Can champions achieve the most dominant season yet?
In 1988 McLaren lost just one race in a 16-round season. This year Ferrari could do even better by winning 17 from 18 races, if they maintain their current form. But how do the two seasons of dominance compare and contrast and which of the two teams really had the greater level of superiority over their rivals?
For starters, while Ferrari have arguably the greatest driver of all time, Michael Schumacher, in their 2004 armory, McLaren had what must rank among the greatest driver line-ups of all time, in the shape of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Competition between the pair was intense, something one could hardly argue of Schumacher and Barrichello. Prost won seven times that year, edged out for the championship by Senna and his eight victories. A stark contrast to Ferraris 2004 campaign to date, in which Schumacher has taken all 12 wins, with Barrichello often left trailing in his wake.
The competitiveness of McLarens 1988 pairing was further emphasised by the fact that they scored no less than ten one-two finishes during the season. So far this year Ferraris tally is seven, with five races remaining.
Senna and Prost were separated by just three points in the final driver standings, with the title not being decided until the penultimate round in Japan. This year Schumacher is already 38 points clear of Barrichello, and a win at the next race at Spa would make him champion again with four races in hand.
A strange parallel between the two campaigns is the fact that when both teams lost, it was in rather unusual circumstances. Schumacher conceded defeat to Renaults Jarno Trulli at Monaco after his freak collision with Juan Pablo Montoya under the safety cars. And in 88, Senna crashed out of the lead in Italy in a bizarre accident while lapping backmarker Jean-Louis Schlesser. But while Senna had looked almost certain to win the race, Schumachers chances of victory were slim to say the least.
Which team beat McLaren on that one occasion in 88? It was Ferrari, with Gerhard Berger benefiting from Sennas misfortune, much to the delight of the tifosi. McLaren could yet repay the favour and beat Ferrari in 2004, but given their disappointing form in Hungary, it would seem unlikely.
In 88, on two occasions in San Marino and the United States the two McLarens lapped the entire field, something Ferrari are unlikely to achieve this season. However, it should be remembered that technically the two eras are very different. While in theory this year all the cars are on a level playing field, 1988 was the final year of the turbo age, and many teams were focussing their attentions on development of the following seasons normally aspirated engines. McLaren and suppliers Honda were among the exceptions.
Indeed, comparisons of such different eras in Formula One racing usually provide more interest than insight, this being no exception. What is certain, though, is that the achievements of both teams are remarkable, even if Ferrari are beaten again this year.