For a girl whose parents supplied the world-famous local perfume industry with roses and jasmine, Michele Mouton was something of a tomboy, whose love of cars saw her take to the wheel of her father’s Citroen 2CV at the age of 14. She was a keen skier and a good dancer but ended up studying law and working as a trainee nurse until she discovered rallying.

‘A friend was driving at amateur level,’ she said. ‘I went to watch him in Corsica and he didn’t get on with his co-driver so he asked me. It was pure chance.’

Realising that this was what she really wanted from life, her father’s counsel was not to rely on someone else’s performance to make a career of it – she should take the wheel herself. He bought her an Alpine-Renault A110 with the promise that if, after a year, she had not made a Mouton duly claimed both the French GT class and Ladies’ Championship, winning support from Renault and Elf that kept her away from the law books and carried her to the 1975 Le Mans 24 Hours, where she won her class in the endurance racing classic. As Renault’s priorities shifted, Mouton moved to Fiat, where she became a seasoned ace on European asphalt events before Audi called her, out of the blue, and asked how she would feel about a full World Rally Championship programme alongside Hannu Mikkola.

Her cold and wintry first test in the car was a long way from the sun-soaked asphalt of the Cote d’Azur upon which she had carved her reputation, and the Audi Quattro was a car whose physical bulk had left even Mikkola wondering how it would work out. For a young woman whose career had been spent driving svelte Alpines and Lancias, her new mount was a very different proposition entirely.

‘You get used, after a few kilometres, you get used to the car you have to drive… I mean you don’t get any choice!’ she laughed. ‘You have to drive the car. The first time you go with four-wheel drive of course it was a little bit surprising, but it was on snow and we were with the normal tyres and we could do what we were doing with the snow tyres with the other cars so it was, you know, unbelievable. You had to get used to that, I had to get used to the leftfoot braking… all that was news to me.’

Mouton herself, meanwhile, was news to the rest of the world. There were many sceptics who thought that she was there as a stunt (and that there were other drivers more deserving of a works seat). There was also a prevailing chauvinism that believed that women in motor sport served one purpose… and it was not driving. After spending the better part of a decade in the service parks of Europe, however, she was perfectly well used to dealing with the level of fascination that attended her every move.

‘It’s true that at that point, the fact that I was a woman was a point that made the fans wanted to come and see me more closer and everything,’ she said. ‘And touch me!

‘I remember forever one guy opened the door to touch me when the [official] was counting three-two-one… just to go! I mean, it was difficult but in another way of course I was trying to understand also that it was the normal way for them and we have the chance to have a sport where the people can be so close to the driver.’

Nobody was exempt from Mouton-mania, least of all the press. Across Europe she gathered ever-more elaborate nicknames like ‘the black tigress’ and ‘the French volcano’ while in Britain every TV commentator’s work was drenched with the sort of descriptive prose normally reserved for beauty pageants.

‘I would hate it when the journalist would come to me at the end of a rally and say, “Can you smile?” I would say “OK, you go and find Blomqvist or Mikkola, ask them to smile and then you come back to me.’”

In the Quattro’s first season, Mouton gained extra mileage thanks to the partnership between Audi France and BP, when she took part in the French national series co-driven by Annie Arii. On the Terre de Garrigues and Causses Rouergats rallies she stormed to victories which, with all the marketing muscle of her employers at her back, became huge news.

Gaining speed and confidence with every outing, Mouton would make her first entry in the history books when she won the 1981 Sanremo Rally, beating all the boys by keeping out of trouble and attacking at precisely the right moment – a drive that she still relishes.

‘For me, I remember two things: First, the mechanics were all there waiting for my co-driver Fabrizia Pons and me with a big bunch of flowers. Then they put the flowers on the car. That meant so much and was really important for us. Second, when you realised you won, there is nothing on top of that. I had this really fantastic feeling that we reached another level, maybe we will be able to win more.’

The 1982 season should have delivered the FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers but Mouton faced two great hurdles in that aim: Walter Rohrl’s personal crusade against Audi and the absence of strategy that would define Audi’s title-winning seasons in 1983 and 1984. As Hannu Mikkola said: they blew it.

In a recent interview, Roland Gumpert said: ‘Michele was as quick as the men, but she was fiery, and there’d always be more chance of her hitting a stone or something.’ The statistics do not bear this out, as from the start of the 1981 season to the start of her title charge, Mikkola and Mouton were level with two crashes each. Yes, she chose to park the car in Finland when she could have finished third, but there she was deliberately put on the least effective tyres.

From a distance of nearly 40 years, Mouton herself is unwilling to be too critical. ‘Of course I have no memory of all of this,’ she says. ‘But if you are certain of what you are announcing, it would confirm the thesis that Audi did not believe much in the possibility of winning the championship with me and the final results dictated their decisions at the end.’

In 1983, Mouton dutifully followed team orders and shared, with Stig Blomqvist, in the job of guarding Mikkola’s tail whenever possible. By that stage the stopwatches were showing that Blomqvist clearly had an edge over the rest of the Audi team and in 1984 Walter Rohrl was brought into the fold to spearhead the technical development.

For Mouton there was less to do but she seized upon the opportunity of taking the USA by storm at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In 1982 and 1983, Audi USA’s allconquering champion John Buffum had rattled the cages of the good ol’ boys when he entered his Quattro in ‘the race to the clouds’. In 1984 there would be a full works effort with Michele Mouton and the Audi Sport quattro.

The challenge of climbing 3km (2 miles) vertically on a 20km (12.5 mile) stretch of flat-out gravel sweepers enthralled her – although after solo practice runs she did ask for Fabrizia Pons to sit alongside and read the notes. With sheer drops measuring hundreds of metres in places, it was better to be safe than sorry. ‘I felt the car really pushing me and you think, “Shit, I will go there!” I tell you, you are very close to… I had this feeling I was right there, so the feelings were very hot, I would say.’

In her first attempt she came second overall and was comfortably the fastest of the nonspecialist roadsters built for the job. But that was not enough and so Mouton and Pons returned in 1985 with an adapted Sport quattro intent on winning the thing outright – which met with fierce resistance.

For a 5 mph breach of the recce speed rules, Mouton was ordered to push her car to the start line, get in and start it before she could go. ‘The organisers made my life very complicated. It was like it was the first time they saw a rally car or a turbocharged car – even a European or a woman!’ she would recall.

In the end she was allowed to start strapped in the car but was not allowed to select first gear until the flag fell. With her dander up, she duly rocketed up the hill to take the outright victory and set a new course record. It was to be the last hurrah of Mouton’s time with Audi, which came to an end after the contentious Ivory Coast Rally. For 1986 she moved to Peugeot and crushed all opposition in the German national championship but, after the tragedies of the season and with the less exciting Group A cars on the horizon, she left the sport quite content with the honours that she had won.

Not that this was to be the end of Mouton’s career. In tribute to her late friend Henri Toivonen, she established the Race of Champions as an annual jamboree for rally folk. Today it is a wildly profitable franchise embracing the cream of racing and rallying from around the world. Meanwhile, Mouton herself is back in the thick of the action as both manager of the FIA World Rally Championship and president of the FIA Women’s Commission -spending her days wrestling with ways to make the sport better for all.

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