Why WRC trailblazer Mouton has no regrets over missed title bid

As the World Rally Championship celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, the story of one of its trailblazers Michele Mouton, who cruelly missed out on a world title in 1982, continues to grab the spotlight. Having gone to the cusp of a historic title forty years ago, Mouton explains the joy, tragedy and a new twist to the tale of her campaign

Why WRC trailblazer Mouton has no regrets over missed title bid

Sport is littered with what could have been stories. Those sliding doors moments where victory is cruelly snatched away through circumstances outside of one's control can define a career.

Forty years ago, trailblazer Michele Mouton bore the brunt of one of these agonising tales as an opportunity to lift the 1982 World Rally Championship was ripped from her grasp. To this day Mouton’s and co-driver Fabrizia Pons’ runner-up finish in the standings remains the greatest achievement from a female driver in the championship’s history.

At the time, it was a feat that sent shockwaves through motorsport and ruffled the feathers of a male dominated WRC arena, that initially struggled to accept Mouton as a genuine rival purely down to her gender.

Such is the legend of the 1982 WRC season it has featured prominently in the championship’s 50th anniversary season celebrations this weekend at Rally Portugal, and with the passage of time one final twist in the tale has emerged forty years on.

It just so happens that the WRC has chosen to celebrate its half century at Rally Portugal, the scene where Mouton emerged victorious in 1982, driving the now iconic Audi Quattro, sparking an intense title battle with Opel’s Walter Rohrl, the champion two years previous.

To wind back the clock a bit further, Mouton’s journey into rallying happened by chance and although interested in cars and speed it wasn’t until friend Jean Taibi asked her to co-drive for him at the Tour De Corse in 1972.

Mouton would continue in the co-driver role until her father Pierre offered an opportunity to switch to driving, buying her an Alpine A110 and allowing her a year to prove herself. It wasn’t long until Mouton started turning heads, helped by finishing 12th overall at the 1974 Tour de Corse. Her pace upset many of her male rivals, who assumed Mouton's speed was down to cheating and not talent. This prompted the Alpine to be ripped apart by scrutineers to ensure the car was legal.

A spell taming the tricky factory Fiat 131 Abarth followed, before the call came from the works Audi squad in 1981, a phone call thought to be joke at the time. Piloting the revolutionary four-wheel-drive Quattro alongside Hannu Mikkola, Mouton emerged as a serious force, making history by becoming the first woman to win a WRC event at the 1981 San Remo Rally.

Michele Mouton (right) became a household name with her success in the World Rally Championship

Michele Mouton (right) became a household name with her success in the World Rally Championship

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Back then rallying was equally as popular as Formula 1 and it turned Mouton into a public figure.

At the time eventual 1981 champion Ari Vatanen and Rohrl were critical of Mouton, and threatened by her speed. The former stated “the day I will be beaten by a woman, I will stop racing”, while Rohrl brushed off Mouton’s speed by claiming that anyone could win behind the wheel of a the Quattro, such was the performance of the brutally fast Group B weapon. Interestingly, Vatanen did not retire after Mouton’s San Remo triumph but both have since apologised for their comments.

“The first victory in the World Rally Championship was important but I think for most people from what I have read it was the first time a woman was winning,” Mouton tells Autosport. “For me it didn’t mean that. But for me it was important for my career and my mental game to be able to fight and to be able to cope with the pressure to win and to control all that was a very important moment.”

"What I remember most was when we finished all those women along the road waving at us and everything. It was really a special feeling" Michele Mouton

The confidence building San Remo victory laid the foundations for a title tilt in 1982 that began with victory on the spectator lined gravel roads of Portugal, courtesy of a 13-minute-and-seven seconds margin over the factory Toyota driven by Per Eklund. The performance included 18 stages wins and a stirring drive in thick fog on the infamous Arganil stage, that defied belief due to the poor visibility on offer to the drivers. Today the stage would have most likely been cancelled for safety reasons but that was the Group B era - arguably the most dangerous of the WRC’s long history.

Title rival Rohrl, who won in Monte Carlo and was third in Sweden, didn’t fare well in Portugal crashing out on the famous Fafe stage, putting Mouton firmly in the title hunt.

“I always took one race after the other," says Mouton. “I didn’t start the season thinking 'I have won San Remo, now I want the world championship'. I was doing well in Monte Carlo and then in Portugal I won it. I have always said that when you win once you get more confidence and of course here in Portugal I didn’t expect to win I have to say.

“There were all these big guys with me fighting and it was a hard fight and finally we managed to win. What I remember most was when we finished all those women along the road waving at us and everything. It was really a special feeling as when you do something, you don’t believe you did it because you are a woman, you do it because you believe you are a driver. But the win in Portugal was something very special.”

