Friday favourite: The racing friends that unlocked a rare formula
Ford’s GTE Pro class victory on its return to Le Mans in 2016, on the 50th anniversary of its maiden success, wasn’t the only example of history repeating itself that weekend. Two of its winning drivers, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller, had already formed a formidable duo at BMW. Their friendship makes Hand an unsurprising favourite team-mate pick for the German
It’s rare that a successful sportscar racing double act spans multiple manufacturers. Once strong foundations are built up, loyalty (and an accompanying pay bonus) typically keeps one or both drivers in the environment where they hit it big. Examples of both parties moving on to the same destination, then recapturing previous glories in entirely different surroundings without it being the result of a boardroom-level mandate (such as the one that triggered Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas switching from Porsche to sister brand Audi for the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours) are scarce.
But Dirk Muller and Joey Hand proved to be the exception to that rule when the former BMW colleagues, who together claimed the American Le Mans Series GT class title in 2011, were reunited at Ford and conquered the GTE Pro division at Le Mans 50 years on from the Blue Oval’s famous inaugural triumph. Fittingly, this one too came at the expense of Ferrari.
Both Muller, who started his career at Porsche and had a two-year spell at Ferrari (that yielded the 2007 FIA GT2 crown) between two stints at BMW, and Hand remain contracted to the Multimatic organisation that operated the Ford GT programme between 2016 and 2019. So, although the pair haven’t driven together in the past four years, they have now been colleagues on and off for well over a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, Muller’s choice of Hand as his favourite team-mate isn’t motivated purely by their success.
“It’s probably something extremely unique – to call a team-mate a friend,” the 47-year-old explains. “In that kind of business, it’s [normally] like a working relationship. But Joey and myself - we are not 100% exactly driving the same way, but extremely close.
“What really I think suits both of us is that he knows, when he is doing set-up work, what I need and vice versa. We have the same kind of thinking. The sense of humour is the same, so it really fits well.”
Muller first encountered Hand in the 2009 ALMS upon rejoining BMW for its first entry into the series since 2001, when Muller had been part of the driver roster in the flame-spitting M3 GTR. The German shared a Rahal-run M3 E92 in the GT2 class with Tommy Milner, while Hand was paired up with Bill Auberlen in the sister entry.
The duo first enjoyed success together in the BMW M3 GT
Photo by: Eric Gilbert
Hand and Auberlen scored BMW’s only win of the year at Road America, leading a 1-2, and it would prove a happy hunting ground once more in 2010 when Rahal mixed its pairings for the renamed GT division. The first victory for the Hand-Muller partnership was once again the only BMW triumph of the season, but it was a different story the following year as Muller captured a second ALMS title 11 years after his first with the Dick Barber Porsche team in 2000.
Wins in each of the first three races at Sebring, Long Beach and Lime Rock put them in an unassailable lead that meant a lack of any further victories for the rest of the year was no disaster. They also finished third in GTE Pro at Le Mans together with another future Multimatic colleague Andy Priaulx, although BMW arguably failed to capitalise and would not return to the race until its short-lived M8 World Endurance Championship programme of 2018-19.
Muller believes that an important element of their success was a lack of ego.
“It got decided to make similar driving style pairings, which comes down to the point that Joey and I had such a good read for each other” Dirk Muller
“That is the biggest thing, there is so much respect between each other that this ego part was never a case,” he says. “I always knew he was plenty fast and, when he wasn’t, then something wasn’t right and we figured it out, and the other way.
“That kind of mentality I think is the one besides the very similar driving styles which probably made us super-strong and on top becoming closer and closer. I really would consider we are good friends. I would say there were not so many downsides.”
Hand’s 2012 move into the DTM, a single-driver sprint racing format Muller had no desire to return to after experiencing the “very selfish” mantra needed for success in the European Touring Car and World Touring Car Championship between 2002 and 2006, left only time for a partial ALMS title defence. Their season started off well, taking victory alongside former A1GP racer Jonathan Summerton at Sebring, but it was Muller’s only triumph of the campaign and results when Hand was absent were disappointing.
Muller believes similar driving styles and developing a strong friendship helped them to flourish
Photo by: Paul Webb, USA LAT Photographic
“That was probably out of our hands, let’s put it that way,” says Muller of Hand’s switch to Europe that produced a best finish of fifth at Brands Hatch in 2013. “It was not decided by us, it got decided by BMW at that stage.”
The Z4 came on stream for 2013, but it was a familiar story as Muller only won once with John Edwards at Lime Rock while Hand made only irregular outings. And there were no wins at all in 2014, following the merger between the ALMS and Grand-Am under the IMSA banner, as Hand was switched to Auberlen and Priaulx’s car for the endurance rounds.
“Probably in the aftermath maybe we should have done things different there,” reckons Muller. “Maybe they didn’t believe us, that we were that good driving together.”
Hand left BMW at the end of that 2014 season and joined Chip Ganassi Racing for 2015 to race its Riley-Ford Daytona Prototype in IMSA alongside Scott Pruett. That meant “he was already in the loop”, Muller says, as the team transitioned to running the all-new Multimatic-built Ford GT for the following year.
They were reunited in the same car for 2016 after Muller followed Hand through the exit door at BMW but, upon signing for Ford, Muller says it was by no means certain that this would be the case.
“We had tonnes and tonnes of tests and they weren’t talking about who was driving with who,” he says. “They wanted to let it open, even though they probably knew that Joey and I had history.
The pair were reunited in the Ford GT programme
Photo by: Eric Gilbert
“It was Westy [Richard Westbrook], Ryan [Briscoe], Joey and myself – I think you could have done it either way, all the driver pairings. Size-wise probably Westy was sticking out, he was probably the tallest. But the rest of it got decided to make similar driving style pairings I guess, which comes down to the point that Joey and I had such a good read for each other.”
On Ford’s big return to Le Mans in 2016, together with Sebastien Bourdais, it was their #68 machine that took home the spoils and outpaced the Risi Ferrari. Such was the significance of that feat that the lack of a win during the regular IMSA season scarcely mattered, with a trio of runner-up finishes their best showing.
Achieving that feat was for 2004 Nurburgring 24 Hours outright winner Muller all the more special for doing so with a friend.
“I picked him always up at the airport, we drove down to Le Mans from Paris Charles d’Gaulle,” recalls Muller. “We had the condo together in Le Mans, so that was a time when we were extremely close. And I think you can only do it, or it’s always better if you have a good relationship.
“But it’s not like we are the same-same. He had always his ideas, I had my ideas and they always got filtered. I think the best thing about it is that we always knew either way, he was faster or I was faster.”
Their first IMSA win with the Ford GT arrived at the first time of asking in 2017, as together with Bourdais they took class honours in the championship’s setpiece Daytona 24 Hours. Another victory at Road America cemented third at season’s end, their best ranking with the mid-engined Ford that Muller recalls had “one of the best-ever traction controls in it”.
Two more wins followed in 2018 at Watkins Glen and Lime Rock as they finished fourth in the points, then a final victory with the GT programme came at Laguna Seca in 2019. Muller hasn't raced with Hand since then but, with the new Multimatic Mustang GT3 set to come on stream next year and Hand entrusted with giving it a shakedown at Sebring in March, don’t rule out another reunion.
“The base is there, so let’s see,” he says. “It’s a big wish but obviously I can’t really talk about it.”
If it does come to a third stint together, then you can guarantee that people surely will be talking about it.
Could there still be another chapter to the Muller and Hand racing story?
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
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