The 1981 season had been a bruising one for Audi Sport, but there was no time to be mawkish. When the 1981 RAC Rally ended, there were just seven weeks until the start of the 1982 Monte Carlo Rally, of which four weeks were to be taken up with the pre-event Thus for the sixth time in his career, Stig Blomqvist won the Swedish Rally. Michele Mouton’s redesigned car struggled home fifth, while Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz had to dig their cars out and could only finish 16th. Audi’s team leader now trailed their guest driver in the world championship standings… but next would be Portugal and a chance to get even on gravel.
On the early asphalt stages Mikkola lay second: in front of Walter Rohrl’s Opel, but behind the second Ascona entered for young Finnish charger Henri Toivonen. No matter: by far the most stage miles would be run on gravel and Mikkola could confidently look forward to catching his young compatriot.
An Audi would indeed win in Portugal but it was Michele Mouton who took the honours rather than Mikkola. The Finn had rolled his Quattro down a hillside into retirement, leaving Mouton to pull away relentlessly from the rest of the field while the third Quattro of Franz Wittmann clawed its way up the order to finish third.
For the second year running, Audi decided to skip the Safari Rally, which was won by the African specialists of Datsun (now rebranded Nissan), but a dogged performance had seen Walter Rohrl finish second. There was still plenty of the season remaining and Audi was right behind Opel in the manufacturers’ standings, but Rohrl was now more than 30 points clear of Mikkola and only Mouton stood a realistic chance of catching him.
The hot, tortuous asphalt of Corsica was never an ally of the Quattros. Jean Ragnotti won for Renault and France duly celebrated, while Mikkola went out with gearbox failure and Wittmann crashed, leaving Mouton as the last Quattro standing, down in seventh place. Two places behind her was Markku Alen in the first appearance of a Lancia built to the new Group B rally formula: the 037 Rallye. It was feather-light and fragile but it was a thing of beauty to behold.
A big, muscular German car with four-wheel drive was precisely the vehicle that was needed on the Acropolis Rally, however, which would be the next round of the championship. Hannu Mikkola arrived still with just the 15 points he had scored in Monte Carlo; less than half the tally of Mouton and just over a quarter that of Rohrl. He would leave Greece without adding to his score after hitting a rock on the second timed stage that caused his Quattro to be mortally wounded.
Two more Quattros would go lame on the event: Franz Wittmann breaking his steering and Michele Cinotto suffering electrical gremlins. The surviving Quattro belonged to Michele Mouton, with Fabrizia Pons alongside her, and she would eventually take victory in a tense battle with Rohrl.
The whole world was now pulling for Mouton to win the championship, but at Audi Sport the manufacturers’ title would always have to come first. This didn’t matter to the press, who relished a battle between Audi’s female star and the hard-nosed Rohrl – and it first got feisty when Mouton won again in the Greek sunshine.
Walter Rohrl later remembered: ‘Before the Acropolis – which she won – I took Werner Grissmann, the famous downhill skier, up a gravel road with hairpins in the Opel and he asked, “Could anything be quicker?” I said: “A monkey in a Quattro,” meaning that the Quattro had so much power and traction that anyone could drive it quicker than the Opel up that hill. But, as often happens, it got around that I had compared Michele to a monkey…’
It was a long haul to New Zealand for the next competitive outing and Gumpert decided to hand over the reins to David Sutton, who would run the works cars in order to minimise disruption to the works team and its development programme. Gumpert didn’t miss much: Mikkola’s steering failed and Mouton’s car sprung a terminal oil leak. The new Toyota Celicas of Bjorn Waldegard and Per Eklund finished 1-2 while behind them was Rohrl, assiduously gathering 12 very valuable points.
The next round was supposed to have been in Argentina but fallout from the Falklands War precluded such fripperies and so Brazil stepped into the breach as a host. This was also to be the first event at which the Audi Quattros would be classified as Group B machines.
Although no modifications had been made, Gumpert and his team had satisfied FISA that it would be ready and willing to enter fully Group B compliant Quattros from the start of 1983. Plans had been laid for both a modified standard car and a short wheelbase version to try and make the Quattro more competitive in Corsica if needed, which satisfied FISA and thus the current Group 4 cars were given Group B status for the rest of the season.
With its paperwork thus in order, Brazil provided another event to forget for Hannu Mikkola, who crashed. It was a quirky little event, run somewhat haphazardly but featuring so’me of the most jaw-dropping scenery ever seen in the world championship – and it was an event that Mouton relished. Hers would be another knock-down-drag-out contest with Walter Rohrl, but the battle ended in her third win of the season.
From this point onwards, Rohrl was going to have to start dropping his worst scores of the season, giving Mouton every incentive to push hard. It should also have galvanised the Audi Sport team around her to beat their outspoken nemesis, but with Opel still leading the manufacturers’ points table, Gumpert had to ensure maximum points in all the remaining rallies, the first of which was in Finland for the 1,000 Lakes.
Audi put Stig Blomqvist out in the third works car to help its cause. Walter Rohrl was not in attendance as he did not care for the Finnish event but if Mouton was to capitalise on his absence she would need to keep on terms not only with Mikkola and Blomqvist but also local heroes Henri Toivonen in the lead Opel entry and Markku Alen in Lancia’s Group B supercar.
