The Bosnian refugee was 22 when his beat-up BMW, powered by his own electric engine, beat billionaire Elon Musk's Tesla in a race. Nine years later, Mate Rimac is not only redefining the limits of electric cars, but transforming the automotive industry itself. Tom Whipple goes for a (very speedy) test drive.
It took less than five seconds for a 22-year-old to defeat a billionaire.
Nine years ago, on the streets of Zagreb, there was a drag race. One of the participants was driving the new Tesla Roadster. The Roadster, on a promotional visit to Croatia, was the embodiment of Elon Musk's vision that electric cars could be not just clean but cool. It was the most advanced supercar on the planet, the result of tens of millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of engineers.
And, Musk claimed, it was also the fastest electric car in the world.
The other car was a 26-year-old BMW, driven by a Bosnian-born former refugee, who only converted it to electricity because he could not afford to put in a new petrol engine after the last one blew up. Choosing to put in a forklift motor instead was a decision that would change his life.
That day in Zagreb the starters released the cars, they accelerated – lightning fast and eerily silent – and the BMW, a car whose chassis was four years older than its owner, easily won.
We know what happened to Elon Musk. He did indeed go on to make electric cars sexy, cool and fast.
What about the man who beat him, Mate Rimac?
Actually, he did rather well, too. You have probably seen his cars, even if you did not realise it. When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex got married, they left for the evening reception in a Jaguar E-Type. The chassis was the classic Sixties model, but beneath the bonnet it was all-electric. Yet this was no unsatisfying eco-compromise. The original petrol E-type could reach 60mph in 6.8 seconds – this version does it in 5.5 seconds.
Jaguar happily took the credit, until an employee let slip that – as with the batteries in many big-name supercars – the guts of it came from Rimac.
Rimac technology is not always hidden. Unfortunately, though, the most likely place you have seen it in the open is when it was smouldering in a Swiss field – the burnt-out wreck of a sports car from which, miraculously, a penitent Richard Hammond emerged unscathed midway through filming an episode of The Grand Tour.
On one ill-judged hairpin on that day in 2017, Hammond had wiped out one eighth of the company's Rimac Concept Ones – the only car that bears Rimac's name. The crash wasn't only uncomfortable for Hammond.
At the time, Rimac did not know from month to month whether he would meet his wage bill. He thought Hammond had also wiped out the company with it. In fact, he had done the reverse.
The orders from customers came in, and so did the investments. In 2018 Porsche bought 10 per cent of the company for around £17 million ($31 million); earlier this year, Hyundai put in £57 million ($105 million) to gain its own stake.
The answer to what Rimac did while Musk was making the electric car sexy, cool and fast, is he made the electric car even sexier, even cooler – and even faster.
Or, as he describes it to me, flicking down the indicator to leave his factory, "Electric cars were slow and boring and ugly and, you know, nobody wanted them. And I asked myself, 'Why is nobody using this beautiful technology to make a car that's exciting and fun and fast?' "
In the distance ahead of us, on this light industrial estate outside Zagreb, a woman turns around while walking her dog. Then Rimac puts his foot to the floor, my cheeks feel like they are stretched back to my ears, and the world outside begins to blur.
When we pass her, just over two seconds later, we are doing 100kmh.
Mate Rimac was always into cars. When he was a toddler, if he hurt himself his mum put him in his grandad's VW Beetle to cheer him up. He soon learnt to game the system. "My parents tell me stories. When I was one, I couldn't walk or really talk, but I would pretend that my hand hurt so that they would put me in his car. And then I would grab the steering wheel and forget that I'm pretending that my hand hurts."
Of course, lots of toddlers like cars. Few, though, have so little opportunity to see them. "Bosnia is maybe the poorest country in Europe. And Livno, where I'm from, is the poorest city in Bosnia. It has gravel roads. A car would pass maybe once a day."
