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Privateer champion
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For a first and so far only time a driver of a private team managed to win the championship. Vatanen's struggle for the title was almost solely against Talbot's Guy Frequelin who drove more sensibly, scoring points more often than the reckless finn. But finally Vatanen's three wins and Frequelin's accident in RAC Rally decided the championship.

Besides the privateer champion and first win for a four-wheel driven car, 1981 also marked first win by a woman driver when Michele Mouton conquered San Remo. Besides Mouton, also Jean Ragnotti and Guy Frequelin scored maiden wins.

From world to southern America
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Yet another new rally was introduced when Brazil joined the championship at the expense of New Zealand. Run only few weeks after rally in neighbouring Argentina, Brazil was a scene for a small scale fuel crisis. International rules permitted only cars using either petrol or diesel to feature in overall competition. This meant that local products using alternative fuels did the event but were not counted in overall results.

Because of this, only 20 entries took the start and nine finished. In addition to these petrol cars, 33 alcohol cars lined up at start and ten finished the rally.

New cars
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The big news was appearance of the Audi quattro. Sceptics regarded it as too big, too heavy and too complex to make any impact and when Mouton's quattro failed to complete concentration run to Monaco, they seemed to be right. But once quattro hit the stages, all changed. After just six first competitive stages, Mikkola's Audi was already six minutes ahead of closest rival.

Another of the new cars was Renault 5 Turbo which won Monte Carlo outright after Mikkola's quattro went off the road. Yet another turbocharged car was Mitsubishi's new Lancer 2000 but did not enjoy similar success as Audi or Renault.

Vatanen
1981 FIA World Rally Champion, Ari Vatanen.
Drivers scoring their
first win
  J. Ragnotti (Monte Carlo)
  G. Frequelin (Argentina)
  M. Mouton (San Remo)
first drivers' point
  S. Nilsson (Sweden)
  K. Shinozuka (Portugal)
  J. Moutinho (Portugal)
  R. Cid (Portugal)
  P. Queiroz Pereira (Portugal)
  J. Shah (Safari)
  R. Hall (Safari)
  M. Smith (Safari)
  J. Ballet (Corsica)
  G. Swaton (Corsica)
  T. Kaby (Corsica)
  J. Tichadou (Corsica)
  C. Bartoli (Corsica)
  P. Moshoutis (Acropolis)
  'Carlo' (Acropolis)
  E. Soto (Argentina)
  R. Albertengo (Argentina)
  L. Romero (Argentina)
  M. Tubal (Argentina)
  H. Maglione (Argentina)
  L. Etchegoyen (Argentina)
  G. Trelles (Brazil)
  J. Berges (Brazil)
  M. Zacarias (Brazil)
  A. Laine (Finland)
  M. Biasion (San Remo)
  F. Ormezzano (San Remo)
  L. Battistoli (San Remo)
  J. Durieu (Ivory Coast)
  R. Clark (Great Britain)
first stage win
  O. Stromberg (Sweden)
  M. Mouton (Portugal)
  J. Recalde (Argentina)
  D. de Vitta (Brazil)
  M. Cinotto (San Remo)
  M. Biasion (San Remo)
  L. Battistoli (San Remo)
  S. Nilsson (Great Britain)
  T. Kaby (Great Britain)
  J. Raymond (Great Britain)
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