties instead of a full-time driver for the first time in her career. She competed in a single event at the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire, where she was tied for the lead after the first day. Her engine had suffered issues, but a scandal arose when Audi mechanics seemed to fix the problems off-route while the Sport Quattro chase car also seemingly disappeared with a retirement. Accusations of swapping cars caused Audi to withdraw from the event, as Petrolicious calls out:

The #2 left the rally route, took nearly an hour and a half of time penalties, and rejoined, without engine trouble. Audi’s official explanation was that the #11 car gave its oil pump to put Mouton back in the race, but multiple accounts charge the team with switching every body panel from the sick car to the healthy one—something the scrutineers said couldn’t be done, and the allegations were unproven. When someone noticed that the car’s windshields had apparently been swapped, team boss Roland Gumpert said Mouton’s “anti-fog” system had failed.

She also competed in the full British Rally Championship that year, which was just as fraught with disaster as her WRC campaign had been.

Advertisement

But in those two demoralizing years, Mouton found a new mountain to conquer: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Behind the wheel of her Audi Sport Quattro in 1984, she and Fabrizia Pons won the open rally category—which is now known as “unlimited”—in a record time. That success launched her into second place overall, dominating the specialized V8 single-seaters that were normally the most successful cars on the mountain.

She was determined. In 1985, Mouton was back in her Sport Quattro, and she won the event overall—absolutely destroying Al Unser Jr.’s 1982 record by thirteen seconds, despite the track conditions being slippery from a hailstorm. The fact that a French woman behind the wheel of a German car could so easily destroy American-made men and their machines made a lot of folks angry.

The relegation to test driver at Audi saw Mouton break her contract with them in late 1985 in favor of joining Peugeot for the 1986 season. She eased back into the swing of things with two WRC events and the full German Rally Championship behind the wheel of a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16—the car that had won the world title the previous year.

Nicknamed The Black Volcano (partially due to her dark hair) by her German competitors in Der Hamburger Abendblatt, Mouton won six of the eight events, which saw her secure the championship. She was the first woman to win a major championship in rallying. While Mouton must have wished it could have been the WRC title, it was a necessary ego boost after her final demoralizing years with Audi.

Advertisement

She only entered her home races in the WRC that year, the Monte Carlo Rally and Tour de Corse. Neither outings were particularly fruitful for her. She retired from both races, and Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto crashed out of the lead and died, prompting FISA to announce new regulations that banned the Group B supercars the following year.

Mouton retired from racing soon after her German championship win. She cited the end of the Group B era as a good time to call it quits from constant competition, as she told Motorsport Magazine:

The death of her friend Henri Toivonen in the Lancia Delta S4 confirmed what she had been thinking for a while. It was time to stop, live life and have a family: “It is hard to stop. When you are doing well there are many opportunities, but I’d always told myself ‘don’t forget to stop.”

Advertisement

That didn’t mean Mouton was done with racing, though. Far from it. In 1988, she and Fredrik Johnsson co-founded the Race of Champions event that still runs today, and she participated in long-distance rally raids as parts of Peugeot’s service team for Ari Vatanen and Jacky Ickx. In 2000, Mouton finished second in the London-Sydney Marathon behind the wheel of a Porsche 911.

She was a press driver in the Dakar rally in 2004 and 2009. She and Fabrizia Pons reunited to compete in the 2008 Otago Classic Rally in New Zealand. And in 2010, Mouton competed in the Rallye du Maroc, where she finished second.

Advertisement

Photo: Saris (AP)

In 2010, Mouton became the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission, and that same year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made Mouton a knight of the Legion of Honor.

Mouton’s intention was never to compete directly against men as an attempt to prove the capacity of the female gender—she was simply out there for the competition, because she knew she could be successful, because she loved what she did. However, much like her predecessor Pat Moss, Mouton proved that she wasn’t just a “female driver,” she was a damn fast driver. And she did it in the World Rally Championship, one of the most demanding forms of motorsport there is.

Advertisement

It would be no exaggeration to call Michèle Mouton a legend in the racing world. With four WRC victories, 160 stage wins, records at Pikes Peak, and her ambassadorial roles throughout racing, Mouton has become an icon of success not just for women but for the sport as a whole.