Adding to her concerns, Mouton would also have to be content with running on Kleber’s lesser tyres while Blomqvist brought a stash of the Michelin tyres that he had been using in the Swedish championship and Mikkola, eager to lose no advantage at home, was also given Michelins. Mikkola and Mouton were neck-and-neck in the early stages and although the Frenchwoman was having to work much harder on lesser rubber, it would be a brave man who suggested to Hannu Mikkola that he back off on the 1,000 Lakes.
Both of Audi’s regular drivers were embroiled in a mighty scrap with Toivonen, Alen and Ari Vatanen. Blomqvist had meanwhile shot off into a sizeable lead. Alen’s Lancia broke down early on but then Mouton, trying everything to stay with her teammates, broke the front differential on a jump and only realised that she had a two-wheel-drive Quattro at the next bend as she went off.
The car was not badly damaged despite rolling, and Finland is full of eager fans who bring tow rope and muscle in ample supply. But by that stage Mouton had seen enough of the rally and the perceived lack of parity with her teammates, so she left the car in its ditch. That was a shame because third place was the very least that she could have achieved.
As it was, Blomqvist had a similar moment on the same stage and fell back into Mikkola’s clutches while both Vatanen and Toivonen retired soon afterwards. In order to protect Audi’s manufacturer points, Gumpert ordered his drivers to hold station and Mikkola cruised to yet another 1,000 Lakes win in front of the muzzled Blomqvist and a delirious home crowd.
Audi’s tally was thus bolstered and Mouton was not yet out of the game in the drivers’ championship battle – although those missing points from Finland rankled. Whether by accident or design, Walter Rohrl was piling on the pressure in every way possible, looking relaxed on the Sanremo sea front before the start of the next event, declaring:
‘The main thing I realised at the beginning of the year is that the challenge would come from a new technology, a new car with four-wheel drive, that shows the way into the future. Probably I would lose against it but I can’t see anything bad with that.’
The inference was clear: Rohrl would not be beaten by a woman. A show of strength would be required from Audi, and Gumpert, together with David Sutton, brought six crews to the event: Mikkola/Hertz, Mouton/Pons, Blomqvist/ Cederberg and Wittmann/Diekmann with the works and Sutton cars for Cinotto/Radaelli and Demuth/Fischer.
In many respects it was too many cars for even the combined teams to cope with and repeatedly cars left service with unresolved issues or incorrect components. Despite this, and with no team orders, Blomqvist soared off into the lead to take victory from Mikkola. Mouton was fourth behind Walter Rohrl’s Opel with Cinotto sixth, Wittmann crashing out early and Demuth losing his engine.
All of this put Audi in a commanding position in the manufacturers’ title race, but Mouton’s championship hopes were fading. She would have to beat Rohrl in both of the remaining events and hope that he had some bad luck.
Audi went to Bandama in the Ivory Coast with two heavily reinforced cars for the annual slog through Africa’s roughest terrain. This time, Mikkola fell in line and drove his car as a support vehicle to Mouton, carrying Gumpert as co-driver and a number of spare parts.
Yet, while Mouton finally had the entire team behind her, news arrived 90 minutes before the start that her beloved father had died and she was forced to compete in a state of shock and grief – although she overcame it and left Rohrl standing for much of the rally.
With the end practically in sight, however, she fumbled. Delayed by wet electrics, which allowed Rohrl to close up, she put the hammer down and made one small mistake, which turned into a rally-ending accident. To this day, the story told is that Michele Mouton lost the world championship on the Ivory Coast Rally but, in fact, her fate had been sealed much earlier in the season. At the time of writing, in 2019, her 1982 campaign is one that no other woman has come close to equalling in the annals of world championship motor sport.
Rohrl’s unexpected victory in Africa ended the drivers’ title race in his favour and put Opel firmly back in with a chance of taking the manufacturers’ title on the RAC Rally. As a ‘blind’ rally without reconnaissance passes, this was an event that Rohrl made no secret about detesting as it gave an advantage to local drivers – and meanwhile he had signed a contract with Lancia for 1983, putting its rapid little Group B car at his disposal.
It was a perfect storm for Opel chief Tony Fall, who brought cars for Henri Toivonen and new signing Ari Vatanen, both of whom loved the British event. There was a late change to the entry list, however, when he sent Rohrl home in favour of Opel stalwart Jochi Kleint.
‘Obviously his heart was not in it and we want the maximum performance that we can from every single member of our team,’ Fall told the TV cameras at the start. ‘Kleint is the other German A-seeded driver, he needs to have a good result now, this year, to actually retain his A-seeding and we think that he will be hungry enough now, as this is his last chance, to do an actual better performance than Walter Rohrl.’
It was a low blow but ultimately was rather academic. The RAC Rally belonged to Audi Sport as Mikkola drove to victory with Mouton behind him. Vatanen’s car blew a head gasket, leaving Toivonen’s Opel and Alen’s Lancia to squabble over the last podium placing. Three other Quattros appeared, of which Harald Demuth finished fifth in a Sutton car, young British talent Malcolm Wilson came home tenth in Audi UK’s primary car and North American champion John Buffum was 12th in his Audi USA-backed Quattro. Just a few weeks later, the 1983 season would begin.