RIDE THE

LIGHTNING

Rimac’s 1073bhp Concept One may run purely on electricity, but its creator is certainly more EVO than eco. We meet him – and are the first to drive his revolutionary car

by DAN PROSSER
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

’ve met automotive CEOs before and they don’t look much like Mate Rimac, with his youth and his scraggly beard making him stand out against the suits. I’ve tested supercars before, too, and they don’t drive much like the Concept One, the acceleration and unusual handling of which I’ll get to later. And I’ve visited countless car companies before and they don’t feel much like Rimac Automobili, with the camouflage-trouser-wearing workforce and the unconventional way in which things are done.

The Concept One is Rimac Automobili’s first customer car. It costs £1million, give or take, and after driving it on the Croatian coast, I’ve got it pegged as a three-and-a-half-star car. That doesn’t really add up, does it? It loses half a star because nobody over 5ft 10in will be comfortable in the cabin. It loses another half-star for its handful of dynamic shortcomings, most of which relate to its various braking systems – more of which later – and it loses another because I can’t ignore the fact that it simply stopped working several times during my test drive.

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New supercar manufacturers come, make unrealistic claims, and disappear shortly afterwards. The sorry, oxidising pile of over-ambitious, under-financed companies that didn’t survive their infancy seems to grow bigger with every passing year. What you need to know here and now is that Rimac Automobili is the most convincing new car company I’ve ever come across. It already employs 200 people, is making its presence felt throughout the industry, and has recorded a profit for the past three years, even before it has delivered a single car.

‘I’ve always been crazy about cars,’ says the 27-year-old Mate. ‘In 2007, when I was 18 years old, I bought an E30 BMW 3-series. I competed in drift events in it, but one day the engine blew up.

‘Being from Croatia, I had read a lot about Nikola Tesla, who invented the electric motor as we know it today. I thought the electric motor was the perfect machine to power anything and everything, especially a sports car, but the image of electric cars back then was of a boxy little thing, like the G-Wiz. I wanted to change the mindset and prove electric cars could be fast.’

Working out of his garage, Rimac started to build an electric drivetrain for his E30. ‘I used junkyard parts, such as a forklift motor. I built the first version in a year and took it to compete in drag races. Everybody was laughing at me, asking if they could charge their mobile phone from my car. The first race I had was against another E30, one with a petrol engine, and I won. Just.

‘After that first race I went back and improved the car. I replaced the motor and removed the gearbox. The differential broke and I bought a stronger one, but then the driveshafts would break. I realised the components available on the market were very primitive. That’s when I started to develop my own powertrain components.

‘After each drag race the car got faster and faster. I entered a regional competition against 300 cars and made it to the final. The other finalist was an American dragster with a supercharged V8 and nitrous. I won. That’s when people started to pay attention.’

Rimac’s E30 recorded a best quarter-mile time of 11.3 seconds – ‘as fast as a Ferrari Enzo’ – using a motor, battery packs and electronics that he had built himself. ‘I’m a car guy,’ he explains. ‘I never wanted to make electric cars just to save fuel. I thought they could be faster and better. You can do things with an electric powertrain that aren’t possible with a conventional powertrain.

‘I didn’t want to keep modifying the old BMW, though. I wanted to build my own car.’

Mate founded the company that bears his name in 2009. With private funding, he moved out of his garage and into an industrial unit on the outskirts of Zagreb, Croatia. From that single unit the company has expanded into the surrounding buildings and workshops, adding office space, a design studio and production facilities as the business has developed.

‘Rimac has recorded a profit for the past three years – even before it has delivered a single car’

It’s midday by the time photographer Aston Parrott and I arrive. Rimac welcomes us into a spotless, ice-white atrium. He wears a branded black T-shirt, shorts and trainers, more the uniform of a graduate programmer than a motoring industry CEO. ‘The first two years were a complete nightmare,’ he says. ‘I have no idea how we survived. We were just seven people at the time, but somehow we managed to build the first Concept One prototype and show it at the 2011 Frankfurt motor show.’

The Concept One has evolved since then, but its fundamental technical specification is more or less unchanged. The chassis is a spaceframe rather than a carbonfibre monocoque – ‘we didn’t have the money for an autoclave back then’ – with battery packs mounted along the spine of the car and behind the rear bulkhead. One of the key design elements is the use of one motor for each wheel, which forms the basis of Rimac’s All Wheel Torque Vectoring system.

The output and performance figures are staggering. In fact, with 1073bhp, 1180lb ft, a claimed 0-62mph time of 2.6 seconds and a 221mph top speed, the Concept One belongs firmly in the hypercar category alongside the likes of the McLaren P1. At€850,000 euros before taxes, it also has a price tag to suit, but with only eight cars due to be sold to customers, it’ll be much more exclusive than its hybrid competitors.

