One of the most important elements in putting together the perfect lap is braking. Braking might sound simple because, after all, the driver is just slowing down for the upcoming corner. However, it takes a lot of precision and technique to get it right and lock ups are a real possibility in F1.
Lock ups in F1 are the dreaded moments where the wheels stop rotating, causing them to slide along the track surface. During a lock up, the tires don’t provide grip and the car has less stopping power and cornering ability. Lock ups can often ruin a set of Formula 1 tires with flat spots.
Drivers must be precise when braking to prevent lock ups. They will lose lap time and overall performance if they don’t brake as late as they possibly can. This is why braking is so complex in F1. In the article below, we’ll explore why lock ups occur and what drivers can do to avoid them.
Locking up in F1 means the wheels on the car stop rotating. If the wheels aren’t turning, then the tires are simply sliding across the tarmac and not providing the car with any grip. This often means the car has less stopping power or, at the very least, it will have less grip going into the corner.
Lock ups happen when the driver applies too much brake pressure and the brake discs are forced to stop, rather than simply rotating at a slower rate. The best way to avoid a lock up is by braking with less pressure, but it’s not always that simple. There are other factors that can also cause the brakes to lock up, which we’ll explore in the next section.
Drivers can change their brake bias from inside the cockpit. This means the driver can choose where to split the brake pressure between the front and the rear brakes. For example, some drivers may prefer to use more brake pressure on their rear brakes than others, as it might suit their driving style better.
However, this increases the chances of the rear brakes locking up. When the rear brakes lock up, the consequences are arguably greater than if the front brakes lock. When the rear brakes lock up, the driver loses rear stability, and it often results in a spin as opposed to a flat-spotted tire or just running wide into the corner.
There are several factors that cause an F1 driver to lock up their brakes. It’s not always as simple as braking at the wrong time. Usually, F1 drivers lock up their tires because they apply too much pressure on the brake pedal, but it may happen if their tires are too cold to provide enough grip.
In order to achieve the fastest possible lap time, drivers need to brake as late as they possibly can. This element has proved to be so important in motorsport that the title “last of the late brakers” became famous for many drivers who were brave enough to out brake everyone else.
On top of that, drivers can’t coast their way into corners and pick out the perfect braking spot whenever it comes along. Drivers need to switch from acceleration to braking in less than half a second if they are going to be fast enough to race in Formula 1.
Finally, Formula 1 cars do not have ABS (anti-lock braking systems) that will automatically release brake pressure when the wheels begin to lock up. With all these factors in mind, it becomes easier to understand why it’s so easy to lock the brakes of a Formula 1 car. However, there are some other factors that can cause lock ups in Formula 1.
One of the main reasons F1 drivers lock up is when they brake too late. Since drivers are always trying their best to hit the perfect braking spot every time, they sometimes make mistakes. If the driver brakes too late, they need to apply more brake pressure in order to get the car slowed down enough, and this can sometimes result in a lock up.
All drivers have their own unique braking points in Formula 1. Many drivers will use different markers on or around the track such as trees, kerbs, or even bumps in the tarmac to help them identify where they need to brake.
Drivers will try to push these braking points closer to the corner in order to brake later. The later they brake, the more time they spend on the throttle and the faster their lap times will be. Braking later requires the driver to apply more brake pressure to get the same rate of deceleration.
Sometimes though, drivers push the limits too far and brake too late. As a result of applying more brake pressure than usual, they can often lock the brakes. It’s not uncommon to see these types of lock ups in Formula 1, especially in qualifying when the drivers are pushing hard.
Another factor that can cause lock ups in F1 cars is tire wear. The Pirelli Formula 1 tires are built for performance rather than endurance. The tires provide a huge amount of grip, but they can wear out quickly and lose their grip levels in the process.
As the tires wear out and provide less grip, drivers need to adjust their braking points. They can only brake as late as possible when their tires have enough grip to do so. If the tires are providing less grip, the car will have less stopping power and will need to corner at a slower speed.
This not only means drivers need to brake earlier than usual, but it also means that these worn-out tires are more prone to locking up. Since the tires can’t provide as much grip as before, they could easily stop rotating as they lose grip with the track surface, and so they can often cause the brakes to lock even if the driver is applying less brake pressure.
Track conditions play a crucial role in the amount of grip the tires have and can also cause lock ups. Lock ups can happen when the tires do not have enough grip (or traction) to rotate, which causes the wheels to lock and slide across the tarmac.
The most obvious track conditions that could cause lock ups is rain. While wet tires will help to prevent lock ups by dispersing the water from underneath the tires, the brakes could still lock up in these slippery conditions. During wet sessions we often see drivers locking the brakes when the wheel touches a painted line.
This is because these white lines (or grass) on the sides of the track provide the tires with no grip at all when the driver hits the brakes. This causes the brakes to lock up instantly, sending the driver into a spin or running wide at the corner.
Types Of Circuits
There are other track conditions to keep in mind though. Bumpy circuits for example, can cause a lock up if the driver brakes on top of a bump. Even though the wheel is in the air for a split second, the driver might catch the brake pedal at this exact time.
With the tire in the air, there is no tarmac for it to grip onto, which causes the brakes to lock instantly. These are often the worst type of lock ups since they happen at high speed and do very little to slow the car down.
