How brakes work

Brakes are all about heat, and ditching as much of it as quickly as possible, they work by converting the cars speed energy into heat energy which is then taken swiftly away in the air streaming through them, in theory. But a big car at high speed has an awful lot of energy; for instance getting a big car to do an emergency stop from high speed might put the equivalent of a thousand bhp through the brakes make the discs glow red.

There are two basic types of brake, drum brakes get their name from the drum of steel with curved shoes inside that are pushed outwards against the inside of the drum when the brake pedal is pushed. These can be found on the back axles of cheaper cars and are quite frankly a bit pants; the braking force is limited by the drum wanting to explode, plus the pistons are small and the pressure pushing the shoes out into the drum is similarly small.

By comparison disc brakes can exert a much higher force onto the disc without risk of it failing.

It uses a disc with a set of pads held in a calliper that are forced against both sides of the disc when the pedal is pressed, generating much more force.

In both cases the disc or drum part is attached to the wheel hub so it rotates with the wheel and the pads or shoes are held stationary on the axle, or strut, or what ever dangly bits are attached to the suspension.
All brakes work by friction, pressing a pretty darn tough pad of friction material against the spinning metal, the harder the friction material is pressed against the metal the more friction is produced and the greater the braking force.
Brake systems use a special type of high temperature hydraulic oil to drive the pistons which push the friction material into the disc or drum. At the pedal end there is another piston in the master cylinder which is connected by hydraulic brake pipe to the slave cylinders at each wheel. In some cars the brake force is artificially increased by a servo directly connected between the brake pedal and the master cylinder, this uses vacuum from the intake manifold to move a large diaphragm when the brake pedal was pressed, as the pedal moved down small holes in the servo control section are progressively uncovered which applies more vacuum to the diaphragm which in turn applies a greater force to the master piston of up to four times the force at the pedal.

Some cars with Anti-lock Brake Systems (ABS) use a powerful electric pump to do this instead. The ABS system measures wheel speeds and if it detects that a wheel is slowing down faster than a safe limit then it knows that that wheel is about to start locking up, so it lets the brake pressure off the individual wheel by opening a solenoid valve in the ABS valve block, just for a tiny fraction of a second until the wheel frees up just enough to know it wont lock. You can feel this when it happens as a sort of buzzing or vibration under the brake pedal. ABS allows maximum braking force without the risk of skidding. But if you are going to fast then you are still going to crash no matter what the brakes do.
The fierce heat generated from heavy braking has to be dissipated into the air which is why race cars have ducts taking fresh air from the front of the car to the disc centre, the hot air then has to go somewhere and the design of the wheel should allow it to escape readily. To get more heat into the air some discs are vented with radial channels cast into the disc to draw air from the centre outwards, some discs also have small holes drilled through for even more ventilation but these can lead to cracks starting unless they are made very well. Groves on performance discs can help remove the tiny gas layer that build up between the pad and disc sometimes and increase pad bite, the down side is that they can increase pad wear when used aggressively.
The brake size needed on a car depends on its weight and how fast it is likely to go, more powerful cars can more readily get up to higher speeds they need bigger brakes. Bigger pistons and a larger diameter disc make better brakes. Also if the brakes are going to be used for long durations, such as when racing, there is less time between brake applications for them to cool down adequately, this is where vented disks can be a real benefit.
All that heat soaks through the system into the brake fluid and although it is engineered to work at these very high temperatures in extreme cases the temperature can get high enough for the oil to boil, this generates gasses which compress easily and make the brake pedal feel very soft. This is brake fade and in really bad cases the brake pedal can sink to the floor with very little braking force generated, pumping the pedal up and down a few times can sometimes help but basically if the brakes fade on a race track then the standard procedure is to crash. That is why on roads with long descents the car’s speed should be controlled by using a low gear and engine braking rather than holding the brakes on for extended periods.

Most brake fluid absorbs water which boils and fades much more easily which is why it must be changed every few years to stay safe. Silicon based fluid is different and doesn’t absorb water but moisture still pools inside the system and needs flushing through every few years, it’s also a bit more squashy than mineral fluid making it unsuitable for fast acting ABS.

Brakes are often overlooked and any wear only becomes apparent at the mot or in an emergency stop. The trouble is that they have a hard life and can disintegrate with the friction material splitting off the steel backing or wearing down to nothing unnoticed, and they usually seem to work fine right up to the point were they don’t work at all and you crash. Maintenance and regular inspection is vital.

Larger brakes with a greater surface area to dissipate the heat into the air can cope with harder use but very large brakes need large wheels in order to fit. But all the force generated by the brakes has to be transmitted into the road by the tyres, so if the brakes are already capable of braking traction then there is little point upgrading them before upgrading the tyres. As ever the best solution depends on how the car is to be used.

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About Ralph Hosier

I love exploring everything the world has to offer, the fabulous beauty and intricacies of nature, the stunning majesty and grandeur of the universe, and the fascinating range of chocolates available from the local sweety shop. I have led a charmed life, sure there has been extremes, but the highs far outweigh the lows. I get paid for arsing about in very fast cars, I get to write about them and amazingly get paid for this too. My days are usually filled by making prototype and concept cars for car companies, a dream job. I have lived many of my dreams, worked all over the world, raced cars built by my own hand (and hardly ever crashed really badly), seen things and done stuff. But nothing compares to the love of Diana and my son Peter, beyond my greatest hopes. I am a chartered engineer, a member of the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI), and of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and I am a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers. A pleasing fact is that there are now more letters after my name than there are in it ;) R.Hosier B.Eng(Hons) C.Eng MIET MIMI MGoMW
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