If you know anything about Ferraris, you’re probably familiar with carbon ceramic brakes. Every Ferrari produced since 2008 has had them as standard, and you’ll see them as an optional extra on plenty of other vehicles.
With their lightweight, hard-wearing design, and sporty reputation, carbon ceramic brakes are an attractive perk for a huge number of gearheads. However, these additions can also set you back thousands of dollars, begging one simple question: are they worth it?
To help you work out whether these brakes are worth it for you, we’ve put together this handy guide. Below we discuss the pros and cons of carbon ceramic brakes, how they differ from standard steel brakes, and when they work best, so you can make an informed decision.
What are Carbon Ceramic Brakes?
Production vehicles are typically fitted with disc brakes. They work by pressing a pair of brake pads against either side of a disc (sometimes called a rotor) that sits inside each wheel, producing enough friction to slow the spin of the tires.
Brake discs are usually made from cast iron, which is cheap and relatively durable. Brake pads are typically made from a blend of metals, and sometimes include organic components such as rubber and fiberglass, too. Almost all of the friction required for braking is produced by the rough surface of the brake pads.
Carbon ceramic brakes work through the same mechanism as standard disc brakes, but the discs themselves are made from a very different material, through a complex process. Rather than cast iron or steel, carbon ceramic brake discs are made from a composite material. Silicon resin is shot through with small grains of carbon fiber, and moulded into the shape of a brake disc, with regular holes added radially to create cooling vents. It’s then exposed to a huge amount of heat and pressure, which transforms it from a resin into a plastic. Next, the disc is water cooled, before being heated again. Over the next few days, the material reaches a temperature of 1,700 degrees celsius, and transformed into its final form: silicon carbide. Before being fitted to a car, the disc is painted to protect is from oxidation under the extreme temperatures it will probably be exposed to.
The whole production process usually takes around 20 days. This fact, along with the huge amount of energy required to repeatedly heat the the composite ingredients to high temperatures, is what makes carbon ceramic brakes so expensive.
Carbon ceramic discs have a tough, crystalline structure similar to that of a diamond, which makes them incredibly hard and durable compared to steel or iron discs. They were first developed in the 1970s, for use in aircraft such as the Concord. By the end of the decade, their suitability for other applications was recognized, and they were also used for Formula One cars, and trains. Finally, in 2001, the first production car to feature carbon ceramic brakes appeared – the Porsche 911 GT2.
Being so expensive, and so challenging to make, you would expect carbon ceramic brakes to have a number of advantages over their steel counterparts – and they do. Below we outline their key benefits:
Carbon ceramic brake discs are nothing if not durable. They’re designed to last for the car’s entire lifetime, unlike conventional steel brakes, which need to have their discs replaced every 15,000 to 70,000 miles. They are able to last for such a long time because of silicon carbide’s crystalline molecular structure. This makes the material incredibly hard, especially compared to iron, which is comparatively malleable.
- Lightweight Design
Silicon carbide is also very lightweight. In fact, a carbon ceramic brake disk can be up to 70% lighter than its conventional steel counterpart. By installing carbon ceramic brakes, a car’s weight can be reduced, increasing potential speed as well as fuel efficiency. In extreme driving conditions such as F1, where these brakes are commonly used, shaving off weight can make a huge difference to a car’s overall performance.
- Heat Dissipation
Disc brakes use friction to convert kinetic energy into heat energy. This energy needs to be dispersed if the system is to avoid overheating, and carbon ceramic brake discs perform this job especially well. This prevents the brake disc from becoming deformed under demanding braking, and helps to keep the vehicle as a whole cool, too.
- Braking Power
Another advantage of carbon ceramic brakes is their ability to produce the friction required for harsh braking over extended periods. This makes them ideal around the track, whether they’re fitted to an F1 car, or a sports car. Most cars that feature carbon ceramic brakes also include brake assist systems, which make the experience considerably smoother overall.
- Corrosion Resistance
If you live in a cold and icy area, you’re probably already aware that salted roads can pose a huge risk to the iron components of your vehicle – brake discs included. Carbon ceramic brakes, on the other hand, are virtually immune to corrosion. This is because the material they’re made from is much less reactive than steel and iron, due to the material’s tightly bonded structure.
- Quietness and Cleanliness
Finally, carbon ceramic brakes are much cleaner and quieter than conventional steel brakes. Standard brakes produce a sticky black dust over time, which can be difficult to remove, and impede their functioning. On the other hand, carbon ceramic brakes produce a fine, light-colored dust, which doesn’t stick around to interfere with your braking power.
Conversely, carbon ceramic brakes also come with some drawbacks:
From a typical driver’s perspective, the main drawback of carbon ceramic brakes is their sky-high price. Selecting them as an optional extra will set you back, on average, $10,000 to $18,000. If you’re a professional driver, or regular track enthusiast, splashing out for these brakes could be worth it. This is because they’ll last much longer under the pressure of track driving, making the experience more fun. However, for the average driver, the cost will far outweigh any benefits, and you’ll mostly be paying for bragging rights.
- Softer Feedback
Carbon ceramic brakes don’t provide the same feedback as conventional brakes. At lower speeds and temperatures in particular, they can feel soft – even ‘squishy’ – leading you to over-apply them and experience a jerky ride. This is because carbon ceramic brakes were designed to function at high speeds and temperatures. In the city, or even on slower rural roads, they won’t be working optimally. Although many manufacturers have attempted to resolve this issue in recent years, the results have been inconsistent. If you’ve only ever driven with conventional brakes, the change can take some getting used to, which might impede the safety of your driving for a time.
- Steel Brakes work well for Normal Driving
Despite their impressive credentials, ceramic brakes don’t bring many real benefits to everyday driving. In this department, metallic brakes actually have a number of advantages. First off, they’re much less expensive – even when you account for the fact that you’ll probably have to replace them once or twice over your car’s lifetime. Secondly, although they don’t dissipate heat as well as carbon ceramic options, conventional brakes actually offer drivers the same stopping distance. From a safety point of view, then, carbon ceramic brakes don’t really offer any advantages over normal ones. Finally, metallic brakes feel more consistent over a wide range of speeds. This is important for day-to-day driving, as you go back and forth from freeway to town.
When are Ceramic Brakes your Best Option?
Exciting as they are, carbon ceramic brakes are totally unnecessary for the vast majority of drivers. However, they could be a sound investment if:
- You drive professionally
During races, you’ll need brakes that you can depend on, which won’t warp or fade when exposed to high temperatures over a long period of time.
- You regularly partake in track driving
Track driving is very different to highway driving, and carbon ceramic brakes are one good way to improve your lap times.
If money is no object, and you’re excited to own a car with the same braking system as F1 vehicles, you may want to invest even if you’re not a regular track driver.
It’s also worth mentioning that carbon ceramic brakes will vary in usability from car to car. If you do decide to add them on as an optional extra, bear in mind that certain manufacturers have done a better job of adapting them to road use – Porsche and Ferrari spring to mind in particular.
Meanwhile, other brands, such as Maclaren, have not quite managed to remove that spongey, unresponsive feeling at lower speeds.
If carbon ceramic brakes seem like your kind of investment, choose wisely. One of the best known manufacturers is Brembo. The company supplies braking solutions to a host of prestigious manufacturers, including Ferrari, Aston Martin, GM, and Ford.