Formula One test driver Tatiana Calderón is in a league of her own

MEXICO CITY -- As a 9-year-old racing go-karts in her native Bogotá, Tatiana Calderón dreamed of one day driving a Formula One car. On Tuesday, some 16 years later, she climbed into the cockpit of a Sauber C37, and -- with camera shutters clicking and a gathered crowd chorusing a triumphant ¡Viva Colombia! -- she became the first Latin American woman behind the wheel of a Formula One car.

"I think this is a day I will remember for the rest of my life," she said after completing 23 laps on the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City. Calderón completed the run as part of a promotional event for Alfa Romeo Sauber, the F1 team she test drives for. "It was incredible. After the [test], I told my team that I only want to drive this kind of car now," the 25-year-old driver gushed.

On a track that only a few days earlier crowned Lewis Hamilton with a fifth F1 world championship, Calderón joined a handful of women who have broken the male hegemony of Formula One.

In Formula One's 68 years, five women -- Maria Teresa de Filippis, Lella Lombardi and Giovanna Amati from Italy, Divina Galica of England and Desiré Wilson of South Africa -- have combined for just 29 race entries, spanning 1958 to 1992. Others, like England's Susie Wolff, have gotten close in recent years despite not achieving quite as much. Calderón's run was the first time a woman drove an F1 car since Wolff ran free practice sessions for Williams Racing at the 2015 British Grand Prix.

"We are once again impressed by her dedication and work ethic," said Xevi Pujolar, Sauber's head of track engineering. "She's run the laps like a professional, and this event marks a positive step for our sport."

After her first experience in a Formula One car, Calderón impressed her crew with her speed, posting times in Mexico comparable to some of the entrants in the Grand Prix.

"They asked me not to say this, but I will anyway: Tatiana ran faster laps than Fernando Alonso today," said Beat Zehnder, Sauber's Formula One team manager. However, Zehnder did clarify that Alonso only ran three laps on Sunday before retiring. "Joking aside, we're obviously very proud of her," he added.

For over 15 years now, Calderón has navigated the sport in different categories, accumulating successes. "My objective has always been to drive [in Formula One], to bust down barriers and represent women, that's the dream," Calderón said.

In 2005, she became the first female driver to win a national championship in Colombia for karting, auto racing's equivalent of Little League baseball or Pop Warner football. Three years later, Calderón was the first woman to win a national karting title in the United States. In 2010, she joined Pro Mazda, a junior circuit that has housed numerous young drivers, including IndyCar's Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, making the podium twice and finishing top 10 in points in her second season. After her trajectory on one side of the Atlantic, she moved to Europe in 2012, intent on becoming a Formula One driver.

After Calderón joined Formula Three, her profile rose. In 2013, she became the first woman to reach the podium in the British F3 series, then, two years later, the first woman to lead a race in the European F3 circuit.

Before to the 2017 season, Formula One team Sauber scouted and eventually signed Calderón as a developmental driver. This year, she was promoted to her present position, test driver, behind Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson.

"I gave them a reason to believe in me," Calderón said. "All of the work and the effort paid off. And I'm still not there yet."

Test driving spots are usually the last barrier between a young driver and a full-time seat on a Formula One team. Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas, for instance, tested for Williams F1 Team in 2012 before his promotion a year later. One of Calderón's mentors, fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, was himself a test driver for Williams for the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Three years later, he was promoted after a brief spell in the CART circuit.

"I have spoken to Tatiana a lot," Montoya told ESPN.com in April. "It's not easy [to reach Formula One]; it requires a lot of work." Montoya has embraced the role of mentor, offering up advice and support to Calderón. "It is great to have inspired a generation and been able to open the doors to other Colombians to race as a career."

Starting at 9 years old, Calderón would run laps in her go-kart, roleplaying in her head that she was Montoya in a much bigger race. "Now I've even had him give me advice before a few races, it's been amazing."

After her history-making turn in Mexico, Calderón will return to her home in Madrid to race in the GP3 Series, a feeder tournament that will merge with Formula Three next year. This season, she has logged seven top-10 finishes in the circuit. To continue her development toward the top ranks, Calderón and Sauber aim to have the Colombian driver try her luck in Formula Two next season.

Her commitment is such that Calderón shot down any suggestion she would join the W Series, a women-only circuit set to launch in 2019. "In my experience," she said, "I've always wanted to compete against the best. I've always raced against men, and I don't see the need for a [women's-only] tournament. I'm not going to compete there."

If anything, Calderón's taste of the real thing was more than enough to keep her motivated. As she pulled into the garage after her final lap on Tuesday, the throng of journalists gathered once more to take advantage of the photo op. As she climbed out of the car, her eyes darted toward the Sauber engineers and crewmembers.

"When can I drive it again?"