Then the Bosnian war started, and the family fled to Germany – his father working, like his own father before him, as a labourer. How did the young Mate Rimac take to the upheaval, to the loss of roots, to the complexities of life as a refugee? Pretty happily, actually. It was, in his words, "crazy". "There were all these cars around me."
This is relevant. Today, Rimac works in a swish office far from the gravel roads of Bosnia. Like all good start-ups, Rimac Automobili has bean bags, games consoles and bowls of communal fruit. In the corridors, with their artfully exposed plywood, bands of dogs roam – no modern employer, after all, denies workers their God-given right to bring a dog to work.
And like all good technology companies, it also has a foundation myth – a story holding it all together. Rimac is that story.
In the reception, his career is charted on display boards, beginning with the inventions that won awards while he was still at school. There are yellowing school certificates and carefully tended newspaper clippings, like the mantelpiece of a proud grandmother.
A passion for cars is the first part of that story. Because Rimac wants to make one thing absolutely clear. He does not make electric cars because he thinks they will save the world. He makes electric cars because that is how you make the best cars. "I'm a petrolhead," he says. "I was crazy about making fast cars."
As a boy, Rimac also knew of another Balkan engineer. Nikola Tesla, after whom Tesla cars was named, was originally from Croatia. He developed the alternating current electric motor – a beautifully simple invention that provides instant power with little waste. "I was always fascinated by its performance and efficiency. And I was thinking, 'Why is nobody using an electric motor to power a car?' I thought, I'll do something totally crazy, that nobody has done, and build an electric race car."
Before we are scheduled to meet, Marta Longin, his publicist, offers The Times a tour of the company, where his 550 employees – many, if not most, older than him – are working on the successor to the car that Richard Hammond destroyed.
She complains she will be working late. The prime minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic, is due to visit the next morning, to find out how his country of four million people can emulate Rimac's success. It is easy to see why: when Hyundai invested, Rimac received the backing of a company with a turnover twice Croatia's GDP.
All of this makes him a Croatian national hero. Albeit, in person, an initially underwhelming one.
When Rimac finally meets us it is in front of his vanity wall displaying the timeline of his progress from geeky schoolboy inventor to ... geeky adult inventor. The least intimidating bit of it is the flesh and blood man standing in front of me. He is wearing tight denim shorts, blue Asics trainers, a shabby T-shirt and the beard of a newly qualified teacher who has been advised to make himself look older in case he gets confused with the students. He is very young – still 31.
Longin takes one look at him and then sends him home to change. She has been looking through past copies of The Times Magazine and is disappointed in him. "Elon Musk wore a suit."
He doesn't, for the record, like being compared to Musk – and has refused to meet him until he has a company he feels he can be proud of. "I love the guy. He has created a company that has 30,000 employees, he's sending rockets to Mars and he's doing these incredible things. We have not achieved 1 per cent of what he has achieved, so I don't think it's fair to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Elon Musk." Still, that does not mean that he can't look as slick as him. Or, at the very least, change his denim shorts.
Later, when suitably dressed and posing for photographs, the Times photographer asks Rimac to lean his elbow on the window. There is a hurried conversation in Croat with Longin. Apparently, in Croatia, that is not what sophisticated elbow-owners do. She doesn't want him to be thought a Bosnian bumpkin.
He knows what it is to have the wrong cultural shibboleths. After a decade in Germany, the family moved to Croatia. He calls it "returning", then corrects himself. Croat-speaking Bosnians might feel they are Croat, but Croats themselves don't always agree. School, initially, was hard.
"The kids were totally different. It was difficult for me to adapt. Bosnians are viewed as ... Well, some people have an irrational thing against them. This made it really difficult for me at the beginning: I spoke like a Bosnian grandmother."
It is difficult to be viewed as a hick though when you are winning international technology competitions. His first invention was a glove that replaced a keyboard and mouse. It took him to South Korea, for a global competition in which he won a gold medal. Today the glove, naturally, is displayed in the office reception. His second invention was an adaptable mirror to cover blind spots in cars. He made enough money from it to buy his first car when he turned 18: a 1984 BMW.
