When Aitken-Walker topped the world – but almost died doing it

Louise Aitken-Walker became the first ever female World Rally champion in 1990, but was lucky to survive a crash in Portugal

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By 1990, Louise Aitken-Walker didn’t have much left to prove. She’d already won rallies, won class championships and even won races in her class in touring cars.

But there was a burning desire that remained unfulfilled. She wanted to be a World Rally champion. 1990 gave her that chance, and she grabbed it with both hands.

Having signed with Vauxhall a year earlier, Aitken-Walker had already claimed her first international title with European Ladies’ success. But the ante was upped when a Ladies’ World Cup was introduced in the World Rally Championship. Aitken-Walker would be taking on the world.

Starting on the Monte Carlo Rally, she, new co-driver Tina Thörner and their Vauxhall Astra GTE or Opel Kadett GSI (depending on where they were racing) were away for nine months of the year traveling to Portugal, Corsica, New Zealand, Australia, Sanremo and GB with a very clear goal in mind.

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It’s remembered today as a truly historic season for both British and world rallying, but Aitken-Walker very nearly paid the ultimate price to achieve the world title that she had craved.

Aitken-Walker was 11th overall on the Monte, comfortably clear of main rival Paola De Martini, but Portugal was a disaster. On SS4, Figueiró dos Vinhos, her car left the road and tumbled down a ravine into a lake, submerging itself 30ft below the surface.

“We had a job to do,” Aitken-Walker tells DirtFish. “We had a great Monte Carlo, we had the worst bloody accident in Portugal ever and then you know, it’s not just you as a driver. This is a team challenge and you want to bring the championship back to them, for them, but yeah we got a bit of a shake-up on that Portugal job.

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“It was a weird thing because I was never comfortable in Portugal. It was Tina’s birthday, we went out, somebody put stuff in her drink, so we had a problem there. We got food poisoning, really bad food poisoning, we had something else happen to us and I just had a real bad feeling.

“I phoned up Graham [Walker, husband] and I said ‘I’ve just got a really bad feeling on this event.’ And he said ‘oh don’t be daft, you’ve won Monte Carlo and it’s all exciting’. But anyway the first night there was a superspecial and for the first time ever in my life I saw Hannu Mikkola break down and I thought do you know I wish that was me. It was just something weird.

“Next day, we were absolutely going full hammer and thongs, everything was great, it was just a stupid, stupid, stupid thing that came across you that I’m sure every driver will have at one point and we got back on song and we were going well.

How we both got out of that alive I don't know Louise Aitken-Walker

“It was a [sunny] day like this on slick tires and then the heavens opened, but I mean hailstones like golf balls and aw it was the most torrential rain. And these little roads, they held the water, so when you came down on your braking point… because I remember playing it over and over again and I went like that [crosses arms to demonstrate turning in] so I thought, was it me? But no, I turned and it just slid right off the edge off the cliff.

“We went off the right side, I’m on the left hand side [of the car], and Tina started speaking Swedish and I thought what the hell is she on about? And I knew, I knew that something was going badly wrong, and I shut my eyes because I thought we were going down a long way, which we did do, and how we both got out of that alive I don’t know.

“It was like getting smacked in the face with a wet fish!” she manages to laugh, describing the moment the car hit the water. “It was freezing, what a shock I got. It landed upside down you see, so immediately into the water, and I thought ‘ah well I’ll go down with the ship’ if you see what I mean.

“But I didn’t panic when I was down there. I didn’t panic, I was in control, and I know you’re going to laugh but I used to work at the swimming pool, I used to be a beach guard and I loved the pool and I loved water, so there was never any fear of water. But when you start to inhale it, it’s getting pretty close. And I was inhaling the water.

“Oh god I was as sick as a dog when I came up, but I never panicked. I thought I couldn’t get out the car, that that actually was it. This is what you were talking about, this is the chat you were having with Graham three days beforehand. It was weird.

“Anyway, I remember a guy having a shillelagh – it was a way up in the Irish hills, it was a lake and he was selling shillelaghs, selling anything. And I had no cash on me and I knew that I was going to go and do the world championship sometime, so I bought a shillelagh.

