Michèle Mouton – nicknamed the Black Volcano due to her long black hair and fiery temper – is the most successful woman in the history of motorsport and one of the greatest rally drivers of all time.
Described as ‘one of the best’ by Sir Stirling Moss and ‘Superwoman’ by Niki Lauda, Michèle Mouton was, and still is, the only woman to win a round of the World Rally Championship, claiming victory for the Audi Factory Team at the 1981 Rallye San Remo together with her team-mate Fabrizia Pons.
In 1982 following victories at Portugal, Acropolis and Brazil, Michèle was only twelve points off the Championship, with the title going to the German rally driver, Walter Rohrl.
A Natural Athlete & Secret Driver
Born on 23rd June 1951 in Grasse on the French Riviera where her parents had a flower farm specialising in growing roses and jasmine for the perfume industry, Michèle had a natural athletic ability. She excelled in skiing and dance from an early age and there is no doubt she could easily have become a successful ballerina, gymnast or competitive downhill racer.
By the time she was fourteen years old Michèle decided to teach herself to drive and would secretly borrow the family’s Citroen 2CV, taking it for jaunts along private gravel roads. At this stage of her life she never thought about competition – driving purely for pleasure. In fact she has always maintained that it was her father, who had been a PoW for five years, who was the key to her success; he had a passion for speed but after the war never had the opportunity to compete.
Catching the Rally Bug
In 1972 whilst studying for a law degree a close friend, Jean Taibi, suggested to Michèle that she might like to help him prepare for the Tour de Corse rally in Corsica and, despite her inexperience, she showed her natural aptitude in learning the basics of rally navigation. Impressed by this, Jean invited her to compete as a co-driver in the 1973 Monte Carlo rally which she accepted. Despite failing to finish due to mechanical problems with their Peugeot 304 Michèle had by now proved her steely determination and the pair went on to compete in several more races for the 1973 WRC Season.
From Navigator to Driver
Striking a deal with her father, who became naturally concerned with his daughter’s new-found passion, he considered that she would be safer as a driver rather than as a navigator; so he gave his daughter a year in which to prove herself and bought her a 1600 Alpine-Renault. With the challenge accepted Michèle began competing in local hillclimbs and rallies and by the time the year was up she had completed her first international rally at the Tour de Corse, where she was placed 12th and by 1974 she was French Ladies Champion.
‘Three Angels for Le Mans’
It was in 1975 along with co-drivers Marianne Hoepfner and Christine Dacremont that Michèle won the 2 litre class in a Moynet LM75 – this was a terrific victory as she drove on slick tyres in the rain passing everyone.
After racing to victory in the 1978 Tour de France with team-mate Jean Claude Andruet in a Fiat Abarth, Michèle turned professional.
In 1984 she won at Pikes Peak in Colorado with Fabrizia Pons and won the rally outright as a solo driver the following year, driving her favourite short wheel-based Audi S1 which had been modified with a manual gearshift and averaging 97mph; often driving above the clouds. She set a new record of 11.25.30 despite driving through a hailstorm on the descent. Driving on smooth gravel and starting at 1500 metres above sea level, Michèle loved the Audi – maintaining that they were at their best on gravel, with no comparison to asphalt. Despite the high altitude, which proved challenging for some of the drivers in open-topped cars and required them to resort to wearing oxygen masks, Michèle remained totally focused and motivated throughout the long and arduous rally.
End of an Era
Following the deaths of her close friends Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto in their Lancia Delta S4 when they were leading the Tour de Corse on 2nd May 1986, the governing body of the FISA immediately banned the powerful Group B cars from competing for the 1987 season, thereby ending an era of the iconic rally car.
It was then that Michèle decided to focus on a life away from motorsport, with her daughter Jessie being born in 1987.
Still a Shining Light for Motorsport
In 1988 Michèle co-founded the annual Race of Champions with her friend Fredrik Johnsson in memory of Henri and Sergio.
She was appointed President of the FIA’s Women and Motorsport Commission in 2010, promoting motorsports as a place where women have equal opportunities, and the following year she was appointed to manage the FIA’s involvement in the WRC.
Throughout her life her raw determination to ‘take on the men’ has shone through, saying that she never had any inclination to prove herself in a man’s world and commenting that ‘we are men and we are women, we are different’ and that in rallying the most important factor is ‘ timing.’
Next time: The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce – fearless and unstoppable 1920s aviator, record breaking motoriste and speedboat racer.
Sarah Crofts has been sharing her passion for motorsport with Beaulieu’s visitors since she first joined as a volunteer in 2007. Now a Museum Attendant, she has grown to love her role more and more and can’t imagine doing anything else! Sarah’s popular Women in Motorsport tour is one of several daily tours on offer in the National Motor Museum.