"I was just totally insane about cars," he says. "I started to race it." It didn't go well. "Pretty much immediately, the engine blew up." What could he do? He knew that it was possible to swap out the engine for a more powerful one. But he didn't have the funds.
"So, I said, OK, but I can't do that, that's too expensive. So, I started with forklift components. I had a forklift motor, some old batteries, some electronics." Two years later, that car beat the Tesla. How?
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There is an idea that all that matters about a battery is how much energy it stores. The more kilowatt-hours it packs in, the further it can take a car – and the more likely it is that people will choose it in preference to a petrol alternative. That may be true for your standard hybrid. If you have a Vauxhall Ampera, say, it uses a battery for the low-performance work around town, before the petrol kicks in when you really need it on the motorway.
For an Aston Martin Valkyrie, however, the reverse is true. The V12 petrol engine is that of your conventional supercar. It goes vroom and it goes fast – for a 20th-century car. So far, so traditional. What makes it a hypercar – in the car industry's adjective inflation – is the change that happens when you really need the extra oomph, when the vroom of the petrol isn't enough. That is when the battery – designed, as it happens, by one M Rimac – takes over, giving instant torque. And this extra vroom is, like all electric propulsion, silent.
The battery that provides it is not that different in capacity from the one taking Vauxhall drivers on their commute. What is different is its power, the rate at which it can release that energy. That was what Rimac discovered, working with a forklift engine and an old BMW. He found he had a talent for extracting energy fast.
Others noticed, including an agent representing a Middle Eastern royal family. Did he have any ideas they could invest in? He did, as it happened. He showed them some drawings. "I said, 'This is the most powerful and exclusive electric vehicle in the world, the Concept One.' " At the time, Tesla was building a massive production line to churn out its cars at scale. He didn't even have employees.
"The next day he called me up and said they wanted to buy two cars. And I said, 'Great, but there are no "two cars". The cars don't exist.' And the next day after that, he called me and he asked, 'How much money do you need?' " That was December 2010. He booked a slot at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the autumn of the following year, to display a car that didn't yet have a single wheel nut.
"I started to convince a few guys I knew to give up their jobs. And they had to convince their wives to let them start work for a 22-year-old guy in a garage to build a car. It was totally insane."
He is right: it sounds mad. It sounds even madder when you walk around his factory and see a cabinet of precisely machined parts awaiting installation. How do you begin to gain the expertise to make each of the thousands of components in a car? Yet they had no choice but to make it all themselves. No one would sell them so much as a door handle: the car industry produces parts by the thousand, not singly.
The car they made, entirely from scratch, would go on to be the Concept One, the Hammond-scaring beast that briefly took flight over Switzerland. It claimed at the time, although there are competitors to the title, to be the fastest-accelerating road car in the world – offering a 0-60mph equivalent to that in a jet fighter. The Concept Two, coming in 2020, will have a production run in the low hundreds, each going for a bit over £1.5 million. It will also reach 60mph almost a second faster.
"For the new car, the team was 500 instead of 10," says Rimac. "We have a proper budget now, we have investors, we have funds available to us and we have the machines available to do it properly. There's 1,000 times more engineering effort."
Rimac does not so much answer questions, as use them as prompts for a nested series of PowerPoint presentations.
How, I ask, did the company survive for five years between the Frankfurt Motor Show and the first commercial cars? Hang on, he says, and opens a document that explains how the cars are a passion, but the real money comes from selling the technology inside them to others. "We are not the cheapest. But when you need a battery that in a small space can give you lots of power, then we are the best in the world."
How do you optimise a battery for power? More slides.
What does he do outside work? This time there is no PowerPoint, but there is also no answer. "When you do something like this, you have to simply accept that you can't do anything else in your life." He works weekends, evenings and holidays. His girlfriend of 15 years, I suggest, is a tolerant woman. He replies, marginally less charitably, "She knows what she got into."
