by Tony Whitney
We tend to take for granted the efficiency of modern automobile components, including the brakes. Thanks mainly to disc systems and anti-lock technology, brakes have become so effective in recent years that most drivers make easy work of manoeuvres that would have been pretty risky a few years back.
We get used to the idea that with just light pressure on the “anchors,” our vehicle will be slowed as though by a giant restraining hand. Some safety authorities even believe that today’s brakes may be so efficient that they inspire the driver with too much confidence, encouraging late-braking and tailgating. Certainly, one should always drive well within the limit of one’s brakes, even if they are highly effective, all-round ABS discs.
It wasn’t always so, and older motorists will often tell of the hair-raising days of cable-operated, all-drum setups that faded (a little-used term nowadays) at the slightest excuse.
As in all fields of automotive development, there are technological standouts in the brake manufacturing business. To serious automotive enthusiasts, the name “Brembo” is something of an icon when it comes to brakes. The Italian manufacturer has been developing and supplying high-performance brakes for four decades now and continues to be a world leader. During a trip to Italy, I took the opportunity to visit Brembo’s plant in Bergamo, in the northern part of the country and quite close to the Alps. Bergamo also boasts one of Italy’s best-preserved fortified town sites and should be on everyone’s European motoring tour itinerary.
Never having visited a brake plant before, I was half-expecting some grimy, hole-in-the-wall kind of place. That was very wide of the mark. The Brembo operation proved to be intensively automated, with numerous computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools and highly-mechanized assembly lines. The spotless plant was bright and airy and everyone was dressed in neat Brembo work clothes. The theatre where visitors can view instructional films even had seat upholstery with the Brembo logo, indicative of a very high level of professionalism.
Jaguar “R” Performance 18-inch “Milan” Wheel and Brembo Brake. Click image to enlarge
Apart from production disc brakes for Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and other hallowed nameplates, Brembo has a large competition department supplying state-of-the-art racing brakes for Formula 1, NASCAR, CART, IRL, Le Mans, World Rally Championship and other competition cars. Brakes are also supplied for motorcycles used at World Championship level and for trials and motocross. In a lobby area near the race car brake section, there’s a display featuring a Ferrari F1 nose cone signed by team members, along with other mementos of auto and motorcycle racing.
Many racing brake systems use discs of carbon composite material (often misnamed “ceramic”) which offer long life, light weight and exceptional braking efficiency, among various benefits. In race-car applications, these brakes can glow red-hot under hard use. So far, only a limited number of exotic sports models offer carbon discs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see their use widen over the next few years.
I was shown a research facility at Brembo where brakes can be tested to destruction if desired. Brakes with conventional discs were being punished to extremes in the never-ending pursuit of better “stoppers” for everyday road cars.
Turismo Brake System. Click image to enlarge
Some of Brembo’s research involves brake-by-wire systems in which the brake pedal generates a modulated electrical signal to act on electro-mechanical actuators located at each brake caliper, with no hydraulic linkage being involved. Naturally, such systems will have emergency backup in the event of electrical failure. We already have throttle-by-wire on many production cars, and brake-by-wire and even steer-by-wire can’t be too far behind.
Brembo brakes are well known among performance road car enthusiasts, who often yearn to have the famous logo proudly displayed on calipers visible through the spokes of their alloy wheels. In response to this demand, the company plans to offer a complete four-wheel disc brake kit for fitment to various automobiles. The kit should be fitted by an automobile dealership service department or brake specialist if the buyer has any doubts about his or her ability to tackle a job of this kind. For more information on this kit and other aspects of Brembo, the company’s North American website is www.brembo.com.