Mate Rimac: the rising star of electric supercars

·7 min read

Mate Rimac cannot help but be distracted. Cars are flying around the corner behind me as they turn on to the hill climb at the racetrack in front of Goodwood House. The deafening roars and the rapt crowd are testament to the power and lure of the internal combustion engine.

Rimac is not, on the face of it, unlike many of the young people watching this event, the Festival of Speed. Twenty years ago he had posters of the fastest machines on his bedroom wall. Yet now, at the age of only 34, he is in the middle of the car industry’s effort to ditch petrol and move to batteries.

At £2m a pop, Rimac Group’s electric Nevera hypercar is one of the most exclusive road-legal playthings the ultra-rich can buy. He also controls Bugatti, one of the most famous marques in the hypercar world, after a dizzying two decades that has seen a childhood refugee from Bosnia rise to near the top of the car industry.

Rimac has been making waves for several years as a maker of eyecatching electric sports cars and a provider of battery tech to long-established names such as Aston Martin, Jaguar and Cupra, part of the Volkswagen group. His position was cemented last July when VW handed him majority control of Bugatti, the maker of one of the world’s fastest cars, the Chiron. In June, SoftBank and Goldman Sachs led a $500m investment in his eponymous company, valuing it at $2bn.

He is even starting to get some celebrity-style recognition. He is becoming a household name in Croatia: when French president Emmanuel Macron visited the country last year, Rimac showed him a Nevera. Some car fans at Goodwood even stop for selfies while he is waiting in the dusty field of

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CV

Age 34

Family Married to Katarina.

Education VERN University of Applied Science in Zagreb, 2007-10 (dropped out).

Pay “I was never the highest paid person in the company … When forming Bugatti Rimac, I wanted to work for free. But the shareholders insisted on me having a salary … When it comes to my personal wealth, that is tied to the value of my ownership in the company and not to my compensation.”

Last holiday Honeymoon road trip in a Ferrari 812 GTS from Croatia to Italy in September 2021. “We’ve known each other for 18 years, but this was our first trip out of Croatia that was not for business.”

Best advice he’s been given “I can’t think of one … I feel like everybody needs to walk their own path. There are no shortcuts.”

Word he overuses “Yes. I need to say no more often..”

How he relaxes “There is not much time to relax. I think that I’ll be full-on throttle … and then, at some point, go completely off the throttle. I don’t think that there is anything in between.”

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supercars for his turn to ride in a Bugatti (a Veyron this time) on the track. It is an awful long way from a boy in his bedroom looking at car posters.

“Work or life before the company is like a faint memory,” he says. “Like I dreamed about it.”

That life started in Bosnia in 1988. He loved cars from an early age, to the bafflement of his parents. When the war in Bosnia started they moved to Germany, the heart of Europe’s automotive industry. His father was in construction and his mother worked as a cleaner when they lived in Germany. After 10 years they moved back nearer home, to next-door neighbour Croatia.

“I wasn’t a great student,” Rimac says, with what seems like genuine modesty. But a teacher said he should enter an electronics competition. He won that, then several more, and came up with two patents when he was just 17. At 18 he bought a 1984 BMW 3 Series to go racing. It was “rusty, a piece of crap”, and after two races its combustion engine blew up. So he decided to do something that had not been seriously pursued by even the largest carmakers: make a car powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels.

At first, jokes about washing machines followed him around the tracks as he raced with a motor from a forklift truck, some heavy lead-acid batteries, and a green paint job. The jokes faded when he started winning races with homemade electricals capable of matching a Ferrari’s acceleration.

Rimac pretty much taught himself, dropping out of university to pursue the dream in a friend’s garage. He then had a stroke of luck when a representative of a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi – Rimac declines to name him – asked him to build an electric hypercar.

They somehow managed to get one together in time for the 2011 Frankfurt motor show, and Rimac started to build a reputation in the burgeoning electric car industry, consulting for increasingly big names and winning gradually bigger investments. Porsche (which is owned by VW) invested in 2017.

For 95% plus of the time, cars are just sitting around wasting space, parking

Mate Rimac

Now Rimac has 1,600 employees. He admits it is head-spinning for someone so young – he first grew a beard to look older, he jokes. Does he ever doubt himself? “Yeah, all the time,” he says. “I think the chances for success were all the time very close to zero. So to come to here, to this stage, the odds at any point in time, I mean …” He pauses. “The odds are increasing, I guess.”

Rising to the helm of a century-old name such as Bugatti is more than most people can dream of for a whole career, but Rimac has plans for the next revolution in the industry he loves – something far deeper than electrification. He believes autonomous cars will break the century-old link between driving and ownership.

If households abandon car ownership en masse, that would mean significantly fewer sales. Perhaps it’s because he is a millennial without ties to the old industry, but Rimac doesn’t think that will necessarily be a bad thing.

“For 95% plus of the time, we’re just sitting around wasting space, parking,” he says. The “hundreds of kilos of aluminium, copper, steel” not being used is “so inefficient”: “This is so fundamentally wrong.”

Rimac had several offers of funding to “go after Tesla” and build mass-market electric cars, but he says that would have been like starting a VHS company when DVDs were on the way. He has decided to go down the robo-taxi route instead.

He won’t detail his plans for Rimac Group’s self-driving taxi subsidiary, Project 3. The clues he drops, along with state aid announcements from the EU, suggest it will be an autonomous car service that is integrated with public transport.

Macron, in an overcoat, looks at a swoopy black supercar parked outside on a terrace, with a group of bystanders including Mate Rimac
Emmanuel Macron, centre right, inspects a Rimac Nevera. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

He draws an analogy with Apple’s early, pre-iPhone, tech partnership with Motorola: it failed because “to make a really good product”, you need to control everything, he says. “And when I say control everything, I mean not just the car, but the hardware, software, but also the rest of the ecosystem of the autonomous driving, which is not just the car, it’s also lots of stuff outside the car.”

If car ownership switches from individuals to fleets of on-demand vehicles, mid-market manufacturers such as Fiat, Renault or Citroën could find themselves turned into suppliers to tech-industry titans rather than coveted brands, Rimac warns. Chinese company Foxconn makes a lot of money manufacturing iPhones, but Apple makes more.

Rimac will continue to make the kind of hypercars he idolised when he was young, and to provide electric technology to high-end carmakers, but he thinks “the big transformation” of autonomous driving will be tough for today’s biggest carmakers. “Who will cry after a Toyota Camry?” he asks. “I don’t mind those cars disappearing.”