And Harry and Meghan? There is, again, a presentation. But this time I'm not allowed to talk about it. When a Jaguar representative told a motoring journalist that the company had worked with Rimac, Rimac thought he was released from his non-disclosure agreement, and told journalists about their role. It seems that subsequent contact with Jaguar, who want to sell more of the electric E-Types, made it rather forcefully clear that he wasn't released after all. Carmakers don't like admitting that they need to rely on outside assistance.
Finally, seeking to break free of the tyranny of the PowerPoint, I ask about Hammond and what it felt like watching the Concept One – a car that had already been promised to a customer – arc over a meadow and collapse onto the side of a mountain. He opens his computer and searches for a document titled "Epic F***-up". There are 70 slides.
All employees who were there remember the day they saw an eighth of their stock get vaporised. "June 13, 2017," says Longin. "It was the last day, last race, last lap. He flew off, he hit the road below, he hit the telephone pole." The word is overused, but it really was a miracle he survived. "When I think things are bad, I think of that and realise they can get worse."
Rimac's "Epic F***-up" presentation does not begin with the crash, though, but the finances. Or, rather, the fact that, at the time, they didn't have any. "Everything was very sensitive. It could pop just like a bubble. Everything was so stretched at that time. We were in such a difficult situation and then this happens." He had been wooing investors for more than a year, and at the time was trying to close a deal that would mean the company could survive. While Clarkson and his sidekicks were playing, he was just trying to stay solvent.
"It was a Saturday; we were here in the company, working. I was with a couple of guys and one of my guys called me and said there was an accident. 'He's alive. The car's burning.' And I just … I didn't know what to do, what to say. It was the hardest time of my life. I think it took ten years off my life. It's incredible that we survived this. It's incredible."
Jeremy Clarkson later said that although Hammond had accidentally destroyed the car, before he did – before he soared for 360ft above a Swiss hillside – it had made that trio of motoring dinosaurs realise electricity was the future. "We are not talking here about a car that's as fast as a Lamborghini Aventador," gushed Clarkson. "It's massively faster than that. It's faster than anything else I've driven, by a huge, huge margin."
The first time Rimac puts his foot to the floor, he does so with an apology – although, as I will find out, what he apologises for is not, perhaps, the thing he really should be apologising for.
"For you, it might seem this is an electric supercar," he says. And it is, but he is slightly ashamed of it now. We are in the Concept One – the Concept Two, the improved model, is currently in the US. "There are light years between them," he says.
It is difficult to describe what it feels like to reach 60mph (96kmh) in 2.5 seconds. Remember those moments in Star Wars when they push the button for lightspeed and, suddenly, the stars around meld into a line? Alternatively, imagine the confusion your brain would feel when suddenly the direction of gravity seems to shift by 90 degrees as you are slammed back in your seat.
The truth is that only racing car drivers, astronauts and fighter pilots have experienced this kind of acceleration. And they don't usually do so while passing Croatia's equivalent of a DFS salesroom.
Rimac brakes again as we hurtle around a small roundabout, to the confusion of a Skoda Octavia looking to pull out. "This is very, very different. It's still very fast." The new car, though, he says apologising again, is faster. Then he casually adds, with no apology, the new one also "has all the global safety crash test certification and stuff like that".
Stuff like that. Yes, all that tedious documentation. Then, a stretch of road opens up again. Blur. Slam backward to accelerate. 60mph. Slam forward again to brake.
I giggle and swear. Rimac giggles at my giggling.
Maybe, I think, my endorphins competing with my safety concerns, we could hold the accelerator just a second longer on the next stretch? And, suddenly, I understand what it was that took Richard Hammond airborne.
The world goes fuzzy, my cheeks stretch back and I giggle again.
Written by: Tom Whipple
© The Times of London