How F1 Brakes Work – Ultimate Guide

One of the most impressive aspects of Formula 1 cars are their brakes. With the ability to go from 190 miles per hour to close to zero in a matter of seconds, Formula 1 cars have some of the strongest and most durable brakes on the planet, and how F1 brakes work is equally impressive.

F1 car brakes work in much the same way normal road car brakes work, albeit at much higher loads and with different materials. F1 cars use carbon brake discs and pads along with a hydraulic system. These brakes have incredible stopping power and can handle extreme loads and temperatures.

Formula 1 brakes are some of the most incredible parts of the cars. They require very specific operating conditions to work at their optimum level of performance, and below we go into more detail about exactly how F1 brakes work and why they’re so impressive.

What Brakes Do F1 Cars Use?

Most F1 cars currently use high performance Brembo brakes. The Italian brake manufacturer has been a trusted brake supplier to many Formula 1 teams for years, and will continue to supply Formula 1 brakes in the future. Other brake suppliers have included Akebono, AP Racing and 920e.

Brembo not only supplies brakes to Formula 1 but also several other branches of motorsport including Formula E and WEC. Formula 1 cars use disc brakes at the front, however they may look like drum brakes at first sight due to the carbon fiber cylinder housing the disc and calipers.

The brakes on a Formula 1 car need to be high quality as they provide the car with stability during braking and cornering. Low quality brakes would lock up easily and they would cause the car to become unbalanced through the corners.

The rear brakes also use something known as brake-by-wire, which is something that we will explore in more detail later. Brake-by-wire (or BBW) simply means that the brake pedal is connected to a computer rather than directly to the rear brakes. The front brakes are still directly connected to the brake pedal as they have been in the past, working via hydraulics.

What Are F1 Brakes Made Of?

F1 brakes are made of a composite material reinforced with carbon fiber. This makes them much stronger and more durable than the usual steel brakes that you would find on your average road car, which is necessary in Formula 1 as they need to slow from massive speeds very quickly.

The carbon fiber brakes used by F1 cars can also withstand extreme temperatures, which are caused by the huge amounts of friction sent through the brakes when a Formula 1 car slows down from such high speeds. The wear rates of steel brakes are far too high at the same temperatures that Formula 1 brakes run at.

Formula 1 car brakes are some of the strongest and most powerful brakes in the world and can take the car from 190 miles per hour to a dead stop in a couple of seconds. This mainly comes down to the strong and durable materials that they are built from.

Are F1 Brakes Hydraulic?

F1 brakes are hydraulic, as they use hydraulic calipers to apply pressure to brake pads that in turn press against brake discs, slowing the wheels. When the brake pedal is pushed down, brake fluid is sent through brake lines towards the calipers, where this pressure is translated into braking force.

This is the exact same hydraulic system that is used in road cars, except in Formula 1 they are much more durable and performance focused. However, the basic concept remains the same between Formula 1 cars and other cars.

How Do F1 Front Brakes Work?

F1 front brakes work using hydraulic calipers that apply pressure to brake pads, causing them to press against rotating discs in the wheels, with the friction effect slowing the wheel’s rotation. An F1 car’s front brakes are activated via hydraulics when the driver presses the brake pedal.

The way the front brakes work is extremely simple. When the driver pushes down on the left pedal the brake pressure is sent into the brake calipers through something called a master cylinder (there’s one of these for the rear brakes too). Each caliper usually has six pistons inside of it, and the brake fluid causes these pistons to be activated.

The pistons clamp down the brake pads against the brake disc which causes friction and slows the wheel’s rotation. The more pressure that is put on the brake pedal the higher the pressure of the fluid that is forced into the calipers, and so the harder the caliper pushes down on the disc, causing increased stopping power.

How Do F1 Rear Brakes Work?

F1 rear brakes work using a brake-by-wire system. When the driver presses the brake pedal, the rear master cylinder is compressed, and this pressure is converted into an electrical signal, which is then used to determine how much force to apply to the rear brakes.

F1 rear wheels are slowed down by three things:

  1. Friction from the brakes
  2. Energy harvesting from the MGU-K
  3. Engine braking

1. Friction From The Brakes

The friction from the brakes is the easy one, as that’s just however much stopping power is applied via the electronic control unit (ECU) and is based on how hard the driver presses the brake pedal. However, in order to safely and efficiently slow the rear wheels down, the ECU needs to do some calculations that bear in mind these other two factors.

2. Energy Harvesting From The MGU-K

The MGU-K works by harvesting some of the energy from the rear wheels slowing down and converting it into power in the battery to be used through the car’s energy recovery system (ERS). It does this through a motor that spins when the wheels are moving (under braking specifically), sapping some of their energy for storage, but also having a slowing effect on the car too.

