Michèle Mouton Took on the World and Won

Mouton and Fabrizia Pons in their Audi during the 1984 RAC Rally of Great Britain. Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

Michèle Mouton is the most successful woman ever to compete in the World Rally Championship. At the height of rallying’s fearsome Group B era, she won international rallies outright and placed second overall in the 1982 championship. Beyond WRC, she even smashed the Pikes Peak Hill Climb record and enjoyed success at Le Mans. Given this year marks 50 years since Mouton’s first rally in 1974, it’s an appropriate moment to revisit her incredible career highlights, hear recollections from the woman herself, now age 72, and learn how her achievements shifted perceptions of women in motorsport more widely. – Ed.

Michèle Mouton grew up in Grasse in the south of France and began codriving for friend Jean Taibi on the 1972 Tour de Corse. A switch to the driver’s seat came from 1974 in an Alpine A110—a sports car gifted by her father Pierre on condition she proved herself that year or called it quits.

In fact, Mouton ultimately proved so quick that male drivers pressed the FIA to tear the Alpine down and check for irregularities. Needless to say the car was legal. In 1975, Mouton also proved her mettle at Le Mans, winning the 2.0-liter class as part of an all-female crew sharing a Moynet LM75 chassis.

Mouton and co-driver Françoise Conconi with an Alpine A110 at the Monte Carlo Rally in January 1976
Mouton and co-driver Françoise Conconi with an Alpine A110 at the Monte Carlo Rally in January 1976.Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

But rallying was her focus, and for 1977 she switched to a privately entered 911. She did enough to earn a Fiat France works drive the following season, but it was with Audi that Mouton achieved the most success, and their relationship began in the Quattro’s debut year of competition.

“I was called by Audi in 1980, June I think, but I can’t remember who it was,” she says. “English was hard for me then, so I went to Ingolstadt with a teacher who could translate.”

A test in Finland with [Quattro engineer and one-time Audi Sport team boss] Walter Treser earned her a works contract for 1981, but first Mouton had outstanding commitments with Fiat. She remembers how terrible the championship-winning Fiat felt in comparison on another test shortly after.

Mouton and Conconi celebrate victory in the 1978 Tour de France atop their Fiat 131
Mouton and Conconi celebrate victory in the 1978 Tour de France atop their Fiat 131.Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

“I drove 500 meters then came back and said to the team boss, ‘The steering is wrong, something is wrong with this car. You try it.’ Then the team boss drove the car and said, ‘Michèle, the car is fine. I wonder if it is because you drove the Quattro…’” She laughs at the memory.

“The Fiat 131 was like a truck in comparison. The Audi had more power and power steering, so it was physically easier for me, but I had to get used to it. I didn’t like technical things so much, so I had to learn and adapt and understand how it worked.”

When Mouton lined up at the 1981 WRC season-opening Monte Carlo Rally with codriver Fabrizia Pons alongside, she knew the PR potential of an all-female crew was a bigger pull for Audi than any likelihood of her winning. She had it all to prove—and did so spectacularly.

Michele Mouton at the helm of her Audi on the 1981 Acropolis Rally
Mouton at the helm of her Audi on the 1981 Acropolis Rally. All three factory Audis retired.Audi

Not at first, though. The Quattro was plagued by reliability issues and by the new team’s own operational problems in the early days, mainly because Audi took crew members from its production line, not other rally teams.

Nonetheless, Mouton finished the season eighth overall and won the 1981 Rallye Sanremo outright, the first and only woman ever to win a round of the WRC. It would not be her last.

A crash on the season-opening Monte Carlo got Mouton’s 1982 campaign off to a disastrous start, but she won outright in Portugal despite spectators crowding onto the stage and—at times—dense fog, and then followed up that success with wins in Greece and Brazil.

1982 Rally Portugal Michele Mouton won outright
1982 Rally Portugal, where Mouton won outright.Audi

By the time she and Pons lined up at the Côte d’Ivoire—the penultimate rally and a notoriously tough African event covering 750 miles on gravel—it was a straight fight between Mouton and Rothmans Opel driver Walter Röhrl, the championship leader.

Devastatingly, Mouton was preparing to start the rally when news that her father had succumbed to cancer filtered through.

“My father died at 7 a.m., and the race started at 8:30 a.m.,” Mouton says. “I wanted to go home but my mother said to drive.” Without telling anyone of the news but Pons, she jumped in the Quattro and set out to win the world championship.

“I was 1 hour 20 minutes up on Röhrl, then lost 1 hour 15 minutes on a gearbox change, then had more problems,” she says.

