Women in motorsport is a sensitive subject because of the social biases that have gradually funneled female participation away from the sport. Even when they rise up and gain attention from the community, they often have to keep proving to everyone involved that they are right where they belong. Such was the case of Michèle Mouton, one of the best WRC and Group B legacies ever.
Between 1974 and 1986, Mouton managed 4 rally wins, 9 podium finishes and 162 stage wins. Known as the black volcano due to her long flowing black hair and volatile personality, Mouton was a significant force to reckon with. Nikki Lauda even called her superwoman. These accolades show the reverence and surprise of colleagues astounded to see a woman matching their aggression. The story of Mouton begins in her teens. Her parents farmed jasmine and rose for perfume on the French Riviera. At the age of 14, without supervision she got into her parent’s Citroen 2CV and began giving herself driving lessons on the property. Her father apparently so her whiz past the kitchen window and thought someone was trying to steal the car. Imagine his befuddlement when he found the girl teaching herself to drive. Even then Michèle did not have an interest in motorsport but a latent car enthusiasm. She famously stated during an interview, “It was only the pleasure to drive – to live with the car. I never, never, never thought about competition.”
It was later during a rock concert that destiny came knocking. A friend of hers, Jean Taibi, a young Italian racer invited her to be his co-driver. She recalled during an interview that she went to see Taibi in Corsica. He did not get along with the previous co-driver, hence her taking up the role. There was one wrinkle though which would pave way to her racing career.
After observing his daughter and Taibi in a few rallies, Mouton’s father approached her and asked to her to take up a driving role. He clearly didn’t like Jean, claiming he was too cocky and he didn’t like their car. The proposition was he would fund her first season and purchase a proper rally car. If she was successful then she could continue, but if not then she would have to stop. Mind you, this was during a law degree which she would later drop. There are not many parents who would take a chance on their young daughter who decided to drop out of school to become a rally navigator without prior experience on the track. It must have been Pierre’s own motorsport enthusiasm that guided the decision. Mouton said her father loved fast cars and driving. In fact, he would have become one were it not for the fact he had been a prisoner of war for five years following the Second World War and the opportunity passed him by the time of release. He must have enjoyed the idea of his daughter as a race car driver.
She was a hit with the new Alpine Renault A110 going on to win a series of wins in the local and international scene. Her debut in the WRC came in 1974 at the Tour de Corse during which she finished twelfth overall. Mouton soon attracted sponsorship and any thoughts of returning to law flew out the window. Before securing her niche in rally, Mouton did a stint in closed circuit racing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 2.0 liter prototype class, alongside Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner as part of the all-female line-up, which she won. By this time, she had already been crowned the French and European Ladies Champion, so Fiat and Elf France came calling.
The blistering pace attracted scepticism, because of her gender though. The competition could not believe a woman had such a combination of skill and reckless abandon. Rumours centred on the basis she was running an illegal engine but after several tests, everything was on the up and up. She achieved some success for the last years of the 70s on the world stage, but her career would reach glorious heights after Audi sports drafted her for the WRC program.
Audi had just come up with the iconic Quattro and wanted to unleash it on the rally world. They also needed a group of seasoned drivers who would show the might of the four wheel drive technology. Enter Stig Blomqvist, Michèle and Hannu Mikkola. Mouton won the 1981 Rallye Sanremo, becoming the first woman to win a WRC event. In 1982, she would have won the championship had it not been for Walter Röhrl and his Opel Ascona. Mouton’s driving style could be said to be a mix between James Hunt and McRae. Her aggressive stance proved jarring to Röhrl’s more calculated approach.
Another problem was the team was not initially prepared to attend the Rallies in Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire but since Michèle had a valid and much better chance of winning the title that year, they saddled up. Tragedy struck just before she started the rally. Mouton received news that her father had passed away from cancer in Nice; his last wish, allegedly was she start the rally. Despite the obvious trauma she was eight minutes ahead of Mikkola by the first stage and half an hour ahead of Röhrl. She closed the gap to within 2 points of the lead but the championship hopes were snatched away following mechanical problems and a later crash.
Röhrl would later unashamedly claim that he would have been fine losing to Mikkola but not to Mouton because she was a woman. Yeah. At the time, Michèle explained that her father’s death was more in her mind than the championship. Michèle stayed with Audi for most of the group B period, but secured another gem for her legacy with the Pikes Peak hill climb. After winning her class and coming in second overall in 1984, she returned solo the next year and blew the record completing the hill climb in 11 minutes 25 seconds.
A sequence of unfortunate events would take her from motorsport in 1986. After joining Peugeot in 1986, she was third overall behind the fated Toivonen and Bruno Saby, though there was a transmission problem on the 205 T16, so she had to stop. A day later, Toivonen and his co-driver Cresta went off the side of a cliff on the Tour de Corse. They were killed instantly. Toivonen had been a dear friend to Mouton and his demise greatly affected her. According to Michèle, it was a wake-up call, and she knew it was time to get out and start a family. She went on to found the Race of Champions with her partner, Fredrik Johnson, in honour of the late Toivonen.
Greatly underrated, Michèle Mouton represents a crucial part of the golden age of rally. She went against significant odds just to justify her place in the same sport as the men; proving to many of them, she was better at it than they were.