No ‘women in motorsports’ list is complete without Michèle Mouton—in fact, quite a few people would rank her first on such a list. But the Frenchwoman can easily join the male-dominated roster of all-time World Rally Championship legends, too. We’re talking about a driver who competed in the ’80s against some of the greatest talents the series has ever seen.
The Grasse native’s move from law student to rally racer came by accident in 1972. “A friend was driving at amateur level. I went to watch him in Corsica and he didn’t get on with his co-driver, so he asked me,” Mouton recalled in an interview with RedBull.com. “Then my father said, ‘I know you like to drive. I will buy you a car and pay for one season. If you are good, then you should get some results.’”
In her Alpine-Renault A110, Mouton quickly put together a series of successful runs in both local and international events, and made her WRC debut in 1974 at her home event, the Tour de Corse. By the close of the decade, she had won the 2.0-liter class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, gained a major sponsorship deal from oil firm Elf, and signed with Fiat as a pro racer.
Then came the big break in 1981: an offer to race with Audi Sport in the WRC, behind the wheel of the newly homologated Audi Quattro. Despite car issues and a difficult adjustment period, Mouton persevered in proving her prowess—and was amply rewarded for it. She took victory at the Rallye Sanremo, becoming the first woman to win a WRC event.
That first win is always a major confidence booster, and in Mouton’s case, it transformed her from good driver to championship contender. In 1982, she found herself competing for the title against Walter Röhrl. Her fiery, all-out assault was the opposite of the 1980 champion’s more consistent and calculated approach. The latter tactic proved more effective: Despite taking three wins versus her Röhrl’s two, Mouton was outscored in the final tally by 12 points.
She remained with Audi for most of the Group B period, but her best performance at that time took place at Pikes Peak in 1985. As if the hill climb itself wasn’t challenging enough, she also had to contend with the politics. “The organizers made my life very complicated,” she told RedBull.com. “It was like it was the first time they saw a rally car or a turbocharged car—even a European or a woman!”
Unfortunately for the Americans, they got Mouton so provoked that she not only won the event, but also set a new record. And when Bobby Unser made known his displeasure at losing to her, she reportedly had this to say: “If you have the balls, you can try to race me back down as well.”
Her retirement from the WRC coincided with the end of the Group B era, which had been triggered by the death of her friend Henri Toivonen. Mouton later co-founded the Race of Champions in his honor. To this day, she remains active in the racing community, serving as the founding president of the FIA’s Women and Motor Sport Commission.
About Michèle Mouton
Date of birth: June 23, 1951
Hometown: Grasse, France
Notable results: 1982 WRC runner-up; 1985 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb winner
NOTE: This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Top Gear PH. Minor edits have been made.