Just like you lot, we know that there’s never any harm in bringing together an awesome piece of rally kit with an equally awesome young thing who is easy on the eye and conspicuously lacking in clothing. Let’s be straight about it: we love a good rally babe here at WRF.
But 30 years ago, while it was busy reinventing the sport with its mighty Quattro, Audi Sport struck upon an even better way of bringing brawn and beauty together – it hired Michèle Mouton to drive alongside the well-proven talents of Hannu Mikkola.
Michèle was born in June 1951 in Grasse on the French Riviera, where her parents grew roses and jasmine on their large property as part of the local perfume industry. Such girlish things didn’t seem to interest the daughter of the house, who drove her father’s Citroën 2CV in a rally at the tender age of 14. Despite her parents’ encouragement to study law she was back in harness by 1973, taking part as a co-driver in the Monte Carlo Rally.
Abandoning all hope of a ‘proper job’ her parents duly funded an Alpine-Renault A110 for Michèle to compete with. Through the 1970s she campaigned Alpines and later Fiats with aplomb, scoring top-10 finishes on major events, and was duly signed up by Audi for its burgeoning 4WD campaign with more than one eye on the publicity that its glamorous driver could bring them.
She brought far more than added glamour, however. Yes it’s true that la Mouton was a conspicuous presence in the sport, not least because she was regularly given a slinky black Quattro next to the regular team’s white ones, but something about that car really clicked with Mouton’s talents.
“The feeling of the Quattro was a strong car, nothing can happen to you,” she recalled in America’s Road & Track magazine. “It really gave you the satisfaction when you wanted do something, you could always do what you wanted with the car.”
Too right, she did. Despite being up against the mighty Mikkola, and later joined by Swedish artist-at-the-wheel Stig Blomqvist, the young Frenchwoman raised her game with rally after rally – so much so that in 1982 it was she who was in contention for the world championship title.
In that astonishing year, Mouton started with a rollercoaster ride in the Monte Carlo Rally, setting the fastest time of all through the Col de Turini but crashing heavily soon afterwards. A fifth place finish followed in Sweden and then came outright victory in Portugal. A disappointed seventh place finish on the Tour de Corse was followed by a second, exultant victory on the Acropolis which carried her to second place in the standings as the season came down to a battle between Michèle and Opel’s German ace Walter Röhrl in the more traditional 2WD Ascona.
It has often been rumoured that her rivalry with Röhrl was tinged with a flat refusal on his part to accept Mouton as an equal. If that were ever the case, that’s the sort of thing which rally people choose to forget: “With the other drivers, they were professionals and gentlemen,” Mouton recalled. “Inside the car, we were all racers. Outside the car, they were very supportive. I never had any problems.”
She didn’t finish in New Zealand, but regained ground in Brazil when Röhrl foundered. She crashed out of the 1000 Lakes in Finland but held on for fourth in Sanremo to keep her title hopes alive – and take Audi in to the African events, which it had not planned on contesting. A huge and hurried programme to get the Quattro fit for the savannah territory took place while the drivers got used to a new and hostile environment – the Quattro’s confines reached temperatures of 70°C through the combination of ambient and mechanical heat!
The Ivory Coast rally was brutal, and all the more so for Mouton because her father succumbed to cancer at home in Nice before the start – with his dying wish that she should take part in the event and win the title. At the halfway stage, an epic 2500km in to the event, Mouton led from Röhrl by more than half an hour – despite losing 25 minutes due to transmission problems. Time and again mechanical frailties hit the Quattro, which was making its displeasure felt at the long, hot slog through Africa.
Controversially, the Audi Sport team managed to make an enforced change of the fuel injection system on Mouton’s car to keep her in contention, leaving the Quattro and Röhrl’s Ascona tied for the lead at the start of the final day – in which Mouton rolled and, in that accident, ended her title challenge.
Mouton remained with Audi for the next three seasons, but never made such as strong challenge for the title. She moved to Peugeot for 1986 but found the 205 T16 much more nervous to drive than the Quattro and, with the abolishment of Group B at the end of the season, she retired from competition. Since then, the first lady of rallying has gone on to be one of the founders of the Race of Champions all-star event and remains one of the most charismatic figures in the sport’s history.
Among all the highlights of her career, Mouton habitually picks one thing that defined rallying for her: the astonishing coupé that brought her so close to claiming rallying’s greatest prize.”If I have some emotion, of course it’s the noise of the Quattro. I mean, nobody can forget the noise. Even today, I think we miss this kind of noise.”
And, it must be said, the drivers, Michèle! After 30 years we’re still spellbound by that title fight…