"My Father used to say that anyone can do simple things, but only a few can handle the difficult ones. This motto is driving Brembo today and will continue to drive Brembo in the future." —Alberto Bombassei, Brembo group chairman, at the inauguration and ribbon cutting of the Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico brake plant
From humble workshop beginnings in 1961, if Brembo founders Emilio Bombassei and his brother-in-law, Italo Breda, peered into a crystal ball, the entrepreneurs would have likely been incredulous to see the exponential growth of their venture. In those early days, a brake was considered a utilitarian, functional tool, and the concept of braking components as "couture" defied automotive logic. However, their fledgling endeavor, Officine Meccaniche di Sombreno, parent company of Brembo, was quickly merging into the fast lane of automotive technology.
The small, mechanical workshop produced the first Italian brake discs for the spare parts trade, eventually becoming the segment leader in the European market. In the '70s, the company began development of brake systems for motorcycles. An association with firms such as Ducati and Moto Guzzi continues to this day, and Brembo braking systems have equipped many a Moto GP winner.
Involvement in Formula One became a reality in 1975 when Enzo Ferrari asked the company to supply the brake systems for his Grand Prix cars. Affiliations with the other Formula classes soon followed and the major manufacturers took notice.
Brembo became a significant brake system supplier for Porsche in the '80s, with high-end names such as Ferrari, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Audi, and Lamborghini following suit.
As a car culture status symbol and fashion statement, Brembo's brightly colored calipers and polished discs have since entered the U.S. market, gracing the corners of a number of diverse vehicles from Chryslers to Paganis.
In 2014, the Brembo Group inaugurated a plant in Michigan to produce brake systems and in 2015, began construction of a new plant for the production of aluminum calipers in Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to further provide the market in North America. The facility began production in 2016.
european car had the opportunity to discuss these en vogue brake calipers with Dan Sandberg, CEO and president of Brembo North America, along with Marco Pagni, testing and validation manager of Brembo North America located in Plymouth, Michigan.
ec: Brembo developed an aluminum brake caliper in 1980; you described these components as akin to automotive jewelry. How did this evolution of Brembo as a fashion statement come about?
Sandberg: Design is in the entrepreneurial DNA of Brembo, and while we obviously do things well functionally, there is definitely an artistic chromosome in the Italians that focuses on the visually appealing. From the beginning, Brembo intended to create a good-looking product, and while the early calipers may have been a bit more mechanical in comparison to the designs we see today, they still looked good.
With the evolution of vehicles in the late '80s or early '90s, we started to see these big wheels with big windows, and design was really put under a microscope. Automotive designers will say that 40 or 50 percent of the look of a vehicle is generated in the corner stance, or posture, of a vehicle, and I believe the OEs were looking for ways to improve the appearance of their cars. That visibility drove the aesthetics for Brembo.
Our brand, coming from racing, from the tuners themselves, has grown in popularity as drivers seek to differentiate their vehicles and drive something that really has panache.
ec: Little consideration was given to the weight and appearance of a brake caliper prior to the '80s and '90s. Basically, Brembo designed a visually pleasing, lightweight aluminum caliper, and it came down to the timing. The right part in the right place at the right time.
Sandberg: To be honest, a brake was considered a safety component. It was in the corner and people were saying, 'We want something rugged that will work mechanically, but it's behind a hubcap. Why not make it out of iron?' At the time, nobody was thinking about weight, or gas and CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards.
That said, one of the advantages of dealing with one piece of aluminum is that it can be molded and made to look really slick. Our calipers are visibly and mechanically different than the iron sliders. So the world changes, and I think the technology has to change with it.
Pagni: Brembo may have actually been surprised by the potential of this product. In Europe, with Porsche and Ferrari, the focus of the caliper was mainly on performance, functionality, and the opportunity to have a larger pad with better control.
However, the advantages of the product were becoming more apparent, including the lighter weight of the aluminum itself. Then came aesthetics. With old calipers, you never had the opportunity to shape the design as you liked. Actual styling and applying a logo to the caliper was a big push in the '90s.
The initial calipers that Brembo used in the '80s were two-piece, where the two halves of aluminum casting are pretty much bolted together. The later technology is what Brembo calls "mono-block," which is a single-piece casting that is not only stiffer but lighter. From an aesthetics view, you don't see the steal bolts from the outside that are susceptible to corrosion—so each of these advantages was a little discovery and really the OEMs themselves were pushing the opportunities of the product.
ec: How has the disc brake evolved since the days of being constrained by 13-inch wheels with 4-inch-wide bias-ply tires to what we see now, with cars like a VW Golf offering the same level of grip as a 1960s race car?
Pagni: As technology evolved, the entire vehicle platform changed quite a bit; the rotors and calipers were just part of that evolution and are now quite different than what they were. In general, we see an increase in vehicle performance, with more need to reduce weight in the corners. At the end of the day, this means better handling and faster acceleration. We also try to consider the evolution of the tires, which increases loads both longitudinally and transversely. That means, of course, higher capacity in terms of straight-line deceleration and acceleration.
The rotors themselves didn't really change compared to what we used in the '80s. The components convert kinetic energy into heat. The more heat put in the brakes, the more the rotor needs to be able to dissipate that heat. The evolution then was moving from a solid rotor to vented, which improves cooling capacity and increases resistance to cracking caused by thermal shock.