This slowing effect obviously isn’t as powerful as the brake discs and pads themselves, but it still needs to be taken into account to ensure the right amount of braking force is applied to the rear wheels. Then there is the aspect of engine braking, which is not a concept that is exclusive to F1 cars.

3. Engine Braking

When the driver releases the throttle, the pistons in the engine are still moving, but without fuel and oxygen being supplied for combustion to help them move. With a lack of airflow into the cylinders in the engine, the pistons must essentially work against a vacuum (called a manifold vacuum), taking energy out of the overall system.

Because the rear wheels are connected (through various components) to the engine, as F1 cars are rear wheel drive, this loss of energy translates to slowing of the rotation of the wheels, therefore slowing the car down via engine braking.

So, in order to ensure the car remains stable under braking with the right pressures being applied to the front and rear brakes, which the driver can adjust via their steering wheel’s brake bias controls, an electronic system – brake-by-wire – needs to be used at the rear of an F1 car.

What Is Brake-By-Wire In F1?

Brake-by-wire is the system that is used to control the rear brakes of an F1 car. When a driver pushes down on the brake pedal, a rear master cylinder is compressed. A sensor converts this pressure into an electrical signal, which the ECU uses to calculate how much rear brake pressure to apply.

The rear brakes still have calipers, however these are primarily kept in place as a safety measure in case the brake-by-wire system fails. The brake-by-wire system also gives the driver a more stable and predictable braking experience at the rear of the car.

Increased Precision & Accuracy

This is because the computer system can translate the driver’s preferences (set on their steering wheel) along with the three elements that are used to generate braking power (described above) in a much more precise and accurate way.

How Do F1 Drivers Brake?

F1 drivers brake with their left foot. As F1 cars only have two pedals – a brake and an accelerator – drivers can use their left foot to brake and their right foot to accelerate. This allows them to have very precise control over their driving.

It might sound simple, but there’s much more to braking in a Formula 1 car than just pressing the left pedal. The main difference between braking in a Formula 1 car and braking in a road car is that Formula 1 drivers use their left foot to brake.

Rapid Transitions

There are only two pedals in a Formula 1 car, and drivers need to be as quick as possible in switching between braking and accelerating. Any form of “coasting” (not braking or accelerating) is slower, so drivers often have mere fractions of a second between braking and accelerating.

F1 brake pedals are also very hard to press. Drivers need to apply hundreds of pounds of force onto the brake pedal in order for them to achieve maximum braking performance. They need to do this for every corner, and for multiple laps. On top of that, they can’t just push the brake pedal all the way every time, as they need to carefully modulate it so as to not lock their brakes.

Formula 1 drivers need to pick their braking points and be as consistent as possible. The later they are able to brake in the corners the faster their lap times will be. They have to be able to pick out the perfect braking point at well over 150 miles per hour for an entire race distance, with some tracks featuring 20+ corners.

What Causes F1 Drivers To Lock Up Their Brakes?

F1 drivers lock up their brakes when they apply too much pressure to the brake pedal. This causes the calipers to force the brake pads onto the brake discs so hard that the wheel stops rotating. This causes the wheel to slide along the surface of the track, creating a flat spot on the tire.

We sometimes see F1 drivers making crucial errors when it comes to braking. You see the wheel stop rotating followed by a puff of white smoke. This is known as locking the brakes, and it’s something that drivers want to avoid doing.

It’s easy to make the mistake of locking the brakes of a Formula 1 car. It usually happens when a driver applies too much brake pressure, causing the caliper to clamp down on the brake disc too hard and stopping the wheel from rotating entirely, rather than slowing the rotation.

Why Is It Bad To Lock The Brakes?

One of the biggest mistakes that a driver can make during a flying lap in qualifying or during the Grand Prix is to lock their brakes. There are several negative side effects to locking the brakes on a Formula 1 car.

Firstly, it could send the driver wide of the corner they are attacking. This is because, when the wheel stops rotating, it is no longer providing any grip. A slowly rotating tire still provides grip, but a stationary one being dragged along the track surface doesn’t provide any.

As the tire slides across the track, the car will lose its stopping power and will take longer to slow down, causing the driver to have to brake even harder and potentially locking the brakes even more.

What Are Flat Spots On F1 Tires?

F1 tire flat spots are caused by the driver locking up the brakes. A flat spot is when the surface of the tire has been scrubbed flat due to the friction from sliding, rather than it being fully round. This can cause massive vibrations inside the car, as the tire is no longer round.

The vibrations from flat spots not only make the car more difficult to drive, but they can also begin to damage other parts of the car such as the wings, and even the internal components such as the gearbox. A flat spot can ruin an entire set of tires, and teams are limited in terms of how many of each compound they get per weekend.

