When F1 is on the air, dare I say it, telephones are disconnected, knocks on the study door ignored and curtains drawn if sun is likely to diminish the ITV reception. Since I ceased to attend actual races, that is how I follow the F1 scene, although Jenks, who had no use for TV, used to tell me he preferred Simon Taylor’s commentaries on Radio 5. (Simon has since joined the ITV F1 team, of course.) The braking distances and temperatures in modem GP racing I find almost unbelievable, which raises the question of when brakes became a significant factor in motor racing.
In the very early days the tyres would not have withstood anything more than the primitive rearwheel and transmission brakes which were all the drivers of those times were provided with, to steady their monsters before the comers. By 1914, in that significant French GP at Lyon on the eve of war, Delage, Peugeot, Fiat and Piccard-Pictet used fourwheel brakes that gave them an advantage at the twists and turns over conventional, rear-braked rivals. Not withstanding which, the Mercedes, without such an innovative means of retardation, drove the leading Peugeot into retirement and went on to come home a triumphant 1,2,3.
In the 1920s frontwheel brakes became part of racing, and there can be no doubt that Duesenberg with their ‘water brakes’ gained a considerable advantage in the 1921 French GP, over cars using more normal 4wb systems. By now brakes on all four wheels were the norm for GP cars, with mechanical servo actuation on the Ballot, Fiat, Sunbeam and Delage cars, but it is possible that these were only more effective than those now beginning to appear on ordinary cars because the racing cars were lighter and better maintained. When the fabulously powerful German GP cars appeared just before WW2 it was their superior acceleration and speed rather than good braking that made them unbeatable, and even after WW2 it was some time before rapid retardation was seen to be as important in racing as good pick-up and high-speed. Limitations of drums and linings set a limit, which Mercedes-Benz sought to cure in 1955 with inboard brakes, enabling wider drums to be employed and reducing unsprung weight, and the air-brake experiment at Le Mans. But they met problems with cracked drums and snatching, and sought to cure the latter with oil-injection under the driver’s control! By 1952 disc brakes had arrived and late braking into corners had become of greater importance than any other performance factor.