A documentary celebrates the extraordinary talents of Michèle Mouton

It was only a few minutes in Michèle Mouton: Queen of Speed that I started to get emotional. The feeling grew even stronger when Mouton said two simple sentences, recalling her legendary rally career 40 years ago: “Motorsport was a man’s world. A bit like today, right?”

A bit like today.

queen of speed, a new documentary from Sky Original, follows Mouton as she stunned the world – and her male competition – in the World Rally Championship in the 1970s and 1980s. The documentary opens with a blue-toned montage of snow-capped mountains and clips of Mouton hurtling through untamed terrain, her voice echoing: “In life you always have to be open-minded. For me, that means that anything is possible. There are no borders.”

Growing up in the south of France, Mouton discovered her love of driving on her father’s trams. She sought out winding roads when driving home from a night of dancing in his Porsche 911, and eventually switched to a motorsport career when a friend invited her to drive for him at Monte Carlo in 1973.

Mouton soon moved to the other seat, and her father offered to pay for her racing car for a year. If she was good enough, he said, she would move on. If not, she would stop.

“It was a great time for women,” Mouton, now 70, recalled during the documentary. “The beginning of the great revolution and the feminist movement. But it was true that you didn’t see many women at the wheel.

“Women were never taken seriously, but my father never thought about it at all. He had so much faith in me.”

but queen of speed regular shows, many of the men around Mouton didn’t. They wondered who she slept with to get there. They saw her as an intruder. At one point, they even had race officials disassemble her car to confirm she hadn’t cheated her way into success. She hadn’t.

“Of course you have a little smile on your face,” Mouton recalls. “Sometimes you don’t have to speak.”

Even when Mouton’s male colleagues hugged her, they did so in a way they wouldn’t have hugged other men.

“No wonder the whole world loves Michèle,” said one commentator after Mouton won the 1982 World Rally Championship round in Portugal. “All that intelligence — and beauty, too.”

Mouton’s most successful World Rally Championship season – and the focal point of the documentary – came in 1982, the start of the fearsome era of Group B and just a year after she became the first woman to win a WRC race. Mouton and Audi quattro co-driver Fabrizia Pons, who had become the only all-female pairing in the series the year before, won three rallies this year: Portugal, Greece and Brazil. They went into the last two rounds of the season with 82 championship points, second to German driver Walter Röhrl on 89.

The title wasn’t just a possibility; it was right in front of them, and that didn’t sit well with Röhrl. He said he would not accept Mouton’s second-place finish in the championship “not because I doubt her ability as a driver, but because she is a woman”.

Before the penultimate round of the season in Côte d’Ivoire, Mouton’s father, who had been with her from the start, died. She wanted to go home and Pons encouraged her to do so. But when Mouton’s mother reminded her that her father would have wanted her to race, she did.

Mouton did not tell her team what happened and said she cried at points during the rally. Still, she built up a 25-minute lead early on and later extended it to more than an hour.

Then Mouton had problems with the gearbox and clutch. The repairs took so long that Mouton, having been more than an hour ahead of her championship rival, rejoined behind him. She would later crash, giving Röhrl the title.

Mouton continued racing for a few more years before retiring. Pons still competes at 66 years old.

One of the most fascinating parts of queen of speed This is how Mouton’s competitors saw her compared to her own. Everyone around Mouton seemed obsessed with her femininity. Men didn’t want to lose to her, talk shows asked her how such a petite lady could drive such a bulky car, and headlines often focused more on her shock value than anything else: “The woman drives like hell,” “The men were.” stunned”, “It scares the drivers”.

Even Finnish driver Ari Vatanen, who is taking part in the documentary, faced a question about Mouton, who claimed he would stop driving if a woman ever hit him.

“If I said that, I apologize,” Vatanen, now 69, tells the filmmakers. “Your speed surprised me and everyone else. It tested our male pride.”

But Mouton was not fixated on her own gender or that of her competitors. Neither does Pons. Her quotes echo those of today’s female racers: that under the helmet, everyone is equal.

“When you’re in the car, no one can tell it’s a man or a woman driving,” says Mouton in the film. “You have to take the line – the shortest,
always – the quickest to go.”

“We felt like riders, not riders,” adds Pons. But they were women drivers and to this day Mouton is the only driver to have won a World Rally Championship. It’s been 40 years.

“If I had won the world title, I think I would have been so happy myself first of all,” says Mouton. “It would have been huge publicity and might have encouraged more women to participate. But history is history and that is all.”

as queen of speed continued, I felt the sting of my own experiences through Mouton: being one of the few women at automotive events, if not the only one; to be judged first on my looks and then on my talents; and to be questioned regularly, be it about my motives or my qualifications. But I was also proud of myself, the women around me and the women in front of me. I was hopeful about the future we are all creating, even if the process isn’t always fun.

Not only did Mouton show that others belong in largely male-dominated fields; she screamed it as loud as she could over the doubters and the distractions and the roar of her Audi quattro race car. She didn’t give a single person the opportunity to pretend not to be heard. A little – no, a lot – like the women around me today.

About Veronica Richards

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