Circuits with a lot of elevation changes can also be the scene for lock ups in Formula 1. This is especially true if the cars are heading into a downhill corner. Since the car is carrying more momentum, it’s much more difficult to slow down. Braking too late can easily cause the brakes to lock up due to the momentum of the car pushing forward and into the corner.
Tires lock up so easily in Formula 1 because F1 cars don’t have ABS. The anti-lock brake system was used in Formula 1 during the 1980s and 90s as teams were researching and developing the technology, but it was outlawed as the FIA wanted to remove it as it was seen as a driver aid.
Lock ups happen often in Formula 1. We’ll see at least a couple of lock ups every single weekend, especially during the race. Compared to other forms of motorsport, and even to average road cars, lock ups are a lot more frequent in Formula 1.
However, ABS was removed from the sport in 1994 with the aim of making the cars more difficult to drive and requiring more skill from the drivers. Without ABS, drivers are solely responsible for the brake pressure applied to the wheels. There’s more room for human error than with computer-aided ABS.
Lock ups don’t just affect lap times, as they can also damage the tires. If the wheels stop rotating, they are sliding across the tarmac rather than turning as they normally should. This sliding effect causes a lot of friction between the surface of the tires and the tarmac, leading to flat spots.
Whenever tires are sliding across tarmac rather than rotating, the extra friction will cause the tires to heat up. Formula 1 tires are extremely sensitive to temperatures, and the hotter they are, the faster they will wear out.
Once these Pirelli tires overheat, they begin to lose grip. Tires that are too hot will cause the car to slide around through corners. The sliding effect once again puts more heat into the tires, and it starts an endless cycle of losing grip on tires that keep on wearing out due to excessive heat.
When the wheels lock up, the rubber on the surface of the tire in contact with the tarmac will suffer extreme wear. Since the wheel has stopped rotating, the friction will cause the rubber to wear in one single spot. This is known as a flat spot, which will negatively affect the grip of the car.
If a driver locks their wheels, then the one small area that has suffered a ton of friction and extreme wear will become flat, creating an uneven patch on the surface of the tire. With the slick tires used in F1, it’s often easy to see flat spots after a driver has locked their brakes. The contact patch will be much darker, and the rubber will look distinctly different than the rest the tire.
A flat-spotted is essentially useless in Formula 1. The damage caused by the friction between the tire and the tarmac is often too much, and a driver could ruin an entire set of tires through one small mistake.
Flat spots ruin the tires because it creates an uneven surface on the tires. When the tires are completely round, the ride is smooth and the driver gets a lot of grip from their tires. However, with a flat spot, the driver will experience a lot of vibrations and a lack of grip.
When a driver flat-spots their tires, it’s unlikely they will keep driving on the same set of tires. They will head into the pits as soon as possible for a different set. Flat spots can be so bad that drivers will even opt for a set of worn tires over one that has a flat spot.
Flat spots cause vibrations because the surface of the tires is uneven. It’s possible for a driver to burn through enough tread to get rid of the flat spot at times, but it depends on how severe the flat spot is and how much it’s affecting the car’s handling.
Drivers can experience severe vibrations with flat-spotted tires, so much so that it becomes difficult for them to control their car or see where they are going, and the vibrations can end up damaging the car too. Flat-spotted tires can also take away some grip from the tires and cause even more lock ups due to the uneven surface on the tires.
How F1 Drivers Prevent Lock Ups
Locking the wheels does not necessarily guarantee the tires will have flat spots though. There are ways the driver can prevent their tires from becoming flat-spotted if they lock their brakes, but it takes a lot of bravery, and a lot of skill.
Drivers can stop their wheels from locking up by releasing the brake pressure ever so slightly to get the wheels rotating again. However, by releasing brake pressure, the driver will also be losing their stopping power, so it requires a careful calculation from the driver and precise execution to avoid losing control.
If the driver can get this technique right, they will be able to slow the car down in time and prevent flat spotting their tires. If they get it wrong, they could easily end up off the track or even in the barriers.
We often see drivers using this technique during practice and qualifying, since going off track has no major consequences. They’ll simply do a cool down lap and set off on another hot lap. It also saves their tires for the rest of the weekend. During the race though, there is the risk of losing positions.
Wet weather is where it gets much trickier for drivers because it’s easier to lock the brakes while driving in slippery conditions. Drivers often make the mistake of braking too late, mainly due to the poor visibility that Formula 1 drivers have when it begins to rain.
The best way to prevent lock ups on a damp track is to start braking earlier. Stopping distances are much longer in the wet and drivers need to apply less brake pressure if they want to ensure that their car will stop in time for the corner.
The other factor to consider is that the racing line can sometimes provide the driver with less grip because of the rubber that has been laid down. Drivers often have more grip braking off the racing line in the wet. Therefore, we often see drivers taking different racing lines into corners when it starts to rain.
Finally, drivers need to avoid touching kerbs, painted lines, or grass in the wet. Braking on any of these can cause the wheels to lock up in an instant, and it’s much more difficult to recover from a lock up in the wet than it is in the dry.
A lock up in F1 is when the driver brakes too hard and the tires stop rotating. This is dangerous because a non-rotating tire doesn’t provide as much grip as a rotating tire. If a driver loses grip under braking, they can lose control or end up off the track, and lock ups often lead to flat spots.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.