That time Abba’s drummer scored a point in a Formula 1 race
The curious tale of Slim Borgudd, Avon tyres, top-level motorsport and a Swedish supergroup
At the 1981 British Grand Prix, McLaren driver John Watson scored a memorable win in front of his home crowd at Silverstone.
It was the Northern Irish racer’s first win in five years, and only his second ever win in Formula 1. It was also the first ever win for McLaren’s groundbreaking MP4/1, the first car with a carbon fibre monocoque – an engineering template that continues in F1 today.
But further down the grid, another driver had also hit the peak of his career. His name was Slim Borgudd, and he was driving a bright yellow ATS-Ford, emblazoned with the name of the Swedish supergroup ABBA. Why? Because he was their drummer. And having crossed the line in sixth place, he scored his, and ABBA’s, first ever F1 point.
Take a chance on me
In many ways it was quite the achievement. Having already had a successful career as a musician, Karl Edward Tommy Borgudd – known as Slim – wasn’t a big name in F1. He’d been a respected jazz drummer in his native Sweden, and had played with Björn Ulvaeus’ folk group, the Hootenanny Singers, before Björn joined ABBA. And then he played with them too as a session drummer.
It was while touring as a musician that he started racing, having been a fan of the sport since he was a boy. He’d met fellow musician Chris Barber, who was a decent amateur racer, and bought a Lotus 22 off him to take back to Sweden. Slim continued to race through the ‘70s and got rather good at it, finishing runner up in the Swedish Touring Car Championship and winning the Scandinavian Formula Ford title. By 1978 he had his own Formula 3 team and won another Swedish title.
Money money money
Then in 1981 Slim landed a seat in Formula 1 for the ATS team, run by a German wheel manufacturer. He persuaded ABBA to let him plaster the band’s name on the car, although didn’t get any financial backing from them. His hope was that the name would bring in further sponsorship and let him keep racing.
The 1981 British Grand Prix was only his sixth entry into a championship race, and only the second time the Swede had actually qualified, as in those days more cars turned up than there were spaces available on the grid. After a 13th place finish in San Marino in an older car, ATS had introduced a new machine, the HGS1, which turned out not be very good. Slim was the team’s only driver and failed to qualify in the next four races.
Mamma mia! Here we go again
But at the British Grand Prix, the ATS team had brought on some new tyres from Avon. The company had a long history in motorsport, but had hardly any Formula 1 experience and had only entered Formula 1 that year. No team wearing Avons had ever scored points.
With ATS having ditched previous supplier Michelin following the French Grand Prix two weeks earlier, Slim managed to hustle the Avon-shod HGS1 to 21st place in qualifying at Silverstone, ahead of some notable names and teams, including a young Nigel Mansell. Still, no one expected an unknown Swede from a small team, clad in unknown tyres, to do anything of note.
The race got underway, and the hugely powerful, turbocharged Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost roared away from the front row, followed by powerhouse F1 figures such as world champions Alan Jones, Mario Andretti and the eventual 1981 champion Nelson Piquet.
As the race unfolded, though, the big names started to fall. Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell broke down on lap one, and reigning world champion Alan Jones crashed his Williams on lap three. Gilles Villeneuve spun off in his Ferrari a lap later, and Nelson Piquet’s Brabham tyre blew on lap 11. The attrition continued as Didier Pironi lost the turbo on the other Ferrari, Elio de Angelis was disqualified for ignoring yellow flags, and Alain Prost’s Renault failed.
But Slim kept his nose clean. By the end of the race, he was just a lap down on Watson, and a lap clear of Derek Daly in the March behind him. He crossed the line to take his, Avon’s and ABBA’s first Formula 1 point. It was also ATS’ only point of the season.
The winner takes it all
“Back then, you only got points down to sixth place, so it was very hard to get a point,” Borgudd recalls. “It meant a lot to everybody. It was like winning the Nobel Prize.
“It also gave the team free transportation. Normally when cars were flown out or shipped out to races, it was all costs for the team, but that point meant that for the whole next year they had free transportation.
“I still have a picture of a trophy with Avon on it, because somebody came over and clocked that we were the only ones who had actually scored a point [on Avon tyres].”
Slim would never reach those heights in F1 again. He moved to Tyrrell for 1982, but the ABBA stickers on the ATS never attracted the sponsorship money he hoped for, and he was replaced by Brian Henton after just three races. He continued to race sporadically, however, entering the 1987 Le Mans 24 Hours and popping up in series as diverse as the British Touring Car Championship and European truck racing.
Avon would go on to score further points in F1. But none of their future drivers ever played for the biggest pop group on earth.