The most common braking ‘issue’ is getting something wedged beneath the brake pedal. If your car resembles a rubbish tip, clean up your act.
Another possibility it that you struck a kerb, pothole or deep water splash. These can knock the brake pads away from the discs, and when you push the brake pedal it goes soft. It’s called pad knock-off, and my first lesson was expensive.
I rattled the kerbing at Donington race circuit and the impact knocked the pads from their marks. When I pressed the pedal for the next corner, at 140mph, it flopped to the floor. By the time I pumped it up and down to restore the system I was airborne and the brakes weren’t much use any more.
If you service your car regularly, the fluids that feed the brakes’ hydraulic system should be good to go. A quick pump of the pedal when you climb aboard should meet with firm resistance. If it feels increasingly soft or moves further than normal, you have a problem that needs fixing.
Brakes use friction to convert the kinetic energy of movement into heat energy and in doing so they can get extremely hot, especially if you drive down a series of bends on a sharp hill. Using engine braking and the lower gears to decelerate your rolling mass can alleviate overheating.
Rely solely on the brake pedal during an extended downhill and the brakes might overheat and fade. You will notice that pressing the pedal has diminishing returns and you start cornering with a screech. Assuming you still wish to stay attached to the mountain at the next hairpin, you need to crunch down the gears to force the engine to reduce your speed. Progress down the gears until you reach first, or low in an automatic. This is serious, so buzz the engine if you have to.
Use the handbrake all the way, because the rear discs won’t be overheated like the fronts. Pull gently at first then apply full pressure, but try to avoid skidding. If you have a modern push-button thing, you’re stuffed. American models have a ‘parking brake’, which is basically a handbrake operated by your foot. Get on it.
Park and let the brakes cool down, which might take twenty minutes.
Still not stopping? Total brake failure is rare, but could happen if the pedal seizes or the brake lines burst. If the pedal flops to the floor and pumping it fails to revive it, use the same drill as above for overheating brakes. If you’re on a hill or you’re still not slowing down, then you may have to come up with a plan B.
Look for an escape route, an incline, an empty street or a gap that you can thread your way through.
If you’re approaching a corner and possess the ability and mental agility of Stirling Moss, you might consider doing what he did during the Mille Miglia in 1957. His brake pedal snapped as he slowed from 130mph for an 85mph left-hander. He turned the steering wheel several times more than normal and stalled the front tyres. The resulting scrub from the skidding front tyres reduced his speed enough to save his bacon. For him, after years of similar experiences, it was instinctive.
Crashing to a stop is an absolute last resort. Find some gravel, kerbing, hedgerow or, worst case, a wall, Armco barrier or a ditch that you can steer into and drag your speed down. Common sense must prevail.
When you do park up, leave the car in first or reverse gear and chock your front wheels against the kerb as extra precautions to just using the handbrake.