Now, the biggest differentiation, of course, is the material. Cast iron is the primary material used for most of the brakes, but the very high-end vehicles use carbon ceramic, which is the material that was inherited from racing in the early '80s and went into production with Porsche and Ferrari in 2000. This is a completely different composite material.
Then there is another segmentation of these products that is actually the connection between the brake rotor and the hat, which is the mechanical part that connects the brake ring to the hub. It can be solid or two-piece with the two parts bolted together. So there is a pretty wide portfolio of product, which can cover an entire spectrum of applications, from the very entry-level cars that must be compact and cost effective to the very high-end spectrum, meaning higher performance, lightweight components, low drag, and these use the most advanced technologies such as two-piece brakes that can either be cast iron or carbon ceramic.
So from a plain rotor, we went to a ventilated disc, and then from there, to the two-piece disc. From there, we separate into iron or carbon-ceramic materials used in vehicles like Porsche or Ferrari, for example. That is the evolution, so far.
ec: How do you see the caliper changing in the future when we go back to 4-inch-wide, low-rolling resistance tires, or braking with regeneration, and after that, with a move to autonomous cars?
Pagni: That is a very good question and, of course, Brembo is looking into this as a market trend. Over the past years, we have seen an increasing interest in fuel economy and CO2 emissions. One of the big requirements is the reduction of brake drag.
The product that Brembo manufactures is a premium alloy caliper that, by nature, is more efficient than a typical cast-iron sliding caliper. The lighter weight contributes to the overall fuel economy of the vehicle. It also has a better functionality, and, by controlling each brake pad separately, we can fine-tune the product. Of course, in the future we see a big portion of the market being affected by EVs, hybrid vehicles, and autonomous driving. There is still segmentation, because with the very high-end sports car, we continue to need high-end products with very capable brakes.
For instance, a Porsche 918 has crazy fast launch and acceleration capabilities, and when customers take that car to a track day, they want to experience the full capabilities and power of that vehicle. Under those circumstances, because of the faster acceleration, the brakes will be subjected to a lot of energy. For that particular market, we don't see a downsizing of brakes.
Where we can see the downsizing is in road cars used for commuting. Those vehicles will benefit from the technology such as regenerative braking or autonomous driving. Because these technologies can rely on the powertrain for most of the normal acceleration capabilities of the vehicles, the opportunity for downsizing will be a priority for the upcoming days.
Sandberg: I don't see a lot of change with the autonomous vehicles. We've all seen the images of 10 people relaxing in a car, playing cards or watching television. In that regard, I think those vehicles are going to be heavy. Yes, they'll be autonomous, but braking requirements won't change. That vehicle will need to stop, and stop quickly. So I believe we are on the right track, because brakes are going to continue to be lightweight, with great looks and performance.
ec: What kind of burden does that put on the engineer to design a product that does the job with all these new developments and still looks good?
Pagni: The biggest challenge is integration. Each manufacturer focuses on the component they are supplying. Brembo has been designing and manufacturing brakes since the '60s; that is our specialty. But now we need to go a little beyond our boundaries because the integration of our components with the rest of the vehicle is becoming more prevalent.
For instance, how our brakes work together with regenerative systems is what we call brake "blending." A blended brake control merges a regenerative brake system with a friction brake. This is one of the key characteristics that Brembo is focusing on.
Sandberg: It is important to keep in mind that, as products become more electrified, whether that's through EV or hybrid, there's no doubt that the electric architecture of the vehicles will more than likely change. Not just more batteries, but voltages and controls. I think all of the OEs are moving more quickly than they have in the last 20 years in order to integrate electronics into all of the systems.
In the brake business, we have been talking about "brake by wire" for some time, and we are starting to see some traction now. That's an advantage for Brembo, because we have been in "brake by wire" on the racing side of the business for several years and will approach this like we do everything, from the performance side first. For example, a driver in normal conditions may want a softer, easier brake, but with sport mode, that same driver will experience a touchier brake, with less pedal travel.
With the ability to tune the system electronically, engineers might be designing multiple brake systems for one car. I think we are headed for a lot of changes, including the ability to tune the brake system to a driver's preference.
ec: How are design and performance influenced by CAFE standards enacted by Congress in 1975 to increase fuel the economy of cars and light trucks?
Sandberg: Everyone talks about mileage, but actually emissions are the issue. Very simply put, a lighter vehicle will use less gas, leading to lower emissions. At the end of the day, it's not just about you going farther on a tank of gas; it's the ability of an automaker to use less gas fleet-wide. This is why you are seeing stop/starts come in now, and engines going from eight cylinders, to six cylinders, to four cylinders.
At Brembo, we are in an excellent position, both aesthetically and performance-wise. Brakes are heavy and the manufacturers really want to lighten up the corners; the easiest way to accomplish that is to use our brakes.
Not only does this apply to calipers, but rotors are extremely heavy, too. By using two-piece technology, with either a stamped steel or aluminum hat on the rotor, or the ultimate—a tremendously lightweight carbon-fiber rotor—the whole corner saves a lot of weight.
ec: How has your racing heritage influenced the Brembo brand, both with everyday driving cars and performance cars?
Sandberg: The fact that racing is a business for Brembo, not a sponsorship opportunity, has given us credibility with the consumer. We are seen as a serious player, and we look at racing as a proving ground. What other company is going to have all those engineers under one roof, well experienced in professional racing, semi-professional racing, and then also on the OE side of the business, with the ability to develop two or three different variants of the car at a time? If you're a car manufacturer, you just don't see that anywhere else.