The car doesn’t need a conventional transmission but, uniquely, it does use a pair of small, twin-clutch two-speed gearboxes in the rear axle. The shorter ratio is simply there to deliver maximum acceleration and that remarkable 0-62mph time. First gear will pull to around 100mph, but owners will be encouraged to drive in second gear most of the time.  

The bodywork is all carbon, but despite that the car still weighs 1850kg. Rimac describes it as a ‘heavy bitch’, a comment that earns him a glare from his PR man, but he insists that the clever torque-vectoring system makes it feel an awful lot lighter than it is. With a grin, he recalls the time a chief test driver from an Italian supercar manufacturer sampled the Concept One. When Rimac asserted that torque vectoring made it feel 500kg lighter, the test driver replied, ‘No, 370kg’.

Even before leaving the atrium and venturing into the heart of the business, it’s clear Rimac Automobili is much more than just a niche supercar maker. It proudly displays a Greyp electric bicycle – designed and manufactured on site and capable of outrunning a hot hatch off the line – alongside a Concept One. The company applies its electric drivetrain know-how to all manner of other vehicles, too, from boats to wheelchairs. It also consults and supplies componentry throughout the automotive industry. ‘What we are today is a technology company,’ says Rimac, ‘not just a car company. With the Concept One, we are showing what we can do, but the real business is doing this sort of thing [electric drivetrains] for others. We work with pretty much everybody who makes electric cars. We work a lot with the British car industry and we make the batteries for the Koenigsegg Regera.’ Let me remind you now that the company didn’t exist seven years ago.

‘We are different to other car makers because we design, engineer and manufacture everything here. We are completely vertically integrated, whereas McLaren doesn’t manufacture a single part in-house. Everything is made by suppliers.

‘This is our fifth-generation motor, for example, and it has a better power-to-weight ratio than a 2014 Formula 1 engine: 900bhp from 105kg. You can’t do that with off-the-shelf parts. We had to make it ourselves.

‘When I started the company, I was aware how the car industry worked and I never would have imagined we would do our own electronics, infotainment system, body and so on. I went to Bosch and Continental, companies that supply other manufacturers, and asked them to supply something to us. They wouldn’t even talk to us.

‘I realised I was going to have to make this stuff on my own, and that’s the only reason we still exist today. If we had just done it the normal way we would have been dead five years ago.

‘Look at Fisker. Henrik Fisker raised $1.5billion privately and another $500million from the government. Since he had a lot of money, he hired people from the industry with really impressive CVs, people who were working at BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari. When they got to Fisker, they just did the same thing they did at their previous companies, so when they needed a motor, they went to Bosch. They outsourced all the engineering. Even the assembly was done outside, so when it went bankrupt they didn’t have anything to show for it. They paid hundreds of millions to other companies and were left with nothing. We were the opposite. We couldn’t pay for experienced people. We had to innovate because we had no other way.’

In building its own battery packs, control units, motors, bodywork and headlights (most automotive CEOs will tell you this is impossible), the company accrued a huge amount of knowledge in a short space of time. It then refined this into expertise by investing shrewdly and hiring wisely. That expertise has become Rimac’s greatest asset, one that’s in huge demand among OEMs. Being the go-to electric drivetrain supplier in 2016 is like knowing the EuroMillions numbers for the next 52 weeks.

‘This car belongs firmly in the hypercar category alongside the likes of the McLaren P1’

The company raised 10million euros in its first round of funding in 2014, and several times that in its second round, earlier this year. Rimac remains the majority shareholder. That investment will help the company continue its rapid rate of expansion with a state-of-the-art, purpose-built facility on the horizon and an all-new hypercar just three years away. The new model, which Rimac refers to as the C2, will be bigger than the Concept One, will be built in much greater numbers and will have a carbonfibre tub (Rimac eventually got his autoclave, as well as the engineer responsible for the LaFerrari’s carbon chassis to go with it). It will be lighter, too.

‘We are still in the start-up phase. The next step is to become a tier-one supplier. Our new facility will have an automated production line making batteries, motors and control units. We want to crank out tens of thousands of batteries each year and supply them to all kinds of manufacturers.’

Later that evening we drive two hours to Karlobag, a town on Croatia’s spectacular Adriatic coast, where, tomorrow morning, evo will become the first publication anywhere in the world to test-drive the Rimac Automobili Concept One.

The new day dawns warm and bright. I saw the car in the workshop yesterday – it was still being put together at 9pm last night – but in this gravel lay-by next to a mountain road it looks incredible. Wide and impossibly muscular. The detailing is neat. The roofline barely reaches up to my hip. They tell me it’s a similar height to a Miura.