The championship bid gathered momentum when Mouton defeated Rohrl by nearly 14 minutes at the Acropolis. The pair would go head-to-head again in Brazil, with Mouton coming out on top before the season reached its climax at the penultimate round in the Ivory Coast.

Mouton won in Brazil to put her in touching distance of the title

Mouton won in Brazil to put her in touching distance of the title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Of course when you look at the statistics after Brazil it was possible to win the world championship,” Mouton adds. “It was a goal but the only way to win is to try to be good at each event, not only having that in your mind helps. You have to be good at each race and of course we went to Ivory Coast to get some more points, and it didn’t work well.”

Heading into the trip to the African wilderness for a 750-mile gravel epic, Mouton sat seven points behind Rohrl in the standings, and a victory would cut the gap to two heading into the season-ending round in Great Britain.

However, before the rally had begun tragedy struck as Mouton’s father Pierre, an inspirational figure in her rally career, tragically succumbed to cancer. Although initially wanting to pull out of the event, her mother convinced her to continue as that would have been Pierre’s wish. Unsurprisingly it would prove an emotionally charged event.

Mouton raced into a lead of more than an hour over Rohrl at the halfway point, and seemingly was on course for a fourth win of the season when drama struck as the Audi team elected to change the gearbox on Mouton’s car. According to Mouton the car never felt the same afterwards and she began to lose time with the lead reduced to 18min. Battling a fuel injection issue the lead evaporated and in pushing to reclaim the advantage Mouton went off the road and rolled the Quattro, handing Rohrl the victory and a second world title.

“If everything had been different, my father would be there and it was a pity my mechanic made a big mistake,” she says. “I had more than a one hour 20 minute lead over Rohrl when we decided to change the gearbox and the mechanic made a big mistake and after one hour nothing worked.

“You win when all the elements are in the same place, the team, co-driver, the driver and the car everything has to work together and it didn’t work. At the end you cannot always have success. You have to accept the bad moments."

It was heartbreak on several levels for a bereaved Mouton given the personal circumstances and the loss of a history making world title. To underline how close she came to the jackpot had she won in the Ivory Coast, only a third place finish in the UK would have been required, even if Rohrl won the RAC Rally due to the WRC’s dropped scores points system.

The world championship title came so perilously close and a feat that would continue to stand the test of time. Reflecting on the events of 1982, Mouton holds no regrets other than losing her father to illness, choosing the mantra that there is more to life than sport.

Walter Rohrl and Mouton were rivals for the 1982 title

Walter Rohrl and Mouton were rivals for the 1982 title

Photo by: Colin McMaster / Motorsport Images

“I never even thought about winning the world championship," she adds.”It was an opportunity. It was a difficult time for me and what I remember most of that time is not that I lost the championship, but that I lost my father at the same time.

“He passed away the day I started Ivory Coast and if I was winning Ivory Coast I could have been world champion. Between the World Rally Championship title and my father there is no comparison. For me it has been something I didn’t manage to do, but I have no regrets at all other than the death of my father.”

For Mouton that would be the closest she came to world championship glory before ultimately retiring from rallying after winning the German National Championship in 1986 to start a family. Mouton has however remained linked to the WRC, acting as the FIA’s WRC safety delegate and was president of the FIA's Women in Motorsport Commission until March this year.

Motorsport Heroes: The sad end to Mouton's WRC career

"It could have been much better if Michele had been world champion. This would have been unique in our history" Walter Rohrl

While the story of 1982 has weaved itself into the WRC tapestry over the last forty years, a new piece has been added this weekend. Speaking during a special press conference to mark the WRC’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Rohrl admitted that it would have been better for the sport had Mouton had won the 1982 crown, further underlining his change in mindset.

“Many people ask me what it feels like to be a two-time world champion,” said Rohrl. “I tell them it meant more to win in Monte Carlo. It was a funny situation in 1982 with Michele. Looking back, I have the feeling that it was an unlucky situation. It could have been much better if Michele had been world champion. This would have been unique in our history with a woman being world champion. I cannot see that ever happening anymore, I can only say sorry.”

“She [Michele] was like everybody else,” he added when speaking to Autosport. “I was never thinking during the race 'She's a woman'. It was a normal concurrent and I was trying to beat her. But of course the problem was at this time we had this revolution from two- to four-wheel-drive that was a big thing, but it was a special motivation for me to try to beat them, even if I have only two-wheel-drive.”

In response to Rohrl’s comments, Mouton accepted the sentiment but remains steadfast that sadly fortune was not on her side all those years ago.

“Of course I was unlucky, you know, with [retirement] from this rally [Ivory Coast],” Mouton tells Autosport.

“But rallying is like this. You have the ups and downs and you should remember all the best times. But it was very nice of him [Walter] to say that.”

Mouton has no regrets about missing out on the title

Mouton has no regrets about missing out on the title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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