Morning Qualifying – Belle Michèle edition

Happy Birthday, Michèle!

Rallying, more than any other form of motor sport, has always been, for the absence of a better phrase, girl friendly.  With its roots firmly in the amateur tradition, the sport always had women drivers.  Like the male entrants, they were wealthy amateurs who raced as much for the romantic adventure as they did for gold.  In the European open road, city to city races of the last century, women raced in their own class.  After the war, with the manufacturers joining the fray, women found their way onto works teams…..and consistently matched their male counterpart’s pace.  Pat Appleyard, Evy Rosqvist, Nancy Mitchell, Claudine Trautmann, Marie Claude-Beaumont and Pat Moss-Carlsson all won at the national and international level.  As the WRC era dawned in the early 70’s, a new female star was set to emerge, Michèle Mouton.
Michèle's 1st rally, the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally, as co-driver with Jean Taibbi.

After studying law, Michèle held 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, Michèle was unaware of rallying, until she met Jean Taibi, her rally-driving boyfriend.  In 1973, Taibbi obtained entry into the Monte Carlo Rally and recruited Michèle as his navigator (great date idea?….or the GREATEST date idea?).  The couple’s Peugeot 304 did not finish, and Michèle’s father was terribly worried about her throughout the event.  She enjoyed the experience and wanted to do more rallies, but Monsieur did not trust Taibi and thought his daughter would be safer driving her own car.  So, he bought her an Alpine-Renault A110 1600 and started her driving career for her.  She did some hillclimbs and local rallies at first.  As soon as it became available, her Alpine was treated to an upgraded, Group 4 spec, 1800 cc Gordini engine; Within a year, Michèle won her first national championship, and finished in the  top 15 in her first international event, the 1974 Tour de Corse.  Within 3 years, she won her first international rally in Spain and finished a close second in the Tour de France, at the wheel of a Porsche Carrera RS.

Michèle, with Françoise Conconi, at the 1978 Monte Carlo Rally

Michèle’s swapped cars for a Fiat 131 Abarth, and again showed top form with victories at the ’78 Tour de France and the Rallye Lyon-Charbonnières, and top ten finishes at the Tour de Corse and Rally Corsica.  At Monte Carlo, she had her first encounter with Lancia’s mighty Stratos HF, finishing 7th overall.  The extra power of the Stratos suited Michèle.  She was not afraid of supposedly “difficult” machines like the 131 Abarth and Stratos, and quickly earned a reputation for her fearless driving style.  The next two seasons saw Michèle at the wheel of a Fiat of France backed Abarth.  Once again, she posted consistent top 10 finishes in international events.
Michèle scored her first WRC points with a 7th place finish at the 1979 Monte Carlo Rally.

As the 1981 season dawned, Michèle was approached by Audi, who wanted her to join their new WRC works team.  While she knew the invitation was motivated as much by the publicity potential as her talent, she jumped at the chance to drive the revolutionary new Quattro.  Her new team mate was arguably the best rally driver of the era, Hannu Mikkola.  While the Quattro was initially fragile, its potential was obvious to anyone with eyes.  Mikkola and Mouton each managed multiple top 10 finishes over the next season and a half.  At San Remo in 1981, everything came together; Michele, with new co-driver Fabrizia Pons, won by 3 minutes over Henri Toivonen’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus and claimed Audi Sport’s first victory, the first overally rally victory for a woman and the first victory for a car with all-wheel drive.
Mouton and Pons at the 1981 Rally San Remo.

1982 saw Mouton achieve her best results yet, with overall wins at Portugal, Greece and Brazil, and 3 top ten finishes in Sweden, Corsica and San Remo.  However, her disastrous outings at Monte Carlo, Finland, the Ivory Coast, and, most crushingly, New Zealand where she spun out while holding a commanding lead cost her the WRC title.  Walter Rohrl’s consistency behind the wheel of his Opel Ascona gave him 12 more points than “the French Tigress” at season’s end, even though Michèle earned more victories.  With the advent of Group B in 1983, Mouton’s contract was gladly renewed by Audi.  While she achieve no WRC victories that year, Mouton managed enough top ten finishes to come in fifth in the WRC driver’s championship.  Mouton did, however, excel at the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb where she won the rally car class, and finished second overall.  The next year, Michèle returned and won outright by a very healthy margin.  Legend has it that Bobby Unser was disgusted that he’d lost to a French woman in a German car, and said as much.  To which Mouton is reputed to have replied, “”if you had any real balls, you’d race me back down as well.”
Michèle Mouton on her way to victory at the 1985 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

After a year in a reduced role at Audi, Michèle Mouton signed with Peugeot to drive their fearsome 205 T16 in 1986.  She did not finish either of the WRC events in which she was entered, due to mechanical issues.  However, she did capture the West German national rally championship.  With Group B’s demise at the end of the 1986 season, Michèle decided that she wasn’t interested in driving the less powerful Group A cars, and chose to end her career.  In tribute to her fallen Peugeot team mate, Henri Toivonen, Michèle Mouton founded the Race of Champions motor sport festival, in which she remains active to this day.
Lets wrap up our Mouton-a-palozza with a short video of Michèle during her first two seasons with Audi.  Happy birthday, Michèle!


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10 responses to “Morning Qualifying – Belle Michèle edition”

  1. kvhnik Avatar

    THIS is why I love Hooniverse. Thanks for another great article about a favorite of mine.

  2. LostMyMeds Avatar

    I would like to force the many Quebec drivers I face on the road daily that video.
    "See this? French people can drive! So uh, what the flick is wrong with you?

  3. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    Nice with some interesting slice of life insights into her personal life – something you generally don't get in race videos. I wish she was still racing…

  4. $kaycog Avatar

    Happy 60th Birthday, Michele! At the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1985, she reportedly said:
    "If you guys had any real balls you'd race back down this mountain!"
    How true!

  5. Joe Dunlap Avatar
    Joe Dunlap

    My ex and I did a few amateur rallies back in the 70s together, mostly with me driving and her navigating. We traded seats a couple of times and I soon discovered how difficult, and frightening, it is from the right hand seat. I cant imagine what it must have been like navigating with the likes of Ms. Mouton, although I wish Id met her before my ex. 🙂

  6. Lotte Avatar

    So did Monsieur Taibi ask for a ride in the Stratos or what?

    1. Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr. Avatar
      Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr.

      He was out of the picture by that point. With a few exceptions, Michele usually worked with a female co-drivers.

  7. McQueen Avatar

    I bet she could still kick some ass behind the wheel .

  8. alewifecove Avatar

    I just saw her Portugal winning car today at the Mount Washington Hill Climb. Seated next to it, signing autographs was non-other than John Buffum.
    Yes, I was in awe.

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