Saturday, 31 July 2010

Michele Mouton




Michèle in 1977

Born in 1951, this French rally star is perhaps the best known of all female racing drivers, and with little doubt the most successful. She has always shrugged off questions about what it is like to be a top female driver, stating that she just wants to be known as a top driver, full stop. During the group B era, when rally cars were far more powerful and unpredictable than they are today, she came close to winning the World Rally Championship, living up to her own words and justifying her reputation as one of the greats of her time.

Michèle was born in Grasse and was not from a motorsport background. She was, however, a sporty kind of girl who particularly enjoyed skiing. After studying law at university she had worked in several jobs, including a stint as a care assistant in a home for disabled people and a season as a ski instructor, before taking a job at her father's insurance firm. At the age of 21 she was largely unaware of rallying, but that all changed when she met Jean Taibi, a rally driver who became her boyfriend. In 1973 he obtained an entry into the Monte Carlo Rally and recruited Michèle as his navigator. The couple's Peugeot 304 did not get to the finish and Michèle's father was terribly worried about her all the way through the event. She enjoyed the experience and wanted to do more rallies, but M. Mouton did not trust Taibi and thought his daughter would be safer driving her own car. He bought her an Alpine-Renault A110 and started her driving career for her. She did some hillclimbs and local rallies at first.

With the 1600cc Alpine, Michèle competed around France in 1974. She was on the pace almost immediately and finished twelfth in the Tour de Corse, her first international rally. Her good performances in class led her to her first French Ladies' Championship, against the likes of Marie-Claude Beaumont and Christine Dacremont. She was fifth in class in the Tour de France and ended the season French GT class champion. Away from the official championships, she was fifth in the last running of the Paris-St. Raphaël women’s rally. She was navigated by Annie Arrii.

The following year, the car was upgraded to 1800cc and its driver put the extra power to good use. It took her two events to break into the top ten, after an eleventh in the Stuttgart-Lyon-Charbonnières. She was sixth in the Ronde de la Giraglia, then tenth in the Criterium Lucien Bianchi, in Belgium. Her best finish was fifth, in the Criterium Alpin, which was followed by sixth in the Rallye d’Antibes. For her final event, the Tour de Corse, she was seventh overall, and won her class. Her partnership with Françoise was strong, and they were a regular fixture in the top ten of French rallies in the 1970s.
As an aside, she also raced at Le Mans that year, winning the 2-Litre class in a Moynet JRD-LM75 with her female co-drivers, Mariane Hoepfner and Christine Dacremont.

Michele and Françoise continued to work together in 1976. They were eleventh in Monte Carlo but failed to finish the Tour de Corse, retiring with differential trouble from a car-breaking rally only eleven crews finished. On the French stages, Michele also worked with other navigators. One highlight was her second place on the Criterium Alpin, with Denise Emmanuelli. She travelled to Italy for the San Remo Rally with “Biche” (Michele Petit), but did not finish after the radiator gave up. She did not get to the end of the Rallye d’Antibes either.

Michèle tried out a number of cars in 1977. An Autobianchi proved not to her liking at the start of the season and she languished in 24th place on the Monte Carlo Rally. A little later in the season, she acquired a Porsche Carrera RS. This car suited her driving style much better and she was rewarded with her first big win on the Rally of Spain. This was something she had been waiting for since she started rallying and had known was within her grasp for the past couple of seasons. She was a close second in the Tour de France too, second in the Rallye d’Antibes and fourth in the Criterium Alpin. This was enough for second in the European Championship.

Shortly after her euphoric first victory, she changed car again. The new vehicle was a Fiat 131 Abarth, which Michèle always claimed to dislike. However, it gave her some very good results from the start; an eighth place on the Tour de Corse in one of its first outings, in 1977 and a second outright win on the 1978 Tour de France. Her second win of the season came on the Lyon-Charbonnières rally. Back in Corsica, she was fifth. She picked up three third places in the Lorraine, Antibes and Criterium Alpin rallies. In Italy, driving with Françoise this time, she was fourth in the Giro d’Italia. That year, she was fifth in the European Championship, and fourth in the FIA’ Cup for Rally Drivers.

As well as the Fiat, Michèle also rallied a Lancia Stratos HF in 1978, coming seventh in Monte Carlo. She never had time for smaller-engined cars and liked hers to be as powerful as possible. She was not afraid of supposedly "difficult" machines like the Fiat and Stratos and was gaining a reputation for her fearless driving style too.

In 1979, she was supported by Fiat France as a works entry. She did not manage to achieve any more significant wins, but maintained her position as a front-runner in French and European events. She was seventh again on the Monte and fifth in Corsica. In French rallies, she scored third places in the Lorraine Rally and the Tour de France, and seconds in the Rallye d’Antibes and Criterium de la Chataigne. In the first year of the World Rally Championship, she was 21st.