How Can Drivers Prevent Brake Lock Ups?

Drivers need to try and prevent lock ups at all costs due to the damage it can cause to the tires and the car, and the negative effect it has on the lap times and overall performance. However, it’s not always an easy task. Preventing lock ups just requires the driver to understand how much brake pressure to apply in various situations.

Oftentimes when drivers lock their brakes their best option is to release the brakes and quickly reengage them. This will limit the sliding and prevent severe flat spots from forming. However, the risk is a huge increase in stopping distance, and the driver needs to be quick to prevent flying off the track. Plus, it all happens so fast that it’s usually too late.

Changing Brake Bias

But the driver can also prevent lock ups by manipulating their car’s setup. If the front brakes are locking up too much, the driver can move the brake bias more towards the rear of the car. If the rear brakes are locking, the driver can move the brake bias more towards the front of the car.

Brake bias is essentially a system used to control how much of the brake pressure is sent to the front brakes and how much is sent to the rear brakes. Brake bias is a complex system, but its main purpose is fairly straightforward – to prevent wheel lock ups.

Moving the brake bias is the easiest solution as the driver can adjust this on their steering wheel while driving the car. Oftentimes drivers will adjust their brake bias throughout a lap between corners in order to get the best performance out of their brakes and set the fastest possible lap times.

F1 Stopping Distance

An F1 car’s stopping distance is incredibly short. F1 cars can go from 124 miles per hour to a dead stop in just 213 feet (65 meters), in under 3 seconds. This is due to their high-performance brakes, combined with grippy tires and massive amounts of downforce.

Formula 1 cars have incredible stopping power due to their massively powerful and efficient braking systems. As we have seen, drivers need to put an incredible amount of pressure onto the brake pedal in order to get the car to slow down.

What’s even more impressive is when you consider the fact that F1 cars do not have anti-lock brake systems (ABS) and it’s all down to the driver to control the pressure on the brakes.

During these couple of seconds of braking, the driver may experience more than 5G, which is close to what a fighter pilot will experience while flying a fighter jet. The stopping power on a Formula 1 car is unrivalled by the majority of other vehicles on the planet.

Why Do F1 Brakes Need To Be Hot?

F1 brakes need to be hot because the carbon fiber composite materials from which F1 brakes are made simply do not possess good friction properties at low temperatures. F1 brakes work best at temperatures of around 400 degrees Celsius, or 750 degrees Fahrenheit.

Carbon is the element with the highest melting point, meaning it has the heat resistant properties required for F1 brakes as they can reach temperatures of more than 1000°C. However, at low temperatures (below around 400°C), the friction properties of carbon, and therefore how good it is at slowing something down, are pretty poor.

Not Enough Stopping Power

When the brakes on a Formula 1 car are too cold the car will not be able to slow down fast enough, and the driver may even experience the brakes locking up as soon as they put pressure on the brake pedal. Clearly it’s dangerous if a driver is unable to slow the car down from 190+ mph before a sharp corner.

A Formula 1 car’s brakes usually need to be at least 400 degrees Celsius, or about 750 degrees Fahrenheit, to be considered within the optimum temperature range. Above these temperatures the brakes can produce enough friction to slow the car down effectively. Much above 1000°C can cause problems though, as we’ll discuss shortly.

The Operating Window

However, F1 brakes won’t be at this temperature at all times. This is the operating window they need to be in under braking, which is when the friction forces are actually in effect. On the straights and any time the car isn’t braking, the brakes are always cooling down. This is due to the airflow going through the brake ducts.

On long straights, the brake temperatures might plummet below 200°C, or 392°F. This is okay, as the driver doesn’t need to use the brakes until the end of the straight. As soon as they hit the brakes though, the temperature will quickly shoot up closer to the 1000 degrees mark.

How Do Drivers Warm Up Their Brakes?

In order to reach the optimum temperature on their cars’ brakes, F1 drivers need to use some special driving techniques to get some temperature into their brakes while driving out on track. They’ll need to do this on formation laps, and behind safety cars, as the brakes will be cold under these conditions having not been worked properly yet.

The best way to get the brakes on a Formula 1 car to heat up quickly is by generating friction. While the brakes naturally do this, they need to do it at an excessive amount in order to get the entire braking system properly warmed up.

This means that drivers will often drive around the circuit slowly while braking as hard as possible without locking the brakes and damaging their tires. By driving slowly, the driver is limiting the amount of air that is cooling the brakes down through the brake ducts. By applying a lot of force to the brake pedal frequently, the driver is using friction to generate heat.

Can F1 Brakes Overheat?

