While you may think the story of disc brakes is a complicated one, you would be wrong. In truth, there is only one place you need to visit to find the genesis point for every major development of the mountain bike disc brake. That place is Prato in Tuscany, Italy. That is where Formula are based and their archive is, quite simply, the history of the disc brake. Don't believe it? Read on...
The very first hydraulic mountain bike disc brake from 1987. It didn't even really have a name, they refer to it as the Formula. Naturally, there were no ready-made parts to construct this from, so for the lines they took the hydraulic lines from the controls of a construction crane and had a local knife-maker produce discs for them to get discs thin and light enough. It was a closed system, but even at this stage, there was an adjuster for lever pull. And they were anodised red! With a world of silver and black brakes today (Hope excepted), maybe we need some of this fun in our brakes again today?
They even had a pad contact adjuster - tunable via this nut on the caliper.
One other important technology that they even had at this stage was their speed lock system - a quick release for your brake lines so you can work on them without needed to re-bleed and re-fit the connection hardware. An evolution of that technology is still used today in their latest brake, the Cura.
Back then there was no standardized brake mount and most forks weren't even disc brake-ready, so they had to improvise with this bolt-on mount (the spikes are display mounts, not working hardware).
Of course, anybody who has used closed system brakes will tell you how bad an idea they are as soon as your brakes start to heat up. Formula agreed with that, and followed up with this in 1993, the first open disc brake system. By this stage they had moved away from cannibalizing parts from other applications and began making their components in-house in Italy, something they still do today.
The next problem for mountain bike disc brakes - what if you need more power because you're riding DH? A 4-piston brake is the widely-accepted solution today and once more, Formula was the first to produce a 4-piston brake for a mountain bike, the 4-Racing which was released in 2002.
Anybody who ran disc brakes more than about 5-6 years ago will attest that reliability is a relatively modern addition to the recipe. Arguably (this is open to debate, of course), Formula were the first to crack this too with their Oro brake. This brake had a cult following among riders who spent much time in the big mountains. They were a little quirky, the set I ran needed to be dragged constantly to keep a little heat in the system, but they were one of the few options that would work consistently all the way down a big mountain descent. In fact, when Avid came to enter the world of hydraulic disc brakes they enlisted Formula to engineer their first hydraulic brakes. The result of that collaboration were the Juicy 5 and 7 brakes.
When Honda entered the DH World Cup they had no sponsorship ties and simply chased after the best possible brake, They chose Formula. From this partnership came this, the Greg Minnaar edition Oro, in an impossibly sexy chrome finish, with an equally impossible price tag to match. It was molded specifically to his hand - a service they actually offer to the general public, so you can get brake levers ergonomically customized to your hand.
There is one final major first to the Formula story, one that is somewhat overlooked. Despite being the company that introduced the 4-piston brake, they decided that it wasn't a particularly good solution for providing more power, so they went back to the drawing board. They came back with these the R0s which sport an oval piston, replacing the 4-pistons. They are confident that this provides more power than 4, although the influence of the oval piston may be smaller than their previous firsts as it is a proprietary design, so you are unlikely to see it on other brakes anytime soon. This design is currently used in their ROR DH brake.