The consequence, of course, is that cabin space is uncomfortably tight, and if I sit upright in the seat I have to crank my head to the side. If I slouch in it like a bored teenager, I have just enough headroom, but 15 minutes later my back is screaming. The cabin is attractive otherwise and the fit and finish pretty good, albeit with a distinctly hand-built feel.

I’m surprised a few hundred metres down the road to realise that the steering is hydraulically assisted rather than electronically, which would be more efficient but less feelsome. It’s a reminder that Rimac Automobili isn’t in the business of building guilt-free supercars; it’s in the business of building supercars that harness the virtues of an electric drivetrain. There’s lots of weight to the steering, but real precision and genuine feedback, too.

On the marble-smooth coastal road the ride quality feels very good, but on the mountain roads it gets a touch fidgety. With 250lb ft deployed through each front wheel, the car has a habit of drawing itself across the width of the road, too, but only on bumpier sections does it become an irritation.

The Concept One effectively has three braking systems. The first is the kinetic energy recovery, which slows the car significantly when you lift off the throttle. This means you can ‘one-pedal drive’ in town, which is convenient, but when you’re picking apart a mountain road it tends to disrupt your rhythm. Usefully, you can turn the KERS down.

The second system is the regenerative braking, which inverts the motors when you stand on the brake pedal. The third is the conventional brake system, which uses Brembo carbon-ceramic discs and six-piston calipers (along with the KW suspension, the brakes are one of the few bought-in components). Marrying these together to give natural, predictable braking performance is the devil’s own job and on this occasion Rimac Automobili hasn’t quite pulled off the impossible. With both KERS and the regen braking turned down, the Concept One feels its most organic, but still the brake pedal is lifeless and uncomfortably heavy.

If the car feels its weight under braking, it feels half its weight under acceleration. The Concept One is fantastically quick. The full torque figure is available instantly, of course, which means throttle response is immediate. The motors do generate more power the faster they spin, however, and as there’s only one ratio (or two if you choose to use first), the car accelerates harder the faster you go. The impression is that the rate of acceleration actually increases, whereas in a conventional car it begins to wane straight away. This is an entirely different type of acceleration to anything I’ve felt in a supercar before.

And then there’s the torque vectoring. Most high-performance cars use some sort of torque vectoring today, but electronic, all-wheel torque vectoring is the ultimate form because it gives the most precise control. Using steering-wheel-angle and yaw sensors to guide it, the torque-vectoring super-brain diverts less torque to the inside front wheel than the outer wheels on the way into a corner, and actually applies negative torque – effectively a braking input – to the inside rear. This pivots the car into the corner, making it feel agile and responsive.

Away from the corner the computer then favours the outside rear wheel. From the driver’s seat it makes the Concept One feel freakishly positive through a bend, and whereas most cars would exhibit some sort of rogue behaviour at corner exit – power understeer in a front-wheel-drive car, for example – the Rimac just fires itself away without histrionics, even if you apply full throttle much earlier than you think should be possible. It’s this that gives the car its staggering pace.

The point is that the Concept One truly is fun and engaging to drive quickly. An intoxicating soundtrack and dramatic power delivery will always be central tenets of the conventional supercar experience, but in the Concept One’s curious, chest-crushing way of gathering speed and in the staggering handling afforded by its torque-vectoring system, there is enough character and excitement that I soon forget what’s missing.

Rimac claims a 200-mile range, which I’ve no reason to doubt, but less convincing is the reliability. On a number of occasions the drivetrain simply dies, necessitating a quick reset to bring it back to life. Mate and his team will resolve that issue, I’m quite sure.

The Concept One is a flawed car, then, but it shows that electric supercars do have a place in our corner of the world. Moreover, Rimac Automobili is well on its way to being a world leader in electric drivetrains and given its rate of progress so far, I would bet confidently on its next car being world class, too.  

Rimac Concept One

Engine Engine Four dual-permanent-magnet, oil-cooled electric motors  CO2 0g/km
Power 1073bhp
Torque 1180lb ft @ 0-6500rpm  
Transmission Two single-speed gearboxes (front axle), two two-speed gearboxes (rear axle), four-wheel drive, torque vectoring
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, 390mm front, 380mm rear, ABS, plus regen braking and KERS Weight (dry) 1850kg
Power-to-weight (dry) 589bhp/ton
0-62mph 2.6sec (claimed)
Top speed 221mph (claimed)
Price c£880,000

evo rating: ★★★☆☆

‘The roofline barely reaches up to my hip. They tell me it’s a similar height to a Lamborghini Miura’