Max Verstappen heads into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix heading the Formula 1 world championship for the first time in his career. 

Following his maiden Monaco Grand Prix victory last time out, Verstappen’s confidence is sky high as he goes into the Baku round four points clear of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton

The Red Bull driver’s second victory from the opening five races saw him turn what had been a 14-point deficit to Hamilton into a four-point lead. 

Verstappen landed a blow to Hamilton in Monaco but with 18 races still remaining - and with the drivers and machinery so closely matched - it is impossible to call who has the edge at this early stage. 

One driver who knows how it feels to be in Verstappen’s position is Fernando Alonso

Curious parallels can be drawn between Verstappen and Alonso, with both going up against a seven-time world champion having been respectively labelled as once-in-a-generation talents.

Alonso famously usurped Michael Schumacher in back-to-back title fights to bring an end to the German and Ferrari’s rein of F1 domination in the mid 2000s. 

But the returning double world champion does not believe there is any extra pressure on Verstappen due to him being in the championship lead. 

“Right now in the fifth race it means nothing,” the Spaniard said. “It will not change anything for Lewis or for Max I am guessing. 

“If it’s the last race, maybe it changes a little bit, it’s better to be in front but in the sixth race, you’re not thinking about the points.”

One rival who prevented Alonso from taking more championship trophies was Sebastian Vettel, who has experienced it all on his way to winning four world championships. 

During Vettel’s run to his maiden title triumph, the German only led the 2010 standings at one stage - when it mattered most as the chequered flag fell at the Abu Dhabi decider. 

Conversely, he also held early title leads over Hamilton in 2017 and 2018 only to miss out on the world championship on both occasions, despite arguably having the faster car for parts of both campaigns.

“I don’t think it makes a big difference at this stage,” Vettel explained. “If you are in contention that’s what gives you peace of mind. 

“You know that if you’ve got a good car, you’ve got a good team around you then you can get the job done. Obviously if you are ahead you want to make sure that you finish in front of whoever is behind you and increase the gap. 

“But like I said, it’s still very early. It’s only like five races and we still have a lot of races to come, so the main thing is that you are there or thereabouts.”

Kimi Raikkonen is one of only two drivers (the other being Nico Rosberg) to have successfully beaten Hamilton in a direct title fight, having pipped the Briton in his rookie F1 season in 2007. 

The Finn came out on top of a dramatic three-way title battle in Sao Paulo by a single point having remarkably come from 17 points behind with only 20 available in the final two races. 

Raikkonen needed to win in China and Brazil and hope Hamilton hit trouble at both events. And that’s exactly what happened, completing the most improbable F1 championship comeback.

“You always try to do your best and in the end, that’s all you can do, especially when you’re in the fight at the front,” said Raikkonen. 

“You basically try, whatever the situation, you try to get the best end result. Obviously, some days are a little bit better than others, because it takes so many things.  

“When you have someone close to you in the championship, you’re looking at what he does but focusing on trying to do your best as a team. Hopefully it plays out in a good way for you in the end of the year but there are still many races to go. 

“I think you try to limit the bad days and when it is a bad day you still try to score points and that will pay off in the end.” 

Hamilton stressed he always has a hunter's mentality regardless of whether he is ahead or behind in the championship. 

“I would say you are hunting the whole year, whether you are ahead or behind,” he explained. “It doesn’t really feel any different to me. 

“We are all hunting for that same goal, of winning races and winning championships. So I think we are all hunters.” 

Meanwhile, for Verstappen, it is about remaining grounded and taking a race-by-race approach to his first ever F1 title battle. 

“Winning Monaco is very special, but we want to be in this exact position in Abu Dhabi, which I know will be very hard,” he said. 

“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, but just a little bit better. We are only five races in. It’s going to be very tight. 

“Lewis is very experienced and has who has a lot of championships already so it’s definitely going to be a good battle.”