1980 carried on in much the same vein, although Françoise Conconi had been replaced in the navigator's seat by an old friend, Annie Arrii. It was business as usual, with another fifth and seventh place in the major French rallies (Corsica and Monte Carlo). In Provence, Michèle took yet another win in the Terre de Garrigues Rally. In the Boucles de Spa, she was fourth. Away from pure rallying, she was third in the Tour de France, all in the Fiat.

During the off-season, Michèle was approached by Audi, who were interested in signing her as a works driver in the World Championship. Audi were a new team and their Quattro was a new, revolutionary car. Michèle jumped at this superb chance to prove herself on the world stage, although she was under no illusions about the fact that her gender made her newsworthy and therefore a good catch for a young rally team. 
Her team-mate was the legendary Finn, Hannu Mikkola. She also gained a new co-driver in Fabrizia Pons, an Italian woman who had previously been a rally driver and motocross rider.
From the very start of the season, it was obvious that the Quattro was something special. It was the first four-wheel drive rally car and on the snowy Monte Carlo roads it left the rear-wheel drive cars standing. Neither Michèle nor Hannu finished the rally (Mikkola crashed and Michèle had to retire after using fuel contaminated with sand) but their early speed thoroughly scared the other teams.

Her next outing in the Quattro was better; she was fourth in Portugal and the first Audi finisher. A camshaft gave way in Corsica and Michèle and her team-mate Franz Wittman were excluded from the Acropolis Rally after irregularities with the car were discovered. The next rally was Finland; Hannu Mikkola managed to keep his fragile Audi on the road until the end to finish third, but Michèle could only manage thirteenth.

Her season really picked up in Sanremo. This rally was a multi-surface event in the early 1980s and something of a car-breaker. Michèle kept on going and eventually made history. She was the first Audi driver to win a rally, the first (and so far only) woman to win a WRC rally and the first driver to win in a four-wheel drive car. In effect, she ushered in the 4WD era. It was a hard-fought win as the Audi's propshaft broke on the final day and the second-place man, Henri Toivonen, was chasing hard. Michèle still beat him by over three minutes.

The last rally of the season, the RAC Rally, was a big come-down as she crashed out. It was Hannu Mikkola's turn for glory as he claimed the win. He was third in the drivers' standings and Michèle was eighth at the end of the year.

1982 started inauspiciously with another crash, in Monte Carlo this time. "The French Tigress" was known for pushing very hard and showing little fear. A more promising fifth in the Swedish Rally followed. This snow rally is notoriously difficult and was then the exclusive preserve of Scandinavians.

Now back on track, Michèle scored her second WRC win in Portugal, another rough rally of attrition where most of the works entries suffered. Next time out, she was seventh on the Tour de Corse. Her second win of the year came on the Acropolis rally in Greece, nearly six minutes in front of the runner-up, Walter Röhrl in his Opel Ascona. The woman from Grasse was now big news and Audi were no longer employing her as a token female.

Michèle and Fabrizia celebrate their Acropolis Rally win
It would have been a third victory in New Zealand but for an error and then a broken oil pipe. Michèle spun off the stage while leading and then retired later. She did not have long to wait for another rally win though, beating Walter Röhrl by a huge margin to win the Rally of Brazil, a true car-destroyer that was feared by all drivers and removed from the calendar a few years later. Only five cars made it to the end that year.

An accident on stage seventeen put her out of the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland. This was an event she never really got to grips with. Again, it was the preserve of Scandinavian drivers.

A fourth place in Sanremo, scene of her previous triumph, was enough to keep her up the drivers' leaderboard. She now had a realistic chance of doing the unthinkable and winning the World Championship. However, the next rally, the Cote d'Ivoire, was a disaster. Michèle was at the top of the points table with Walter Röhrl and really needed to win or at least score well in order to secure the title, but she was distracted that week by news that her father was seriously ill in hospital. Ever the professional, she carried on, but crashed out late on. Röhrl won and the title was his. He had been more consistent, despite winning fewer rallies outright.
The last event of the season was the RAC Rally. Michèle put her hurt behind her and came a battling second. It was an Audi one-two that year as Hannu Mikkola claimed the win.

Michèle was the runner-up in the WRC, trailing Walter Röhrl by twelve points. This was the highest female finish to date but she wasn't bothered about that; she had wanted to win. Mikkola was third.

Unsurprisingly, Audi retained Michèle's services for the 1983 season. The WRC rules had changed and the team was spearheading a new class of car: group B. These vehicles had up to and sometimes over 600bhp, four-wheel drive and spaceframe chassis. It was an exciting time to be a rally driver and she was in the centre of it.

The season started inauspiciously again with Michèle crashing out of Monte Carlo on stage ten. She was not a tarmac specialist and never scored very highly there. Pure snow proved less of a problem though. She and Fabrizia were fourth in Sweden and the only non-Scandinavians in the top twenty.

The Portuguese round of the WRC saw another strong finish for her and another Audi one-two, with Hannu Mikkola in front this time. On her first attempt at the Safari Rally in Kenya she was third, revelling in the rough and inhospitable conditions.

