PART THREE: French
lady Michele Mouton needs no introduction. As the most successful, and
most famous, female driver of all time, Mouton is the winner of four
World Rally Championship events, and finished an agonising second (by
one point) in the 1982 world title race.
Born in Grasse, in France, on June 23, 1951, Mouton started her
rallying career driving Renaults and Alpine Renaults, and finished
second in the European Championship in 1977. She drove Fiat Abarth
131s until 1980, when Audi signed her to partner Hannu Mikkola in the
all-new Audi Quattro.
She was immediately competitive and finished second in Portugal on just
her second WRC start for Audi – when victories soon followed, she was
quickly elevated to hero status around the world.
Last month, Michele was in New Zealand to compete in the Otago Classic
Rally – the first time in 24 years that she had driven in a special
RallySport Magazine’s Peter Whitten spent an enthralling hour with the charming French lady before the event got underway.
After your World Championship career ended in 1986, you went to the USA and did the Pikes Peak race. What was that like?
Fantastic, but for me it was a hard time. It was the first time they have a European team. The first time they have a rally car turbocharged, and the first time they have a French woman. It was very difficult for me.
Their trouble was that when you make my life difficult, normally you give me more motivation than anything else!
The first year I went up once, and said “No way I will do that alone, I will never remember it all.”
So I ring Fabrizia and say I need you here – she is not so heavy, so it will not impact on the performance so much!
The second year we really wanted to beat the record because we had finished second the first time. So I did it myself. During the practice I was over the speed limit by 5mph and they make a huge story out of that… that I was speeding, that I could have killed a child crossing the road……
So I had a penalty of I don’t know how many dollars, and on top of that I was not allowed to drive the car to the starting line. They are to bring it onto the line, and then I have jump in the car and go from there.
So my team manager said “Look, we will have a press conference for the journalists.” I said OK, we do that, and at that conference I say: “So, they say maybe I can kill somebody, but no one minds me jumping in the car and maybe killing myself because I am not in the right condition to start.”
Then I could see the director and everyone thinking. Then they say “OK, you can be in the car belted in, but not driving it”. So the mechanics have to push the car onto the line with the engine running, but not in the gears. So I was revving the engine….. and you imagine having to push a Quattro, going up a small gradient to the start.
The awesome Pikes Peak Quattro.
I thought “You will see.” It was the biggest motivation I have. I went so fast. Just before the end, at the top, are four corners that are very, very fast, but not quite flat out. On one you have to lift just a little. But I decide not to that time, and have the hardest time with my car. One of the biggest moments in all my rallying, but we did it!
It’s a scary road to drive, especially with the sun. You have no reference points – you don’t know how far from the side you are, and there’s some really huge drops. Very scary.
You then did the German Championship after your WRC career.
The shift from Audi is what I don’t really remember so well. I had had enough, because we had got to the stage where 300 days a year we were in the car or doing some PR or something. And then, also at that time, there were four in the team – not easy.
I don’t know what happened. But in my mind time in a French car again would be fantastic for a change. I don’t know how it all happened, but I suppose Jean Todt had something to do with it.
Fabrizia had got married in January (1985) so I was without co-driver… so I got Terry Harryman, perhaps because he had come free from being with Ari.
It wasn’t part of any big plan because I had never built up my career like that. I just took opportunities as they came, and this was one of them.
I know that I liked the Peugeot 205 T16 very much.
I do know that in Corscia 1986 I had just dropped out in the stage before Henri (Toivonen), and I was here when it happened. I said to my boyfriend at the time that if they stop the Group B now, it will be the end for me. Henri’s death was not what affected me to this decision (to retire) – it was because of stopping Group B.
In one way I always had it in mind that I did not want to miss my femine life – to have a family. It was a good time to stop, and it was very clear. So I finished the season with Peugeot and was German champion, and this was end. Very easy for me.
What was the ultimate rally car that you drove?
The final S1 Quattro was the most difficult one. For rallying on ashpalt, I agree the limit had gone too far. We did not have the reflexes to control it properly. It was tough to drive the car, but not the short Quattro before.
But they could have changed the regulations – maybe for the tyres. On gravel the car was always moving, so it was telling you “OK, now be careful”.You did not get that on asphalt.
The short Quattro, for me, was the nicer car, but the S1was difficult.
After five years with Audi, the Peugeot felt like a very nice toy.
Having said that any number of drivers could win the events you contested in the WRC, who do you rate as the best of them?
Driving an Escort RS1800 for the first time.
That’s very hard. Walter (Rohrl) was maybe the most complete, but if you take only gravel then Hannu (Mikkola) and Stig (Blomqvist) were so very, very good. It is difficult because you all have your moment, your day. On Safari, (Bjorn) Waldegard was just fantastic. Even if you remember Timo Salonen. But Walter was very fast on asphalt, but then he never did Safari very much - he did not like that kind of rally, so was he complete? Maybe something missing!
