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Woman Spotlight Wednesday: Michele Mouton - The First Woman to Win a Round of the WRC

Written by Sophie Harvey, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit - The Denver Post

Women have played an influential role throughout the history of motor racing. Many have taken to the wheels of motorsport machines, while numerous figures have worked tirelessly on the sidelines in various roles, shaping the motor racing world to the present day. Woman Spotlight Wednesday aims to take a look at the tales of these superwomen, who have surpassed various hurdles to reach where they are today.

The first article takes a look at the tales of a famous French woman, who defied the odds and showed relentless resolve, sending shockwaves through the world of motor racing.

Michele Mouton is a former French rally driver, and is best known as the first (and only) woman to ever win a round of the World Rally Championship (WRC). Her relentless attitude led to plenty of success against her male counterparts, becoming an inspirational figure and ambassador to many women in motorsport.

World Rally Championship Debut

Mouton began her rallying journey as a co-driver for Jean Taibi, at the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally, the first ever World Rally Championship event. As she took greater interest in rallying, her focus soon shifted to the driving seat, marked by her debut as a driver in 1974.

When Audi decided to sign Mouton for the 1981 WRC season, she described it as: “A complete shock.” It spurred public attention and outrage that Audi would even consider a woman over her established male rivals. However, this did not phase Mouton, as she had already been subject to a number of accusations of using a special, more powerful engine. These rumors were put to rest when the equipment passed inspection by WRC scrutineers - it was time to admit that Michele Mouton was well and truly, fast.

Credit: Patrice PICOT/Gamma-Rapho

The First Female Winner

Her maiden triumph came at the 1981 Rallye Sanremo, Italy, with a 32-second lead in the final stage from competitor Ari Vatanen, who had earlier stated that: “The day I will be beaten by a woman I will stop racing.” Although, it seems this loss only left him hungry for retaliation, as he did not retire after that.

Famously, Mouton told her navigator: “You never tell me to slow down, so that means I was not quick enough.” Winning a round was not enough for Mouton, she wanted to win a championship.

Becoming a Vice Champion

The World Rally Championship boomed in popularity, rivaling the likes of Formula One, as everyone flocked to see the action. Mouton proved to become an even bigger sensation in the following season, winning three rallies: Portugal, Acropolis, and Brazil. This helped Audi take their first manufacturers championship, and hauled Mouton into second in the overall standings, 12 points behind Opel driver Walter Rörhl. Mouton had pulled out a huge lead to Rörhl in the final race of the season, but mechanical issues, a broken driveshaft, radiator, and gearbox resulted in a crash that broke the car beyond repair.

It was without doubt that, had her Audi Quattro not been so unreliable, Michele Mouton becoming a World Rally Champion would have been highly likely that year.

Rörhl had been quick to dismiss Mouton’s efforts, claiming that you could put a monkey in the Audi and it would win. This was obviously very wrong, as her Audi teammate Hannu Mikkola had already earned himself a World Rally Championship, and was definitely not easy competition. Yet, Mouton still finished higher in the standings.

Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

Rewriting the Record Books Once Again

1986 was the year that would see Mouton becoming the first woman to win a major title in the sport, having ended her contract with Audi to race for Peurgeot. Winning six out of eight races that year, Mouton won the German Rally Championship.

Two weeks after securing her championship, Mouton announced that she would be retiring from the sport, following the FIA’s decision to ban Group B cars the following season. The ban came after Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresta’s car plunged off the mountainside and burst into flames at the Monte Carlo Rally, a race Mouton had retired from due to gearbox troubles. Both individuals were killed, but Mouton refused to take part in a new, slower championship under Group A rules, as an alternative.

Credit - Mike Powell /Allsport

Michele Mouton’s Legacy

In 1988, Mouton co-founded the well-known event - Race of Champions, in memory of Toivonen. The race is now a yearly spectacle, featuring Formula One, NASCAR, Le Mans, and MotoGP stars in identical machinery.

In 2010, Mouton became the first president of the FIA’s Woman in Motorsport Commision, a body that demonstrates the recognition of women at the highest level of motorsport. The programme develops social and educational programmes to encourage more females to get into the sport.

She has also returned to the WRC as a Safety Delegate, and is an ambassador for the popular Girls on Track programme, which has seen the recruitment of young, talented drivers such as Maya Weug and Aurelia Nobels, who are both now part of the Ferrari Driver Academy (FDA).

“I was not thinking about glory or to be famous,” Mouton said. “I did something good, I did something well.” And that she did, providing visibility, and becoming an inspiration to many women and young girls across the world.

Jean-Marc ZAORSKI/Gamma-Rapho


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