“I gave him a handful of sweeties and an orange, and do you know I never forgot that shillelagh. When did I forget the shillelagh? When I was in Portugal. I carry it everywhere with me, still now. Especially now after Portugal, and everybody says they’ve got a special pair of knickers, a pair of socks or whatever but I never go without that shillelagh. Never ever. And as I say the time I forgot was the time I nearly killed myself.”

It’s quite humbling to sit and listen to Aitken-Walker recall this traumatic experience in such detail. It’s impossible to even remotely relate to it, perhaps unless you’re Ott Tänak or Raigo Mõlder.

Having cheated death, it would’ve been easy for Aitken-Walker to call it there and quit while she was ahead. But the drive to become world champion always remained. She knew she could do it, so the thought of stopping never really crossed her mind.

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“No, it didn’t,” she says. “That was a one-off, that was a freak accident. We went over to Corsica, and Corsica was probably the worst place you could ever go after something like that.

“I was a wee bit cautious but I went over a few days early so I could get more practice in and do you know we were lying sixth overall in that little two-liter car, and the bloody cambelt pulley broke, and that’s what it was. One stage to go and we would’ve been sixth overall, it’s not bad for Corsica.”

With two retirements on the bounce, the tide was against Aitken-Walker. But she swam against it emphatically with four class wins on the bounce to become the first British driver ever to win a world rallying title.

“I was over the moon because I got the chance to go out and do world championship events, so I was going to do the job right for what I was getting paid to do,” she says.

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“I didn’t want to go and set the world alight, I knew what I had to do and I kept well within my boundaries and that in fact allowed the team, and Vauxhall, to become world champions, ladies world champion.

“I don’t care if it’s ladies or whatever: we were the first to be rally world champion in this country and that was something else. It was amazing, amazing.”

Aitken-Walker became an instant superstar. Alongside all the usual prize giving ceremonies and celebrations, her achievement had a far wider impact. She picked up that year’s Segrave Trophy – awarded to any British national who demonstrates outstanding skill, courage and initiative on land, water and in the air – and was made an MBE in the New Years’ honors list too.

The support and recognition she got completely blew her away.

I couldn't believe it, a wee lassie from Duns and all these people wanting to know you and wanting to talk about you Louise Aitken-Walker

“What the publicity or what all the PR people do that’s their business, all I wanted to do was to get this championship into the UK. But Christ I was about in tears on the RAC. I couldn’t believe it, everybody was patting you and giving you [congratulations], I’ve never had that in my life before.

“The support that I got was unbelievable and I couldn’t believe it, a wee lassie from Duns and all these people wanting to know you and wanting to talk about you. It was great, it was great, but I didn’t realize until we actually won the championship how big and mammoth it was.

“Now, when you think about it, it sinks in but at the time it was just work, work, work but yeah it was amazing. You’ve got all the trophies and awards and photos to prove it, so yeah, good.”

After that success, Aitken-Walker returned to Britain to drive for Ford and her career slowly began to peter out as she decided to concentrate on family life.

1990 Monte Carlo Rallyecopyright: McKlein

“I’ve always wanted to have a family so I thought no I have to shut the door,” she recalls.

“I wanted to give my kids full support, I didn’t want to be a rally driver and put my life at risk. Don’t have kids if you can’t look after them, you know. So I made up my mind, I wasn’t going to rally anymore. I did a couple of seasons of test driving for Honda and stuff which was grand because the pressure wasn’t on then.”

It was very much a mission accomplished. Aitken-Walker’s place in history is secured as the first woman and Brit to win a world rally title – but she doesn’t see it like that. For her it was a team achievement, not just an individual one.

“I wanted it, I wanted to become the first one,” she says. “It was the first time they ran the championship, it was the first time it had as many women in it, so I was going to win it do or die – and I almost did!

“I was hungry for it, I was certainly hungry for it. But I’m just so grateful for all the support I had over my 14-year career, from all the teams, co-drivers and all my family and friends. It felt so much better to win it for them, not just me.”