‘Iron lady’ Pons, 66, back for Safari Rally

Fabrizia Pons

Fabrizia Pons disembarks from the Subaru Impreza 555 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre at a past Safari Rally Championship.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Pons was awarded the Halda Trophy, which honours the world’s greatest co-drivers. The pair went on to claim five more podium finishes in the WRC. Fabrizia also took victory alongside Hannu Mikkola in the American ‘Press-On-Regardless’ rally.
  • “I did get the Halda Trophy as the world’s best co-driver, which was a really great honour for me,” said Pons, a mother of two in an interview with Audi's official Media Centre website last year.

There are three components that will remain ageless in the realm of the World Rally Championship: the Audi Quattro, Michele Mouton and Fabrizia Pons.

Audi retired from the WRC a while back. Mouton too. But Pons, now 66, remains as ageless as the iconic Audi Quattro, a car that finished third in the 1983 Safari Rally in the hands of Mouton and Pons.

The good news is that Pons will be the star attraction in the WRC Safari Rally, co-driving Kenyan Piero Cannobio in her second WRC Safari Rally since 1984, although she was here for the 2011 East African Classic Safari Rally.

Pons from Turin, Italy, has co-driven the best WRC drivers in history - including two former Safari champions Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen - in machines ranging from Audi, Citroen, Subaru and VW in various global competitions.

Pons is OK on fast sprint events, or long distance marathon races. Her Safari excursion is unlike the three marathon races of 1983, 1994 and 2011. But she is excited to be back.

Her fairytale began in 1979 when, pairing with Italian driver Luigi Battistolli, she sent shock waves in the usually patriotic and emotional Italian media.

She explains her early life on the Audi Media Centre official website last year: “I actually started as a driver in 1976 and I won in my class too. But despite that, I couldn’t find a consistent cockpit in the group 2 category. During that period, the opportunity came up to ride as co-driver with Luigi Battistolli, also known as “Lucky”, who was a very successful Italian driver at the time.”

Mouton, who was emerging as a WRC driver, reached her out because of her gender, competence and, most importantly, she could read pace notes in French.

They were an immediate hit. They became the first women to win a WRC event, the 1981 San Remo Rally, in Italy.

They were no longer the weaker gender, the following year, beating top-level professionals, notching three victories in Portugal, Greece and Brazil to finish second in the World Rally Championship, a feat never achieved before or after.

Pons was awarded the Halda Trophy, which honours the world’s greatest co-drivers. The pair went on to claim five more podium finishes in the WRC. Fabrizia also took victory alongside Hannu Mikkola in the American ‘Press-On-Regardless’ rally.

“I did get the Halda Trophy as the world’s best co-driver, which was a really great honour for me,” said Pons, a mother of two in an interview with Audi's official Media Centre website last year.

“To win, you need not only the best car, the best crew, and the best service team, but also a little bit of luck – everything has to interlock perfectly.”

‘The Quattro is ageless’

“So my name turned up not only in Italian newspapers after winning in 1979 and 1980, but also in the press across Europe.

“That’s how Michèle Mouton noticed me. Of course, it also helped that I could read the pace notes – meaning the notes for each corner – in French.”

Is the Quattro ageless just like her and Mouton? She responded: “For me, there’s no question: the Quattro is ageless. I’m glad and I’m impressed with what has come of the progenitor from that era for customers around the world today – namely a fascinating piece of technology. For me as a rally driver, the combination of dynamics and safety is unique. I think it’s particularly impressive that Audi transferred Quattro technology into electromobility and keeps making it better and more efficient in the process.”

Partnership with Piero Longhi in the 1994 Italian Rally Championship brought wins on Italian Il Ciocco and the famous Mille Miglia in the UK.

Fabrizia’s triumphant return to competition caught the eye of Ford’s WRC team, who paired her with Vatanen who describes working with Fabrizia as “sheer joy”: they won the Morrocco Atlas Rally and Baja Portugal for the Citroen Rally Raid team.

“Maybe I needed this experience to appreciate what it's like to have a female co-driver, who calls out the notes in gentle tones that have a downright soothing effect on a driver's peace of mind! Yet, she could speed up the tempo as the situation required, then calm down again to supreme clarity.”

Pons is looking forward to the Safari stages.

“Special stages, like in the world championship rallies, the driver is the most important part of the crew. But if we're talking about long-distance competition like the Dakar Rally, which is about pure navigation, then the co-driver actually is the brain of the team,” she remarks.

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