Back in Europe, a fire put paid to her Corsican ambitions, then an accident put her out of the Acropolis. Her terrible run continued in New Zealand, where the Quattro's engine failed on stage 27. She and Fabrizia got back on track in Argentina, where they scored another third-place finish. They were sixteenth in Finland, seventh in Sanremo and unplaced in Great Britain after a crash. Too many non-finishes pushed Michèle down to fifth in the championship, although Hannu Mikkola was the first group B champion.

Michèle and Fabrizia rallied together again in 1984, but they contested fewer rallies in the Quattro. Audi had kept on Mikkola and the eventual champion, Stig Blomqvist of Sweden, as their main drivers.

Michèle made an excellent start to her season with a second in Sweden, which stood for a long time as the best finish by a non-Nordic driver, as well as the highest finish for a French driver until Sébastien Loeb won the event in 2004. However, the season went downhill from there, with turbo problems, engine trouble and an accident dumping her out of the Safari, Acropolis and 1000 Lakes rallies respectively. A fourth in the RAC Rally was a more positive end to the year, but twelfth place in the drivers' championship was a disappointment.

Her activities were not confined to rallying that year; Audi had sent a works team to America to contest the Pike's Peak hillclimb, the so-called "Race to the Sky". Michèle put her rally disappointments behind her and won the Rally Car section of the climb, finishing second overall, in front of several single-seater cars with vastly superior power.

1985 saw only one major international rally for the 34-year-old Frenchwoman. It was a one-off Audi drive in the Bandama Rally, in the Cote d'Ivoire. This was an event that Michèle had history with, and this time it would again prove troublesome. After apparently recovering from an off, Audi were accused of substituting Michèle's damaged car for the team mechanics' chase car, thereby cheating. The team strenuously denied this, but declined to produce the "missing" chase car as evidence, leading to Michèle being withdrawn from her last WRC rally with Audi, despite finishing fifth. Her reputation was not harmed too much, but it was an embarrassment nevertheless.

Away from the WRC, she contested some European and British rallies with mixed results. This included retiring on day one of that year’s Circuit of Ireland with hydraulic problems. She competed in five rounds of the British Open Championship, but only finished one, the Shell International Welsh Rally, in which she was second. This must have been very frustrating. In the European championship, she drove in the Costa Smeralda Rally, but lost a wheel. It was a year to forget.

It wasn't all negative controversy in her last year as an Audi works driver. The team went to Pike's Peak again and Michèle won the hillclimb outright, by a very healthy margin. Bobby Unser, the established US star, was fuming about being beaten by a French woman driving a German car and voiced his distaste. Michèle's cool response was said to be "if you had any real balls, you'd race me back down as well."

After a mixed final year at Audi, Michèle joined the Peugeot team, to drive their fearsome 205 T16. She did not finish either of her WRC events, Monte Carlo and Corsica, due to technical problems. A move to the West German Rally Championship proved very profitable though; she won the title after at least four wins, including the Rallye Deutschland, Hünsruck Rally, Rallye Hessen and the Kohle und Stahl Rallye. Her navigator was Terry Harryman.

Her professional career ends here. Rallying was changing again. The group B cars which she had helped to bring in were banned after 1986, following several nasty high-profile accidents. The final straw was Henri Toivonen's violent crash in Corsica, which resulted in him and his navigator Sergio Cresto burning to death. One of Michèle's main projects in retirement is the yearly Race of Champions motorsport festival, in memory of Toivonen, who was a personal friend.


In 1987, Michèle gave birth to her daughter, Jessie. Aside from the demise of Group B, her desire to have children was one of the reasons she left full-time rallying. Jessie Johnsson has dabbled in rallying and sometimes accompanies her mother to motorsport-related functions.
Although she prefers to keep a lower profile now, Michèle has been known to come out of retirement every now and then. In 1988 and 1989 she did a few rally raids for Peugeot, in Spain and North Africa. She was usually running as a chase car in a T16, supporting Jacky Ickx or Ari Vatanen. Her best finish in these events was sixth, in the 1988 Rally of Tunisia. Over ten years later, in 2000, she was persuaded to enter the London-Sydney Marathon rally by Francis Tuthill. Driving a Porsche 911, they were second overall behind an old sparring partner, Stig Blomqvist.

Since then, she has made a few appearances in classic events, including the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where she received a good reception. More recently, she has been rallying a classic Ford Escort in Africa, accompanied by Ana Goni. Her latest appearances include the International Rally of Otago, in New Zealand, in 2008. Reunited with Fabrizia Pons, she was 34th in a Ford Escort. She also entered the Rallye du Maroc in 2010 in a Porsche 911, and was second.


Michèle was heavily involved in the creation of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, which she chaired. She is now an FIA representative overseeing the World Rally Championship.

(Images from www.lemonde.fr and www.sportscars.tv)

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