SCREECH | May 31st 2008

Ferrari S. P. A.

Ferrari is putting carbon-ceramic brakes in all its cars. Paul Markillie goes from 160kph to zero in four seconds flat ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008

At a fast corner the passenger and the driver feel different things. The driver can sense the car's limits, while the passenger can only hang on tight. As the Ferrari approaches a corner with its 12 cylinders still growling, the passenger's knuckles turn white. The corner races closer and the passenger's right foot is pushing hard at a non-existent pedal. But still the power is surging. You will never take the car around. Then, with your chest pressed into the seatbelts, the speed vanishes. The car turns without fuss and roars away on another straight. These are the sexiest brakes in the world.

The first question everyone asks about a super car is: how fast will it go? This Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, the Grand Tourer of the Italian marque, can barrel along at over 300kph (186 mph). From a standing start, it will reach 100kph in just over four seconds. But it's a Ferrari, so of course its performance is breathtaking. The more intriguing question is one for the motoring cognoscenti: how fast will it stop?

Even more quickly. Four seconds is about all it takes to bring this car to a halt from 160kph. This stopping power is thanks to the 612's carbon-ceramic brakes. They were developed for racing, where the fractions of a second gained by braking later for corners add up, lap after lap, until they make the difference between winning or losing.

Carbon-ceramic brakes are now appearing on high-performance cars, like Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and the best Audis and Mercedes. They usually cost extra: £5,800 ($11,600) more if fitted to a Porsche 911 Turbo. Ferrari, which found that eight out of ten of its customers wanted them, has decided that from this year it will become the first maker to fit them as standard on all its models.

As cars have got more powerful, their braking performance has had to improve. Carbon-ceramic brakes will slowly make the journey, from super cars to luxury cars and, eventually, all the way down to the Renault Clio. This is because not only do they excel at the main job of stopping a car, they also help in other ways too.

Sucking out the kinetic energy of a speeding chunk of steel and iron puts tremendous strain on brake discs. As the brakes absorb energy they get hot, which can make them "fade" and lose efficiency. Carbon-ceramics are highly resistant to heat and do not wear out fast. If you use them instead of the friction material and steel in normal brakes, they will not fade. Manufacturers are still learning how long the brakes will last, but it could be ten times longer than steel discs, which may need replacing every few years.

The new brakes are about 40% lighter, too. The discs are made from an extremely tough ceramic material called silicon carbide, which is embedded in a carbon-fibre composite. The pads are made from a similar material. Pick up a carbon-ceramic brake disc from a Ferrari and it's a featherweight compared with its steel counterpart. Because the cut in weight takes place low down, it makes the car handle better. And the brake callipers, although bigger, are made of aluminium. Those on the Ferrari are hewn from a sold block of the stuff, to help absorb heat and energy.

And don't forget looks. The fashion for spoked wheels means that more of a car's braking system is now visible. But if it is damp, steel discs can quickly show signs of rust, especially if a car has not been driven--even for as little as a day. Many owners moan long and hard on internet user groups about rusty discs. Carbon-ceramic brakes don't rust.

To set off their brakes, some owners now order coloured brake callipers. Red and yellow are popular. Seen through the spokes of a wheel they make brakes look beefy. But don't be fooled into thinking this means the brakes are made of carbon-ceramics. Shops sell little pots of paint for boy racers to paint their callipers. Only if the brake disc has a dark, matt look is it likely to be the real thing. Otherwise, when that corner comes, hold on tight.

(Paul Markillie is innovation editor of The Economist)