Michele Mouton: The Queen of Rally

Michele Mouton is the First woman ever to have won a race in the World Rally Championship, and continues to inspire a new generation of women in the motorsport world.

By Niklas da Silva Ekberg, Staff Writer

“Never can, nor will I lose to a woman,” said World Rally Champion, Ari Vatanen, at the 1981 Sanremo Rally. Michele Mouton would go on to beat Vatanen at the Sanremo Rally, becoming the first women ever the win a rally in the World Rally Championship.

Today, Michele Mouton is the president of the FIA’s Woman and Motorsport Commission, she’s been inducted into the Rally Hall of Fame, and has been made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest order of merit for civil rights in France. In the 70s and 80s however, she was breaking stereotypical conventions that women could not compete with men on the world stage of motorsport.

Mouton made her racing debut in 1973, where she was a co-driver for Jean Taibi in the Rally Monte Carlo. Her father did not like Taibi and told her, “If you want to keep rallying, you have to become a driver. I will buy you a car and pay for one season, so you can show what you can do.”

Despite it being her first season in rally, Mouton finished eighth in the women’s event at the 1973 Tour de Corse. She returned to the Tour de Corse in 1974, making her debut in the WRC and competing amongst men. She ended up finishing twelfth beating some of the men in the paddock. Rumors were started that she was running an illegal engine, but an investigation saw that everything was fine.

She went on to become both the French and European rally champion in 1974, which attracted the eye of both Fiat and Elf. In 1975, she joined an all-women’s team in Le Mans, and after making a crucial performance in the rain, the team won their class in Le Mans.

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

Through 1977 to 1979, she competed with Fiat on the world stage, even winning the Tour de France rally. In 1980, Mouton was told by Fiat that she would not race in the Monte Carlo rally as they could only support five cars. Mouton was forced to borrow a Lancia Stratos, which was usually driven by Bernard Darniche.

Darniche was furious, and didn’t want Mouton to drive the Lancia as he was scared she was going to ruin the car. She ended up finishing seventh in the Rally Monte Carlo, ahead of all the other Lancias. Later that year, Darniche would ruin his own Lancia by overheating the engine while racing Mouton.

I would have accepted second place in the championship to Mikkola, 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”

— Walter Rohrl

In 1981, Mouton drove with the newly formed Audi rally team with their groundbreaking invention, all-wheel drive. The Audi Quattro was incredibly quick and handled a lot better than its two-wheel-drive competitors. It was this year where she would make history at Sanremo, becoming the first women ever to win a Rally.

In 1982, Mouton would stay with Audi, but this time she would compete in the full season. The first two races weren’t the best start to the season, with a DNF in Monte Carlo and a fifth-place finish in Sweden. It was round three in Portugal where Mouton would win 18 stages and the rally win, bolstering her up to second in the standings.

Mouton would take her second win in the sixth round in Greece, making her the first driver with two victories that season. She would DNF in the next round in New Zealand but would bounce back with a win in the next round in Brazil.

Initially, Audi was not going to attend the African rallies in Kenya and Cote D’ivoire, but given how close Mouton was to winning the title, they would need to attend the rally in Cote D’ivoire in order to have a shot at winning.

Before the rally in Cote D’ivoire, Mouton had received news that her father had passed away from cancer, and his last wish was for Mouton to do her best in the rally. Mouton was determined to win the rally, and by the end of the first day she was 30 minutes ahead of championship rival, Walter Rohrl. However, the temperature at the rally was unbearable, with temperatures inside the car reaching almost 150 Fahrenheit, and Mouton’s car was starting to experience mechanical issues. Eventually, disaster struck when Mouton rolled her Audi, leaving Rohrl to take the win and the championship with him.

Before the rally in Cote D’ivoire, Rohrl said, “I would have accepted second place in the championship to Mikkola, 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 would later retract these statements in 2005, saying, “She deserved her victories: it was only my good luck that I beat her to the titles.”

Mouton continued to race in rally for the next four years and won the German Rally Championship before retiring to focus on her family.

In 2010, Mouton became the first president of the Women and Motorsport Commission. In an interview with the F1 paddock press, 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.”

Mouton’s performances in the WRC have proven that women can compete with men on the world stage of motorsport and continues to inspire a new generation of women.