The brakes on a Formula 1 car can overheat if they are not properly cooled. This can happen if there is an issue with the cooling system or if the brakes simply become too hot, which will then be picked up by sensors on the car, and the pit wall will inform the driver of the situation.

When F1 brake temperatures go much over 1000°C they begin to become less effective at stopping the car, and parts can begin to wear much faster. When the brakes are too hot they can’t produce enough friction to slow the car down, and this can result in a total brake failure.

The brakes on Formula 1 cars can often overheat when racing in hotter climates and temperatures. The higher ambient temperature leads to less efficient air cooling of the brakes.

How Are F1 Brakes Cooled?

F1 brakes are air cooled via brake ducts. The air is funneled into these intakes by the front wing as the car moves. F1 brakes need constant airflow in order for them to remain within their ideal operating temperature window. Once the airflow stops, the brakes can begin to overheat.

In some races F1 cars may experience their brakes overheating in the middle of the Grand Prix. This could be due to a number of reasons, but the sensors measure the surface temperature of the brakes and send that information back to the race engineer on the pit wall.

The race engineer then needs to communicate to their driver that their brakes are overheating and that they need to begin cooling them down. They have a few options based on what is causing the brakes to overheat.

In the majority of cases a car’s brakes will overheat when they are following in the wake of another car. This is because the hot air from car in front is preventing the brakes on the following car from cooling down effectively. The driver would then need to move out from behind the car in front down the straights to get cooler and fresher air into their brakes.

Why Do F1 Brakes Smoke?

Since the car’s brakes are air cooled the brakes have no way of cooling down once the car is stationary. The insides of the brake discs are the hottest, and the surface of the brakes are cooler due to the air flowing onto them under normal driving.

However, when the car stops, the heat inside the brake discs needs to escape, and the only direction it can go is towards the surface of the brakes. This is known as “heat soak” where the heat effectively soaks through the material trying to find a way to escape.

When the temperature on the surface of the brake discs increases it reaches a smoking and combustion point if there is no air cooling. This can lead to the brakes smoking, and they can eventually catch fire.

Why Do F1 Brakes Catch Fire?

F1 brakes catch fire because they get extremely hot and are not able to be sufficiently cooled. This often happens after formation laps, when the brakes are very hot and the car stops on the grid. It isn’t uncommon, and oftentimes it’s nothing serious that drivers and teams worry about.

The main reason the brakes catch fire is because they become extremely hot, especially towards the center, inside of the brake disc. The brakes are air cooled, so when there is no airflow on the surface of the brakes the temperature can become so hot that it ignites flammable material close to it.

Oftentimes the most flammable material is the carbon dust and residue from the brakes, which is ignited when the surface of the brakes becomes too hot. This usually only happens when the car is standing still and there is no airflow to cool the brakes.

This is most common when the cars are stationary on the grid after a formation lap. They’ve just worked their brakes hard on the formation lap to get them up to temperature, only to stop on the grid with no airflow waiting for the lights to go out. This is also why you often see the mechanics cooling the brakes with air as soon as the car stops in the pit lane.

What Is Brake Dust?

Sometimes when Formula 1 cars hit the brakes at slower speeds you’ll see a cloud of black dust come off the front wheels. This is known as brake dust, and in the majority of cases it is nothing to worry about.

Brake dust is simply residue that is left over from the friction between the surface of the brake disc and the brake pads. This carbon residue is simply a sign of the brakes wearing down, and it’s not an indication that anything is wrong.

Can F1 Brakes Fail?

F1 brakes can fail. The brakes on a Formula 1 car might be built for high performance and durability, but they can sometimes falter too. After a lot of heavy usage, the brakes can begin to fade and in some cases they can fail altogether.

This is most common on circuits that have long straights and heavy braking zones, such as Monza, where the brakes have to work much harder in order to slow the car down. In other cases, it can be because the brakes become too hot, due to insufficient cooling, causing them to wear excessively.

What Happens During A Brake Failure?

When a Formula 1 car’s brakes fail there is not much that a driver can do. Formula 1 cars rely heavily on their brakes to slow them down as much as possible, and as late as possible, before they have to go around the corner. The later you brake, the faster you are overall, so the brakes are constantly being pushed to the limit.

A brake failure usually happens too quickly for the driver to react, and it can result in a nasty crash. A Formula 1 car cannot operate without brakes, and a brake failure is a terminal problem which means the end of the session for that particular car.

Final Thoughts

F1 car brakes are fairly complex systems, and their high-performance design and composition allows them to bring an F1 car to a stop remarkably quickly. They work using brake discs, pads and calipers, and hydraulics and brake-by-wire systems ensure the cars brakes work very effectively.