You also diversified and competed in the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Coming from rallying to circuit racing, what I remember was that I have never been so scared going in a straight line as I as was on the Mulsanne (straight). You could feel the car was just so light. We were crazy, because this car had no test, nothing. No aerodynamic tests, just building this car for Le Mans. We were testing on Magny Cours, which was then very tight, and couldn’t even get up into fifth gear, so we did not try at high speed.
At least I was never tired, as when they asked to drive everytime it was only for two hours. Not like a rally in those days, which went through three days and three nights.
It started to rain I remember, and I started to pass everybody. I was running on slicks. In the pits they were saying “Michele you must stop”, but I did not want to because I was passing everyone.
Finally we won our category in prototype 2-litres.
After so many years of full-on motorsport, was it difficult to change the pace and get back to everyday life?
No, because for me I am never doing nothing. Always doing something. I never have enough time to do the things I want to do.
First I have my daughter the year after, in 1987. A new change. In 1988 we got the idea for Race of Champions straight away, just the two of us to organise that.
So now that takes some of my time, and I play golf, I travel, have my dogs. I enjoy life!
The Race of Champions obviously takes a fair percentage of your time these days. Have you ever competed in it yourself?
Mouton signs autographs for fans in New Zealand.
I was part of the Rally Legends one year, but when you are part of the organisation it is very hard also to drive. Its development has been very, very good since we move to stadiums. Also, when you are in a capital city it is easier for the drivers to come. More convenient, shorter (one day).
They enjoy being together, it is really nice. You know, when you are competing you are following each other’s results all year round – rallying, NASCAR, F1 – but you never have the chance to be together. They are very relaxed and friendly, and with the Nations Cup they are fighting for their country for the first time.
The only events you have done in the past 24 years are the London-Sydney Marathon re-run, and the Classic Safari Rally. What brings you back to New Zealand, and back into special stage rallying?
Because of you. It is true. People have been very, very nice. You remember this, and people are very friendly.
Also, I like the roads, but in this rally (Otago) I think I will have a big surprise, because I thought it would be like the roads I have in my mind from the North Island. But I think it is not exactly the same – all those crests. When I see these I think this is not New Zealand, this is Finalnd. We will see.
But Fabrizia has been saying “Ah, it is fantastic. You will love it”, and so on. So I say “OK, we will go”.
My biggest problem after so many years will be to write the pacenotes. Not for 24 years have I done this. It will be complicated - I am more concerned about that than the car.
There is no way I can use the English notes provided, so I will have go on my way with French notes. It is a number system, but the number means the gear and speed.
I am quite specific because my style is not really sliding too much, so my notes need to be quite precise.
This will be the first time you’ve driven the Escort RS1800 in a rally. After the first test, how did you find it?
It was good, but of course I feel completely rusty. All I’ve done before today is drive on the road all year round - taking the dogs for a walk in the woods and so on. Then you arrive here and are expected to go flat out.
I am not nervous. My feet are on the ground. I have no pressure at all. I am coming for fun. My character, of course, does not change, so I will do my best. You have to find a compromise. The notes will be the problem.
The car is very much fun to drive, and everything is coming back in my mind.The enjoyment is still there – there is no problem with fun! The car is easy to drive.
Getting back in the car with Fabrizia must be a special moment as well.
This is incredible. Wse have not been together in 24 years, since the championship. It is very special.
What about modern day WRC rallying? What are your thoughts on the sport in 2008?
Mouton impressed at the Otago Rally in New Zealand.
It is completely different, but to win you still have to be the best one. I would not like rallying today at all. Too short, too boring, no fun at all, so serious.
I’ve never had the want to drive a modern WRC car. I love cars, I love rallying, I love what I did, but the cars are not a passion. But if it happened, yes, I would do it.
You are the most famous female rally driver of all time – and the most successful. But there’s been nobody that has ever come close since. Why do you think this is?
I have no answer…. I think maybe because not enough women try. Is it more difficult today? Maybe, but there are always different formula to come up through. But there are not enough trying to find one who is good enough at the right time, in the right team and everything.
I am not special, except maybe that I am quite a strong character, and when I decide to do something I never give up. I try everything I can, working hard and with lots of motivation.
But in 30 years, nobody. Not enough are trying!
Read Parts 1 & 2 of our Michele Mouton interview HERE.
World Rally Championship record
Active years: 1974–1986
Teams: Fiat, Audi
World rallies: 50
Podium finishes: 9
Stage wins: 160
First world rally: 1974 Tour de Corse
First win: 1981 San Remo Rally
Last win: 1982 Rally Brazil
Last world rally: 1986 Tour de Corse