When most enthusiasts think of the original Audi Quattro, they think of World Rally Championship (WRC). That’s because it was there that the Audi Quattro made a name for itself, tearing through the woods and the snow, proving the superiority of all-wheel drive. It later set records at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, further proving that all-wheel drive was far superior than rear-wheel drive and flat-out embarrassing prior competition. Some of the notable drivers to helm the Audi Quattro were Stig Blomqvist, Hannu Mikkola and, probably most famously, Walter Röhrl. However, there’s one driver who’s often overlooked but she might be the fiercest Quattro driver of them all — Michèle Mouton.
Michèle Mouton was part of the Audi Quattro team early on, before even Röhrl was ever behind the wheel of it. Prior to Audi, though, Mouton had been a very successful rally driver in smaller rally races throughout Europe, driving Alpines and Fiat Abarths in the 1970s. She was known for being incredibly brave. During a brief stint of circuit racing, Mouton famously raced in the rain on slicks, despite the other drivers pitting and swapping to rain tires, claiming “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.” Like I said, Mouton was fierce.
Her bravery didn’t go unnoticed, either. Despite her not taking a liking to circuit racing, as she far preferred racing against the clock on rally stages, she was invited to race for some Le Mans teams. Though, she turned them down. “I loved racing alone, against the clock. My character wasn’t cut out for circuit racing.” she said. Imagine being so badass that Le Mans isn’t extreme enough for you?
After going back to rally racing, and using both a Fiat Abarth an Porsche Carrera RS, Audi came calling. It was a bit of a shock for Mouton, who couldn’t believe a German manufacturer wanted a French woman on their team. It was relatively unheard of at the time and many felt that Audi hiring a woman driver was just a publicity stunt. Especially so considering that Audi chose her over more well-known and more experienced male drivers. While publicity might have had something to do with it behind closed doors, it seemed that Audi’s offer was genuine and the Germans really believed in her driving ability. Thankfully, Mouton didn’t let them down.
Her first season with Audi, in 1981, started off a bit rough but she won seven rally stages, one of them being a surprise victory in Sanremo, Italy. She also finished fourth in the driver’s championship, which cemented her position as one of the best drivers in the sport. In 1984, Mouton helped Audi win its first ever WRC Manufacturer’s Championship and the fact that it a woman was behind the wheel for it drew the ire of other male drivers, including Röhrl who was also on the team at the time, who seemed to dismiss her abilities as being flattered by Quattro. Though, her teammate and friend Hannu Mikkola had her back, saying that her skill was a threat to his supremacy. People laughed at the time. He wasn’t kidding.
Admittedly, there were some rough years for both Mouton and Audi to follow. Crashes and mechanical issues plagued further seasons and she was eventually given testing duties at Audi, rather than a full-time driver.
However, Mouton was again triumphant when she found a new race to dominate — Pikes Peak. At the time, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was mostly comprised of Americans in purpose-built, single-seat race cars with rear-wheel drive. So when Michèle Mouton — a French woman — showed up in 1985 with an all-wheel drive German hatchback, a lot of good ole boys rolled their eyes. Right up until she obliterated the Pikes Peak record, previously held by Al Unser Jr. from 1982.
The original Audi Quattro has an incredible history in motorsport, both on the rally stage and at Pikes Peak. It also has a history of some great drivers. But of all of its drivers, Michèle Mouton was probably its fiercest. Not because she was the best because, though she was sensational, either Mikkola or Röhrl were probably better overall drivers, but because she was the bravest and had the biggest hill to climb. As a woman, she was regularly disregarded or looked down upon in a male dominated sport. But she pushed on and showed the rally world a thing or two, while also earning the respect of some of the world’s greatest drivers. Sir Stirling Moss considers her “one of the best” and Niki Lauda called her “superwoman”. In 2011, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy made her a Knight of the Legion of Honour.
Not a ton of Audi enthusiasts, or car enthusiasts in general, know of Michèle Mouton but they should because she was, and still is, an icon of motorsport and one of the finest drivers of her time. And while she didn’t exclusively drive the Audi Quattro, its history wouldn’t have been the same without her.