Ultimately Mouton pushed hard in an attempt to recover the time and crashed out, losing the maximum 20 points she looked set to clinch in the process. Röhrl’s win put him beyond Mouton’s reach as her father’s death began to sink in. “I lost the world championship, but I missed my father more.”

Mouton was assured second place in the championship overall, however, and her second-place finish on Rally GB helped Audi clinch the manufacturer’s championship—a first for an all-wheel-drive car. No woman has ever achieved more in the WRC.

Mouton finished fifth in 1983 (teammate Hannu Mikkola won the title), was offered only a part-time drive for 1984, as Audi signed two-time champion Röhrl, and was entered in only one event for 1985.

MIchele Mouton Pikes Peak portrait color
Volkswagen AG

However, in 1984 and ’85, Audi of America asked Mouton to represent it at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, a daunting 12-mile ‘race to the clouds’ on a dirt-and-gravel surface with huge drops off the side. Again she found success, taking a class win in her inaugural year despite engine issues and the ballast of codriver Pons, and going one better on the 12-mile gravel course for ’85—by now familiar enough with the 156 turns to go it alone.

“The Americans weren’t prepared for us at all at Pikes Peak—they didn’t know about turbo engines or European driving and I was a woman!” remembers Mouton, the indignation and determination still raw in her voice. “When I started to go quickly in practice [for 1985] they made life very difficult for me. The speed limit was quite low and I was over it by a small amount for five miles, and I had to go to the race director.

“He said Audi would have to pay a fine, plus I would have to run to my car at the start, like an old Le Mans race. So, they don’t mind if I jump into the car and don’t do the seatbelt up properly while I’m rushing to drive up the mountain?! I held a press conference to say how dangerous their idea was, and in the end I had to start with the car out of gear.”

Despite the penalty, Mouton charged up the Colorado mountainside in 11 minutes and 25.39 seconds, beating established names like Bobby Unser to the 14,110-ft summit to the win that year, and bettering the overall course record, set by Al Unser, by 13 seconds. “They didn’t know how determined I am!” Mouton sums up.

Michele Mouton Pikes Peak hill climb action 1985
Mouton on her way to a Pikes Peak record.Volkswagen AG
Michele Mouton portrait vertical black white
Volkswagen AG

During her time with Audi, Mouton drove all iterations of the WRC Quattro, from a production-based Group 4 competitor to the far more radical short-wheelbase versions engineered specially for Group B. Which did she prefer?

“The first short-wheelbase Quattro [E1 S1],” she says, without hesitation. “It was the best and I really liked the twin-clutch PDK gearbox. The car only became too fast at the end with the second short-wheelbase car [E1 S2] with 530 bhp on asphalt. It was really hard to read the limit and, when you found it, the time to react was too short. Gravel always showed you the limit. You could feel it.”

The S2 was only keeping pace with the competition, of course, but things really were getting out of control; Lancia’s Attilio Bettega died on Corsica in 1985, then a Ford RS200 ploughed into a crowd during Portugal 1986, killing spectators.

By then driving a Peugeot 205 T16, Mouton was contesting the 1986 Tour de Corse when disaster again struck Lancia, and the sport as a whole: Henri Toivonen and codriver Sergio Cresto perished in a fireball that ultimately triggered the end of Group B.

“Henri was a very good friend, and I had retired two stages before the accident, so I was in the service park when we heard. It was terrible. Terrible,” Mouton recalls.

She went on to win the 1986 German Rally Championship that year and tackled various rally raids with Peugeot through to 1989 before retiring and raising a family (her daughter, in fact, was born in 1987). But Toivonen’s death never left her, and in 1988 she helped found the annual Race of Champions, in part to honor his legacy.

Initially conceived as a showdown between WRC champions in identical cars, Race of Champions continues to this day as the only event where drivers from multiple disciplines compete in such a format.

More recently, from 2010 until her retirement in 2022, Mouton served as president of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport commission, which encourages female participation in all aspects of the sport. In 2021, her career was chronicled in the Emmy-winning Queen of Speed documentary. It’s a compelling watch.

There were others before, and her legacy has inspired others since, but today Michèle Mouton remains not only one of the greatest female drivers of all time, but a woman who beat the best men when rallying couldn’t have been tougher.

Michele Mouton portrait black white
Frank Kleefeldt/Getty Images


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Read next Up next: National Corvette Museum President Talks Sinkhole, C8, and 30th Anniversary Celebrations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *